So the epic clash between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers turned out to be a dud. Toronto swept all three games, outscoring Edmonton 13-1 and holding superstar Connor McDavid off the scoresheet for three straight contests while limiting fellow gunner Leon Draisaitl to one assist.
The trio of games were definitely hyped up as a measuring stick for the two big dogs in the North Division and clearly the Oilers did not show up as expected. But this is far from a death-knell for the Oilers – or at least, it doesn’t have to be. If Edmonton can use this as a wake-up call, then the potential within the lineup can still be realized this season.
Now, granted, the Oilers still have some gaps on their roster, but when they’ve been good this season, those gaps haven’t been too noticeable. Goaltending has been a sore spot for years, but veteran Mike Smith had looked great before the Toronto series. Even after getting battered by the Leafs, Smith is still rocking a .923 save percentage with two shutouts in nine starts.
Defense is still a work in progress, though Darnell Nurse has really stepped up in the absence of Oscar Klefbom, while Tyson Barrie has looked a lot more comfortable than when he played for Toronto.
Having said that, reflection is necessary when you get whomped by the team you’ll probably have to go through in the divisional playoffs – and Toronto won the first two games without its best player (Auston Matthews) and while playing its backup and then its third-string goaltender.
“That’s a real good dose of reality for us right there,” said coach Dave Tippett. “You can’t put it behind you, you have to recognize what you’re doing. Recognize how you played, because if you don’t recognize it, it’s pretty hard to fix it.”
If there was a main theme to Edmonton’s autopsy, it was battle level.
“There’s execution and there’s competing and just winning 1-on-1 battles,” Tippett said. “We didn’t win enough battles to push the game along. Give them credit, they defended hard and they won a lot of battles and they won the games.”
There was also the manner in which Toronto shut the Oilers down. Edmonton earned just four power plays total in the three games, all of which came in the second meeting. For a team that has drawn more penalties than all but two other teams (Ottawa and Vancouver) this year and converts at a strong 25.6 percent (good for eighth overall), that’s a problem. And it goes back to compete level.
“We just didn’t win any battles,” Draisaitl said. “There were so many little scrums and we just never seemed to get the puck out of them. And if you don’t go into any battles, it’s hard to draw penalties. It just wasn’t good enough.”
The existential crisis would be to say the Maple Leafs found the blueprint to shutting down Edmonton’s top guns. McDavid is one of the fastest players on the planet and he doesn’t slow down when the puck is on his stick – but if you stay in front of him and take away time and space as Leafs blueliners Justin Holl and Jake Muzzin were doing, you have a chance to shut him down.
And while McDavid and Draisaitl are undoubtedly the drivers of Edmonton’s offense, it goes without saying that the Oilers shouldn’t count on them every night, even if they do tend to score that consistently. But those rare off-nights, when the opponent really bears down on the two, is when Edmonton needs the rest of the crew to step up, whether it be James Neal, Kailer Yamamoto or Kyle Turris just to name a few.
If Edmonton can’t find some soldiers to step up, then it’s going to be another early exit for the Oilers, a team that didn’t even make the ‘real’ playoffs last year after being upset in the Return to Play qualifying round by Chicago.
Luckily, this statement mini-series happened at the midway point of the season instead of at the very end, so there are plenty of lessons to both absorb and learn from. And it is fair to ask if the Maple Leafs simply played that much better than the Oilers; after all, Toronto does boast the best record in the NHL right now. So did the Oilers fall to a great team, or just beat themselves?
“Both,” Draisaitl said. “They played really good in all three games and made it hard on us, but we also didn’t push back enough.”
If the Edmonton Oilers truly want to take the next step and be deep playoff contenders, they won’t allow this to happen again.