With key Maple Leafs injuries, Round 2 against Oilers is about depth

Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares discusses the injuries the Maple Leafs are going through and says that the team needs to find a way to elevate their game.

The day after a defensive battle between the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs, Oilers head coach Dave Tippett had this to say about the game and the reaction to it from fans and media:

"It's almost funny to me how everybody talked all summer about Toronto and Edmonton have to defend better and then Toronto and Edmonton actually defend well, and now they think it’s a bad hockey game. It just baffles me sometimes hearing what's going on.”

A well played hockey game, sure. An exciting one for the fans watching at home -- not so much.

Fans like goals and chances and at the NHL level, both are usually born from mistakes. There weren’t many in Wednesday’s 3-1 Oilers win. To Tippett’s point, mistake-free hockey hasn’t exactly been a hallmark of the Oilers' or Maple Leafs' game -- two teams that rely on their offensive firepower to cover up any defensive deficiencies.

Well, both teams defended really well on Wednesday -- the kind of game most coaches love and fans...less so.

The game had all the ingredients for an offensive slugfest with plenty of fire-power on both sides. In the end, it proved to be a defensive battle with few scoring chances and even fewer goals. A cautious start to the season series between two of the NHL’s most potent offences, but also the type of game both teams need to be able to win in order to take the next step in their quest to become Stanley Cup contenders.

All eyes were on Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews ahead of the highly anticipated match-up and Maple Leafs head coach, Sheldon Keefe, did his part by matching Matthews’ line against McDavid’s for most of the night. In the 12-plus minutes McDavid and Matthews went head-to-head at five-on-five, they played each other pretty even with Matthews providing the only goal while on the ice against each other.

Both players had a point in the game and led their respective teams in offensive zone puck possession and shots on goal from the slot. McDavid led the Oilers with 11 controlled zone entries and Matthews ranked second on his team to Ilya Mikheyev with six. The two superstars put up the type of underlying numbers we’d expect from them, but beyond that, there was little offence created in the game.

Matthews said his team “definitely has to do a better job of creating offence” and he’s right. The Maple Leafs were limited to a season low number of shots from the slot and the inner slot, where roughly 50 per cent of goals are scored year-over-year.

The Oilers finished the game with their second-lowest shot total from the slot this season (13). However, eight of those shots came from that high-danger inner slot area including both of their non-empty net goals. As with most games, the team that wins the shot battle from this location will likely be the team that wins the game.

So, should we expect more of the same in the rematch Friday night? Not necessarily. While both teams played well defensively on Wednesday, goaltending has not been a strength for either so far early in the season. The odds of both of these teams combining for less than 25 slot shots again, as they did on Wednesday, are slim considering each team averaged nearly 20 per-game entering their first meeting of the season.

James Neal will likely make his season debut tonight after skating on a line with Josh Archibald and Devin Shore at practice Friday. Neal also took reps on the Oilers' top power play unit which has stumbled out of the game, going 3-for-21 to start the season. Neal has the ability to make an immediate impact as he scored seven goals in his first five games last season, with five coming on the power play.

Joe Thornton left Wednesday’s game with an injury and is going to miss at least four weeks. Matthews will also miss Friday's game with a minor upper body injury. This means that John Tavares’ line becomes the de facto top line for Toronto -- one perfectly capable of going punch-for-punch with any top line in the league, including Edmonton’s.

This makes the battle of the middle-six lines even more important -- one the Oilers won handily Wednesday night.

Kailer Yamamoto scored the Oilers' only five-on-five goal of the game and his line (Yamamoto-Leon Draisaitl-Dominik Kahun), along with the line of Devin Shore, Alex Chiasson and Josh Archibald didn’t allow a single shot on goal from the slot in their combined 17:55 of ice-time at five-on-five. That’s music to Tippett's ears and nails on a chalkboard to Keefe.

If the top lines draw even, as they often do, the game will likely be decided by which team wins the depth battle. The Oilers may be getting a bump there if Neal does suit up and the Maple Leafs will be taking a hit as two-thirds of their top line will be missing, forcing line changes to their forward group.

For fans on both sides, here’s hoping Round 2 of this battle is a little less rope-a-dope and a bit more of a slugfest.

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