The Edmonton Oilers can’t win their three-game series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but they can end it on a high note with a win Wednesday night at Rogers Place. The Oilers dropped the first two games by a combined score of 7-0. Both shutout losses have come against Toronto's back-up goalies.
While the Oilers can certainly improve their game offensively, credit the Maple Leafs for doing a good job of slowing down a team that ranks third in scoring chances off the rush and fourth in rush goals. Edmonton averages seven rush scoring chances per game and the Maple Leafs have limited them to nine total in the past two games.
Connor McDavid is Edmonton’s most threatening player when it comes to attacking with speed. He’s the most dangerous speed threat in the NHL now and perhaps ever. Over any meaningful sample size of games, we know McDavid can’t be stopped. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to slow him down, but in the small sample of two back-to-back games, the Toronto Maple Leafs have done just that. They have slowed Connor McDavid down.
This isn’t to say the Leafs have found a magical recipe to keep the most dynamic player in the NHL in check, but the simple fact is in the past two games, McDavid has zero points and a minus-3 rating. For any other player in the world this would hardly be newsworthy, but you have to go back to December 2019 to find the last time McDavid failed to score a point in consecutive games.
Also interesting is that McDavid’s performance in key offensive areas has been limited in the past two games relative to his numbers this season.
The best way to try to keep McDavid off the scoresheet is to keep the puck off his stick in the offensive zone. A bit of a no-brainer, but this is much easier said than done. Still, Toronto has done a good job of doing this in its back-to-back wins against Edmonton.
Heading into this three-game series, McDavid averaged 1:22 of stick-on-puck possession in the offensive zone. That number is down by 30 seconds (to 0:52) in his two most recent games against the Leafs.
With fewer puck touches, McDavid has had fewer opportunities to do what he does best, which is pick apart opposing defenders. As a result, McDavid, who leads the NHL in assists with 26, has seen his pass completions in the offensive zone drop from 26.5 per-game to 17 against the Leafs. McDavid is still producing shots at a similar rate, but the quality of his shots against Toronto has been cut nearly in half, as seen in his expected goals-per-game total.
Again, small sample size but through two games in Edmonton the Leafs have done what they set out to do which is keep the puck off McDavid’s stick as much as possible and keep him to the outside when he does have it in the offensive zone.
Keeping star players out of critical scoring areas is exactly what the Maple Leafs brought defenceman T.J.how Brodie in to do. Brodie has seen plenty of McDavid going back to his days as a member of the Calgary Flames. He’s also seen plenty of McDavid in the past two games and has performed well in the minutes he’s played against him.
Brodie defended McDavid well off the rush Saturday night, helping the Leafs limit McDavid to just one rush scoring chance.
Brodie has been able to push McDavid outside the face-off dots and separate him from the puck with his stick on several occasions over the past two games, neutralizing the threat McDavid poses with his world-class speed.
In 17:19 of even-strength, head-to-head ice time against McDavid in the past two games, Brodie has helped limit the Oilers superstar to just one quality shot on net from the slot. Toronto has outscored Edmonton 2-0 in that time.
Brodie has an excellent defensive stick as seen in the examples above. This season, Brodie ranks seventh in the NHL in stick checks with 46 -- plays where he separates an opponent from the puck with his stick.
In the six games the Maple Leafs and Oilers have played against each other this season, Brodie has easily been the most effective Leafs defenceman when it comes to limiting the damage McDavid can do off the rush. Perhaps we will see McDavid look to isolate Brodie's defence partner, Morgan Rielly, more in Wednesday's game. After all, he’s had some success in one-on-one situations with Rielly in the past.
There was a lot of talk of a response game from McDavid after he was held off the scoresheet Saturday night, but it was the Maple Leafs who responded with another superb defensive effort.
While the Maple Leafs deserve full marks for their defensive performance in their two shutout wins against the Oilers, McDavid is too talented a player to hold down forever. The last time the Oilers captain went three straight games without a point was October of 2019.
So, keep an eye on how McDavid attacks the Maple Leafs' zone when he winds it up through the neutral zone and if Brodie can continue to use his stick to limit McDavid in these instances. The head-to-head match-up has been fun to watch in this season series.