Oilers Gameday Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs – 01/05/22

There is a lot to unpack after the Edmonton Oilers’ most recent 3-1 loss that came at the hands of the New York Rangers. The team is still performing below expectations, owning a 3-8-2 record since the start of December and barely clinging onto a playoff spot. Temperatures are running high amongst the team after their latest loss. To make matters worse, Edmonton could potentially be without superstar captain Connor McDavid after he tested positive for COVID-19 leaving his status for the game up in the air.

Related: Oilers Inches Away From Forced Decision On Dave Tippett’s Future

The Oilers face a tough task ahead, taking on an already strong Toronto Maple Leafs team who not only is playing well but coming off a 6-0 shutout victory over the Senators in their last game. The Maple Leafs sit seventh in the league standings and recently got some key players back from injury and could get more back from COVID absences before the game tomorrow.

Quick Game Notes

  • Hyman’s Homecoming – Zach Hyman makes his return to Toronto since departing in free agency, after missing the first game against his former team due to an upper-body injury.
  • No Fans in the Stands – Due to the current COVID-19 restriction in Ontario, the game will be played without fans in the stands, which could bode well for visiting teams and help keep the momentum of the game in check.
Zach Hyman, Edmonton Oilers
Zach Hyman, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
  • Maple Leafs Look for Series Sweep Against Oilers – The Edmonton Oilers should be fresh in the mind of Maple Leafs considering they only played one other team since the last time these two teams met. The Leafs bested the Oilers 5-1 in the first game back on Dec.14, 2021 before postponements paused the Leafs season.

Edmonton Oilers Storylines

Response to Goaltender Controversy

The big storyline that emerged from the Oilers’ last game is head coach Dave Tippett’s comments in the media regarding some of the goals allowed in the previous game. He blatantly called out goaltender Mikko Koskinen for his miscues when playing the puck in the game against the Rangers, which resulted in goals against. Tippett does not often call out his players individually. Still, with his seat getting hotter as the losses continue to mount and not to mention this being an ongoing issue through Koskinen’s entire career as an Oiler, his actions are understandable.

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Despite Koskinen’s notable struggles in the crease, it looks like Tippet is forced to go back to Koskinen, who is operating as the team’s starter due to Mike Smith’s ongoing injuries. With Smith back on the shelf for the time being, the team recalled 23-year-old goaltender Ilya Konovalov on an emergency loan, and if Koskinen starts and struggles during the game, could see his first taste of NHL action if the Oilers can’t figure out a way to recall Stuart Skinner.

If Koskinen gets the nod for the Oilers tomorrow, he will face a potent offensive team in the Maple Leafs, who boast a 3.35 goals for per game played, which is the eighth-best in the league. He needs to bounce back and prove to his coach and his team that he can be there when they need a save.

Someone Needs to Step Up

With several players already missing due to injury, the possibility of McDavid’s absence could be detrimental to the Oilers’ chances of getting the win. Zack Kassian could play if he clears health and safety protocols, but Derek Ryan will likely miss the game due to COVID, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is also questionable to play. If McDavid is out of the lineup, it leaves the Oilers very weak down the middle of the ice, which could pose matchup problems against a deep Leafs team at center.

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Ryan McLeod has played better the last few games and could see an increased role on the second line should the center ice position be depleted. These absences should set the stage for the players in the lineup to step up and contribute.

Related: Oilers Need to Regain Their Confidence to Get Back on Track

With very minimal production from other key players in the top-six forward group, guys like Zach Hyman, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Warren Foegele will need to shoulder a much bigger load, while Draisaitl does most of the heavy lifting. There will be a lot of minutes that need to be split up in McDavid’s absence, and the team will need everyone to do their part to chip in to fill the void.

The silver lining in all this is that Leon Draisaitl, who is operating at a much slower clip than he did earlier this season (12 points since Dec. 1, 2021), usually steps up in big ways when McDavid is not in the lineup, hopefully, other players take responsibility and become drivers rather than passengers since McDavid won’t be the one driving the bus.

Toronto Maple Leafs Storylines

Reinforcements Arriving

The Maple Leafs find themselves on the other end of the spectrum as the Oilers as they are just getting injured players back into the lineup after lengthy layoffs. Mitch Marner and Rasmus Sandin returned to action in the Leafs’ previous game against the Ottawa Senators. Ilya Mikheyev is also working himself back into game shape after missing multiple weeks.

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitchell Marner
Toronto Maple Leafs Mitchell Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Derik Hamilton)

The Leafs could also get a boost with defensemen Jake Muzzin and Timothy Liljegren possibly returning from COVID absences, both of whom would play key roles in shutting down Draisaitl. Toronto is looking to increase their win streak to four games, and getting fresh and healthy bodies back into the lineup undoubtedly gives them the upper hand in this game.

Maple Leafs Strike Early and Often

One of the bigger concerns for the Oilers is how to shut down such a talented Leafs’ offense. The Oilers are notorious for allowing the game’s opening goal, and the Maple Leafs scored the opening goal in 13 of their last 22 games since Nov. 1, 2021. The Maple Leafs do a good job of maintaining a lead when they can score first and are a much more stingy team defensively, allowing only 75 goals against putting them fourth-best in the league in that category.

Auston Matthews, who is the league’s first star of the month for December, is looking to continue to pile points up after posting 14 points in seven games last month and accomplishing that without Marner on his wing. The addition of Marner makes Matthews even more of a threat and provides a boost to the leagues’ second-best powerplay unit that is operating at a 29.7% clip. This could be a recipe for disaster for the Oilers for several reasons, meaning their defense and goaltending will need to be extremely sharp to prevent the team from falling into another early game deficit.

Players to Watch

Edmonton Oilers: Leon Draisaitl

The load Draisaitl will need to shoulder will be massive if McDavid is absent from the lineup. Without much depth at the center position behind him, he is in line for significant minutes and will be the primary focus of the Maple Leafs’ game plan. He will be the primary source of offense for a team that lacks scoring punch as of late and scored 15 goals and 33 assists in 48 games when McDavid is not in the lineup.

Leon Draisaitl Edmonton Oilers
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Devin Manky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Toronto Maple Leafs: Mitch Marner

Marner returned against the Ottawa Senators after being on the shelf since Dec. 3, 2021, after suffering an injury at practice. He slotted back into his usual spot on the team’s top line and first powerplay unit alongside Matthews. Although Marner went scoreless in his return to the lineup, he got his first taste of game action and should be even sharper this time around and ready to make an impact on the scoresheet after a long layoff.

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