Young Leafs learning how to defend, how to win

Auston Matthews scored his 10th goal of the season as the Toronto beat the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 on Tuesday night for the Maple Leafs' second road win of the season.

EDMONTON – Before the puck dropped on 2016-17, Mike Babcock surveyed his offensive-minded kids and saw a skilled group that didn’t quite get it.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ trio of high first-rounders — Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander — all looked enthused dancing and dangling on the periphery of the offensive zone, but the results didn’t match the aesthetics.

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“We thought they were handing out points for stickhandling instead of getting on the inside and scoring. We don’t know how to play yet,” the head coach said after one pre-season loss to a bunch of Montreal Canadiens farmhands.

“Those guys want to score and get points. They’ll figure out all that stickhandling on the outside isn’t going to get it done in the National Hockey League.”

Who knew they’d figure it out so quickly?

Matthews (opening goal), Nylander (who set him up something lovely) and Marner (a team-high 12th assist) each registered a point in Tuesday’s 4-2 road victory over the Edmonton Oilers, and all of Toronto’s goals came inside the blue paint or within a JVR mouth guard’s spitting distance of it. Right in those gritty, greasy areas hockey coaches romanticize. That’s where games are won.

“When we were talking to each other between periods tonight, the words we used were gritty and greasy,” Morgan Rielly said. “Probably wasn’t our prettiest win.”

But they’ll take it, even it means getting outshot, out-disciplined, out-hit and out-Corsi’d by the home team.

It should be noted that the Oilers gave up positioning in that critical net-front zone like it was 2015 and had so many shot attempts die in shin pads and well-placed sticks.

The home side fell to 5-6 at the shiny new Rogers Place, which frequently swelled with the distinct chant of “Let’s go Oilers! Go, Leafs, go!”

Rhythmically on point and deliciously ambiguous.

Yes, the crowd — a dot painting using a palate of only orange, blue and white — cheered when Nazem Kadri scored and when Connor McDavid scored. They roared when Kadri took a double minor, and again when McDavid took a single minor. The glass was forever half full.

McDavid helped set up defenceman Andrej Sekera’s point-shot marker in the second period, then Roadrunner’d past Rielly and deked Frederik Andersen for his own in the third. That would be points Nos. 30 and 31 for your Art Ross Trophy pacesetter.

Alas, that is becoming a problem in Edmonton—where the offence either flows through No. 97 or maybe not at all.

“He finds ways to get it done most nights,” said Oilers coach Todd McLellan. “Our team is still in that ‘Connor will do it. Let’s watch him’ [mode]. We need to pick it up a bit from some of the others.”

Babcock tipped his cap to the league’s most productive player before the game.

“Last time I saw somebody go faster than the whole league was Bobby Orr. I was nine years old,” Babcock said of McDavid. “This guy’s faster than the whole league.”

During the game, he asked Kadri to slash his tires again.

So much attention has been paid to Kadri’s recasting as a shutdown centre, it should not be forgotten that he is hanging tight with James van Riemsdyk and Auston “What Goal Drought?” Matthews at the other end of the rink. All three scored their 10th goals Tuesday and are on pace for 37-goal seasons.

The two categories in which the Leafs have struck newfound improvement—balanced scoring and team defence—are the very two areas where the Oilers faltered on this night.

The Leafs are an impressive 8-4-1 in November since starting the season 2-4-3. That includes concentrated victories over offensive powerhouses led by Claude Giroux, Alex Ovechkin and McDavid (twice).

“We’re paying the price. We’re buying in. We’re blocking shots. I don’t know how many blocked shots we had today, but that was exceptional,” Kadri said.

“Every time the puck gets put up top [in the defensive zone], that’s a dangerous shot. That was a big game-changer for us.”

The Leafs had 31 blocked shots to the Oilers’ 16, and Kris Russell did not switch sweaters midway through.

Not only are the kids figuring out how (i.e., where) to score, they’re gradually discovering out how to win on the road and not squander third-period leads.

No wonder Wes Walker & Dyl’s party anthem “Jordan Belfort” thundered from the visitors room after the game.

Sniping off the rush is fun, but limiting turnovers, boxing out, killing 5-on-3 penalties and banging pucks in from three feet can provide a reason to celebrate, too.

“We wanted to get a big win to start the road trip off right,” Kadri said. Mission one accomplished. “It’s a quick turnaround tomorrow in Calgary, and they’re going to be waiting for us.”

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