TORONTO — If the Toronto Maple Leafs step back on the same ice as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl again this season, it will be part of a playoff series.
But they will definitely make time to reflect on these nine games against the Edmonton Oilers, even if they’ve already seen the last of them.
“I think at different times in the games that we’ve played against Edmonton this season (it has) really been the model of what we’re capable of as a team,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said after Monday’s 3-2 overtime loss.
The 6-1-2 record they amassed against the Oilers could ultimately make the difference in Toronto finishing ahead in the standings — although there’s still far too much runway left on the schedule and far too little separating the North’s top three to say that with any certainty now.
Results aside, it’s the focus the Leafs channelled in this season series that they’ll be looking to replicate down the stretch.
Lining up across from McDavid and Draisaitl was enough to perk their defensive interest. The Leafs surrendered just 43 total shots in the final two games at Scotiabank Arena and still saw Edmonton’s top duo combine for five points on Saturday night before McDavid found Darnell Nurse on Monday’s overtime winner to stretch his points streak to 11 games.
“When you don’t do it, you look real bad, real quick,” said Keefe. “That in itself kind of shocks the system and gets you dialled in and focused on it.”
This was not up to the gold standard the Leafs established while reeling off three straight wins in Edmonton from Feb. 27 to March 3, but there were some echoes of those performances.
Dave Tippett loaded up his top centres on a line with Jesse Puljujarvi here and on Monday the Leafs outchanced that trio 15-4 at evens. Those minutes were largely countered by Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner up front and the Jake Muzzin-Justin Holl defensive pairing.
“Our forwards were really good at helping out and swinging with them, not allowing them to get the puck with speed and space,” said Holl. “I thought as a five-man unit it was really encouraging that way.”
Added Matthews: “I thought we had some really, really good stretches, especially early on in the first period and throughout the game where it really seemed like we were all five guys in sync and all throughout all three zones didn’t give them much.”
McDavid still punched through with a big play in overtime after Mike Smith stopped a 2-on-1 chance at the other end. You don’t score 15 more points than every NHLer not named Draisaitl without finding a way even on the tough nights.
But his line certainly didn’t terrorize Toronto to the degree it is capable of.
“I just thought we didn’t give them very much room,” said Keefe. “I thought the neutral zone was real tough for them. I thought we forced them to dump a lot of pucks. Forced them to play a lot on the forecheck, which, obviously they can do that too, but that takes away a lot of the strength of their game, which is playing on the rush or playing in transition and playing with the puck on their stick.”
As the Leafs seek to claim the division crown, they will need similarly effective five-man efforts against the Winnipeg Jets — starting Wednesday with the first of six remaining meetings against the other team vying to be Kings of the North.
The Jets won’t load up one super-charged line like Edmonton did, but Keefe sees plenty of trouble when he scribbles their entire lineup on the whiteboard in the dressing room.
“You’re going up against the deepest opponent that we face in our division in terms of their forward lines and the depth that they have,” he said. “We’ve got to have that level of focus every shift. That’s something for us to take away, for sure, but we’ve shown what we’re capable of.”
They will discuss what worked against Edmonton while navigating the final 21 games on the schedule and could very well see the Oilers again in May. Even with both teams likely to change in the meantime — “we’ve still got a lot of room to grow,” noted veteran forward Joe Thornton — a seed has been planted.
“If it does come that way, it’d be an exciting series,” said Thornton.