TORONTO — A mouth-watering matchup featuring some of hockey’s most gifted players fell far short of expectations Wednesday.
And that suited the Oilers just fine.
Leon Draisaitl scored the winner on a third-period power play as Edmonton defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 on a night where two offensive juggernauts largely cancelled each other out.
“Sometime the boring games are the most solid,” Draisaitl said after burying his first of the season to help snap a two-game slide. “We were very solid for 60 minutes … that’s a huge win.
“That’s more the way we want to play.”
Kailer Yamamoto was credited with the opening goal for the Oilers (2-3-0), who were coming off consecutive home losses to the Montreal Canadiens, when the Leafs fumbled the puck into their own net in the first. Mikko Koskinen made 25 saves to get the win, while Josh Archibald scored into an empty net with 1:06 left in regulation.
Auston Matthews replied for Toronto (3-2-0), which got 19 stops from Frederik Andersen.
Correctly billed as a battle of superstars between Matthews and Oilers captain Connor McDavid, one of the only positives from a neutral’s perspective was the fact no fans paid for tickets inside an empty Scotiabank Arena because of COVID-19 protocols.
“I think both teams watched the pre-scout and were just trying to key in on the top guys,” Matthews said. “It was a pretty uneventful game. Not really much going on.
“Not really expected, but we’ve got to do a much better job creating.”
Edmonton and Toronto will go back at it again Friday in the second of nine North Division meetings between the clubs in the NHL’s 56-game abbreviated schedule. Matthews said while the Leafs mostly contained McDavid and Draisaitl — no slouch himself as the reigning Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy winner — at 5 on 5, that shouldn’t mean sacrificing their own offensive identity.
“Obviously we key in on those two guys,” said the Leafs centre, who spent some of the off-season training with McDavid in Arizona. “They’re extremely dangerous — two of the top players in the world — but we can’t get away from our game. We’ve got to go out there and play our game and try to produce offence. We’ve got to play to win, not play to contain two guys.
“We were just too safe.”
Draisaitl snapped a 1-1 tie on the man advantage at 9:12 of the final period with Jake Muzzin in the penalty box for tripping when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ initial shot hit Edmonton’s Jesse Puljujarvi in front.
The goal snapped an 0-for-12 streak for a power play that led the league with a success rate of 29.5 per cent in 2019-20 before the season was halted by the pandemic.
“Maybe that’s the bounce that we needed,” Draisaitl said. “Maybe that’s one we deserved.”
Toronto wasn’t able to do much in response before Archibald fired his first into an empty net.
“We’re frustrated with the way we started the season,” Draisaitl added. “That’s a very good team over there — very skilled, very dangerous. Letting up one goal against a team like that, that’s always a success.”
Trailing 1-0 through 40 minutes, the Leafs evened things up at 6:44 of the third when Matthews outmuscled Zack Kassian in the corner before firing shortside for his second on Koskinen.
Toronto once again dressed 11 forwards and seven defencemen, but was left with just 10 skaters up front when Joe Thornton took a hit from Archibald and headed to the locker room with what looked like an arm or wrist injury early in the period.
Head coach Sheldon Keefe said post-game it appears the 41-year-old “will definitely miss some time.”
The Leafs came in feeling good about themselves after consecutive victories over the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets, while the Oilers were in a different frame of mind following those losses to Montreal to close out their four-game homestand to open the season.
Playing its first road contest since March 5, Edmonton grabbed a 1-0 lead at 10:42 of the first on a strange own goal. After the Leafs couldn’t get out of their zone, Yamamoto fed a pass from behind Andersen’s net that Toronto winger Jimmy Vesey intercepted before accidentally firing a clearing attempt in off Muzzin for Yamamoto’s second of the campaign.
The Leafs held the Oilers to just three shots in the period, but Andersen had to be sharp with a pad save on Alex Chiasson late to keep the deficit at one.
Edmonton’s power play — which went 0 for 10 and gave up two short-handed goals in those losses to Montreal — got two chances in the second, but continued to struggle with former Leafs defenceman Tyson Barrie quarterbacking the first unit in place of the injured Oskar Klefbom.
Toronto blue-liner T.J. Brodie then blasted a one-timer late in the period that hit Koskinen, struck William Nylander in front and dribbled just wide.
The Leafs got their second man advantage off that sequence when McDavid, who scored a highlight-reel goal that even brought Wayne Gretzky out of his seat to put a bow on Edmonton’s 6-4 victory in Toronto last January, was whistled for hooking.
Wayne Simmonds fired a shot looking for a tip from Mitch Marner that hit the post before Matthews flubbed one attempt and saw Koskinen snag another with his glove inside the empty rink.
“It was a strange game,” Keefe said. “It was the first game that felt like a game with no fans.
“Being on the bench, it just felt like one of those nights where you try and get something going. We didn’t feel like we ever really got there.”
Notes: Puljujarvi’s assist on the winner was his first NHL point since Jan. 19, 2019, after spending all of last season in Finland. … The Oilers head to Winnipeg for two following Friday’s game before hosting the Leafs on Jan. 28 and 30. … Toronto opens a four-game Alberta road trip Sunday and Tuesday in Calgary.