TORONTO – The Edmonton Oilers’ perfect road game was only 320 nights in the making.
Like the rest of us, Connor McDavid & Co. have been stuck at home for more than 10 months now.
Unlike the rest of us, however, their highlights and lowlights at Rogers Place have been broadcasted to the world — first in the post-season bubble, more recently in their 1-3 homestand to start 2021. They just haven’t been soundtracked by the usual human cheers, boos, and gasps.
So, it was telling how eager and refreshed the Oilers sounded to be on the road again, finally.
Even though Toronto-area native McDavid was forbidden from visiting his family, and even though Tyson Barrie couldn’t go for “a nice Sotto Sotto dinner and get together with everyone” on his former team on the eve before puck drop, a change of scenery has an ability to do wonders for the spirit, the focus, the priorities.
And in the top-heavy Oilers’ case — as always, but especially under coach Dave Tippett — the No. 1 priority is defence.
Which, for the first time in a long time, Edmonton executed to a tee.
Apologies if you took the over.
In defeating high-flying Toronto 3-1 Wednesday, the Oilers held their opponent to fewer than two goals for the first time since March 7 and became the first club this season to keep the Leafs under three goals.
As accustomed as we’ve become to the echo of audience-free arenas, Wednesday’s Tippett-designed silence was a special brand of empty.
“Today was the first game, to me, that felt like a game with no fans. It was a really quiet and slow pace to the game. The first period was tough to get through being on the bench,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, tipping his cap to Tip.
“They defended really well today. They really shut down the neutral zone, made it hard for us to get through there, and we turned the puck over a lot and got stalled offensively once we got in the zone. It was really difficult to get to the net.”
Auston Matthews confirmed: “We couldn’t get much going.”
Blame Toronto for falling victim to the lull or being overly cautious about getting posterized by one of its talented visitors. Sure.
But credit Tippett for seeing the fruits of a message he’s been harping on since his roster was booted out of its own building bubble by a beatable Chicago Blackhawks squad in 2020, the summer of discontent.
“You could tell our group had a lot more energy,” said Tippett, citing fatigue in his group’s consecutive losses to Montreal. “There was an excitement of playing on the road. That was our first road game since last March.”
The less written about the actual game action, the better. Reading about what it’s like to watch paint dry is more painful than watching paint dry.
At even strength, Edmonton restricted Toronto to 0.75 expected goals and four high-danger chances. The Oilers blocked 19 shots (to the Leafs’ six), benefitted from a Jimmy Vesey own-goal off Jake Muzzin’s skate, and finally caught a power-play bounce when a busted play ended up on Leon Draisaitl’s blade and — snap — behind Frederik Andersen. Josh Archibald slammed the empty-netter.
Were it not for Matthews sniping at a ridiculous angle after an individual effort, Mikko Koskinen would’ve sealed a shutout. Yes, the Leafs generated more shots, but they were from the perimeter:
“Both teams checked well. Both teams playing real tight hockey. Not much space out there,” said Tippett, who may or may not have wiped away a tear of joy.
“You’re going to get a lot of games like that this year. Every game is such a meaningful game in a short schedule, you’re more apt to get games like that than high-scoring games.”
Boring if true.
“Sometimes the boring games are the most solid,” Draisaitl countered. “That’s a huge win, and that’s more the way we want to play.
“We needed to buckle down a little bit. The individual and team mistakes needed to get lowered down.”
A strange game in strange times.
Under normal circumstances, Scotiabank Arena would’ve been buzzing with anticipation to host the first-ever Matthews-McDavid two-game, one-town series.
Who knows? Maybe all that hype and adrenaline in the ether would’ve seeped into the superstars.
Maybe we would’ve seen fireworks on ice, instead of a dozen fire marshals snuffing out every last ember.
Alas, these are not normal days, or typical road trips.
“It’s definitely a different vibe. No cards on the plane. Assigned seating. Masks on the plane. Following all the protocols,” McDavid said.
“My brother’s three minutes away, and I can’t see him right now. It's kinda funny that way, but we're here to play hockey. We're here to do a job.”
Job well done.