TORONTO – Leo Komarov had just finished playing 41 minutes of high-level hockey inside 24 hours. He carefully studied the game sheet from Sunday’s 1-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers before crumpling it up and tossing it aside.
His face was a portrait of exhaustion, rather than frustration, and the veteran Toronto Maple Leafs winger spoke with something approaching gratitude about the team’s 20-10-1 record so far.
“Oh, f—, we’ll take that,” said Komarov. “It could be way different here. I don’t know if I’ve seen a schedule like this.”
The Leafs have avoided all manner of potholes over these opening two-plus months. They have been remarkably healthy save for the twice-injured Auston Matthews, and still improved to 5-0 in games without their star centre. They’ve won two-thirds of the time despite being routinely outshot.
On Sunday, it was backup goalie Curtis McElhinney who stymied the desperate Oilers – turning aside 41 shots, including two Connor McDavid breakaways, in what had to be his finest performance since joining the Maple Leafs.
“I mean a win’s a win for a backup goalie,” said McElhinney. “That’s pretty much a shutout regardless of the score.”
This one included plenty of good fortune thanks to the four pucks that struck a post behind him and stayed out. McDavid briefly raised his right arm on one such shot that he thought went in. Another from Leon Draisaitl rolled off McElhinney’s back after hitting iron.
That came during a 5-on-3 power play for the Oilers that stretched the entire two minutes.
Komarov was the lone Toronto forward on the ice for 95 seconds of that penalty kill and thought McDavid was unlucky not to have found a goal during the advantage or on a short-handed breakaway from the other end of the rink. He also got denied by McElhinney on old-school pokecheck from in-tight.
“It wasn’t his day,” Komarov said of McDavid.
This, after an expected meeting of the NHL’s two best young players failed to materialize here because Matthews collided with teammate Morgan Rielly late in Saturday’s victory at Pittsburgh. The Leafs officially labelled it an “upper-body injury,” but there’s reason to fear a concussion given that Matthews took the brunt of the hit on the chin.
It’s far from a guarantee that he’ll be available when Toronto kicks off a three-game road trip in Philadelphia on Tuesday night.
A deep group of forwards has managed to carry on when injuries have kept Matthews out. As good as he and McDavid each are, they can’t singlehandedly win games over the long haul.
“That doesn’t work in hockey,” said Oilers executive Wayne Gretzky, who was in town for the game. “You’ve got to have a team, you’ve got to have a second goaltender, you’ve got to have six defencemen, you’ve got to have that seventh guy ready, your fourth line has to be a factor in the game. You can’t win with two good hockey players … Bobby Orr would have won 12 Stanley Cups, Gordie Howe would have won 15 Cups, you can’t win like that in hockey.
“That’s what makes it such a team sport and that’s what makes it so unique that I think we’re the only sport that each guy gets their name on the actual trophy.”
For as many wins as the Leafs have reeled off recently – they’re 12-3-1 since Nov. 6 – they are not yet a true juggernaut.
Just look how a rare Sunday game at Air Canada Centre unfolded.
The only puck to get behind Oilers starter Laurent Brossoit came in the opening minute when Zach Hyman tipped a Jake Gardiner shot and had it sneak through. Edmonton then controlled play for a significant portion of the final 50 minutes and couldn’t find the equalizer.
McElhinney had a feeling early that it was going to be his night.
“It just keeps building,” said the seldom-used backup. “It’s one of those things where you make saves and you get posts and guys make blocks, you get goal support. It’s just hockey.”
In many ways, it was a microcosm of how things have gone for teams that entered the season with big expectations and now find themselves at opposite ends of the standings. The Leafs are within shouting distance of Tampa for top spot in the Eastern Conference while the Oilers are languishing near the basement in the West.
Few would have predicted that back in October.
“I expected the Leafs to have a good year and they’ve been great,” said McDavid. “Obviously for [our] team, we didn’t expect this. The answer would be no.”
However, if there was any lesson to be taken from the respective situations and the way the game went, it’s that the season is still relatively young.
A long road lies ahead and the luck may yet swing in another direction.
“The schedule’s pretty tough right now,” said Komarov. “A lot of travel, a lot of back-to-backs. It’s not going to be easier next week, either.”
At least the points already in the bank count for something.