The Edmonton Oilers are set to square off with the Toronto Maple Leafs for a pair of National Hockey League North Division heavyweight tilts at the Scotiabank Centre, Saturday and Monday.
Considering that the Oilers trail Toronto by just two points and are in a tight three-way race with the Winnipeg Jets for the division lead, these next two games are of great significance and of the utmost importance.
Of course, that’s exactly what was being said four weeks ago, when the Leafs came to Rogers Place for three straight games and everyone knows how that turned out; Toronto swept the series, outscoring their hosts 13-1 over the three games, giving the Leafs a 5-2 record against Edmonton this season.
In the nine games since, Edmonton has gone 7-2 to get back in the hunt for first place, and in a position to move ahead of Toronto with wins Saturday and Monday.
But for that to happen, things will have to go much differently for the Oilers than they did in those dispiriting three losses on Feb. 27, March 1 and 3. Here are keys to Edmonton’s success:
Rest Over Rust
When they hit the Scotiabank Centre ice on Saturday, it will have been a week since Edmonton was last in action. The Oilers were scheduled to play three times this week against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre but those games were postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.
Edmonton was coming in hot, riding a three-game win streak that includes a 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place in the Oilers’ most recent game, March 20. Will they be able to pick up right where they left off, recharged from a week off? Or will the extended break have sapped Edmonton of all its momentum?
In this condensed season, the Oilers have only twice played after a break of more than two days from their preceding game, and lost both times; 6-4 to the Calgary Flames on Feb. 6 and 6-5 to Winnipeg on Feb. 15.
Stars Can Make Difference
Production from Edmonton’s offensive leaders has been far below standard against the Leafs this season. But on the occasions, their stars have delivered, the Oilers have won.
Over the seven head-to-head games, Connor McDavid has three goals and four assists for an average of 1.0 points per game, which is barely half of what the Oilers captain averages against all other teams.
In Toronto’s three-game sweep, McDavid was held pointless, only the third time since he joined the Oilers in 2015 that McDavid has gone that many games without a goal or assist. Since then, he’s exploded for seven goals and 13 assists In nine games.
McDavid was sublime in Edmonton’s 4-3 overtime win at home against Toronto on Jan. 31. He scored two goals – the first a candidate for play of the year, the second in OT for the W – and picked up an assist.
Leon Draisaitl also has seven points (4 G, 3 A) in the seven games against Toronto, which is well under his 1.59 average against the rest of the North Division. He had only one assist in the three-game sweep, before erupting with eight goals and seven assists in the nine games that have followed. Draisaitl scored the game-winner in Edmonton’s 3-1 victory over Toronto at the Scotiabank Centre on Jan. 20.
Ryan Nugent Hopkins and former Toronto defenceman Tyson Barrie each have three points in seven games for the Oilers against the Leafs. Against everyone else, RNH has 23 points in 27 games while Barrie’s recorded 27 in 27.
Play With Power
Neither team is particularly good at shutting down the power play, while both have deadly power-play units of their own. At the conclusion of games Thursday (March 25), the Oilers had the NHL’s fourth-best power play at 27.0%, while the Leafs ranked 19 on the penalty kill at 76.8%. On the flip side, Edmonton ranked 23rd at76.0% on the penalty-kill, and the Leafs were sixth on the power play at 26.8%.
With their Special Teams Efficiency (STE) rates (103.6 for Toronto, 103.0 for the Oilers) so close, the edge goes to the team that gets the most power-play opportunities. Exhibit A: the Leafs’ recent sweep at Rogers Place.
In two of the three games, the Oilers did not have a single power-play. In the other, Edmonton was 0-for-4 with the man advantage. The Leafs, meanwhile, had a total of 10 power-play opportunities over the three games and cashed in four times.
Over their seven meetings in 2021, Edmonton is 4-for-18 on the power-play and the Leafs are 9-for-20. So while the penalties are relatively equal between the two teams head-to-head, Toronto has a glaring 122.8-72.2 edge in STE.
Stay out of the box, capitalize on opportunities, keep the legs fresh and the focus sharp, and have your best players be your best players. It’s a simple enough recipe for success that’s much easier said than done. If the Oilers get the bulk of points in these two games against Toronto, they’ll have earned them.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.