McDavid, Oilers bring Maple Leafs’ defence back down to earth

Connor McDavid had a goal and three assists as the Edmonton Oilers beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-4.

TORONTO – One by one, through hushed voices and with some clipped responses, the Toronto Maple Leafs had no option but to give it up to Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

“A hell of a play,” John Tavares conceded. “We would want to make it tough on him. We didn’t do the job.”

“We just gave him way too much space,” Auston Matthews said. “He’s the most dangerous player in the world for a reason, so when you just let him fly through the neutral zone with the speed and skill that he has, he’s gonna make us pay.”

The visitors had hung three goals on each of the Leafs goaltenders. Pretty ones, too.

Yet none were more seductive than McDavid’s ankle-snapping, inside-out, upside-down humbling of Morgan Rielly and relief goalie Michael Hutchinson in the third period.

For his league-leading 69th point of the season, McDavid had all the time in the world to perform a triple bypass on Rielly’s soul, threaten Hutchinson to the deep end of his crease with an infinite toolbox of possibility and then shelf the puck way up where they keep the Goals of the Year.

Could Rielly try to give the rest of us commoners some sense of what it’s like to try to post up McDavid one-on-one?

“No, not really,” replied the defenceman, minus-3 on the evening. “I mean, it’s tough.”

Surely, that’s the highlight you’ll see on loop as you chomp your Mini Wheats, but McDavid’s fourth point in the Oilers’ 6-4, goalie-chasing romp through the Maple Leafs on Monday was just the sour cherry on top of a shaky defensive performance.

“We’ve felt pretty good about how we’ve played defensively here,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe had said just hours prior to watching his club get torched for six combined points by McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

“We’re going to be very aware of who we’re on the ice against, of course, but still just play within our structure and the things that we want to do. And then, of course, just trying to keep the puck as much as we can away from those guys.”

It didn’t happen. Things went opposite as planned.

The Oilers controlled play early and often, earning the lion’s share of shot attempts, high-danger chances and drawing six minor penalties, five of them committed by youngish defenders Justin Holl and Travis Dermott.

Call-up Martin Marincin, asked to play 18-plus tough minutes, also had a rough go.

“We just completely lost our structure defensively, which clearly was a focus of ours yesterday (at practice) and today in terms of maintaining that structure, not opening up the ice like we did for 97,” Keefe said. “When you open up the ice for him, it’s going to make life easy for him.”

Credit the ready-from-jump Oilers for ending Toronto’s 10-game point streak and making their thin blue line look truly vulnerable for the first game since shutdown defender Jake Muzzin suffered his broken foot.

“They played at another level,” Keefe said.

“A higher level than any of our opponents we’ve played for quite some time.”

For the Leafs to look so porous just 48 hours after one of their best defensive efforts in memory is a bit of head-scratcher, and it supplies ammo for skeptics who believe they need to trade from their wealth up front and strengthen the back end prior to the Feb. 24 deadline, especially with Muzzin hobbling around the press box in a boot.

“I saw we got into trouble if you don’t support each other. A lot of their goals, their skill showed a little bit too much,” Frederik Andersen said. “A lesson that we need to stick together more. Even though it’s been a good stretch for us, I think we can’t expect it to go our way every night, unless we work for it.”

Stinkers happen. The Oilers both wanted and needed this one more.

“Right from the drop of the puck, it was pretty clear that they were here for a reason today,” Keefe said.

Until Monday, Keefe had been bullish on his Marincin-Holl pairing, and he likes the offensive fright the Rielly-Barrie duo injects.

Yet when the goaltending is something less than spectacular and the other side out-possesses a possession team, the familiar flaws get exposed and the hole gets too deep to crawl out of.

“We scored enough tonight. We just didn’t defend well enough,” said Tavares, summing it up.

The question now becomes this: How tempted will Kyle Dubas be to call up Rasmus Sandin, after the prospect’s stellar performance at the world juniors — three goals, seven assists, a bronze medal and top defenceman of the tournament honours?

“We know he’s an important guy, both now and in the future,” Keefe said.

“So, in terms of how we manage that, I don’t quite know.”

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