Ekholm’s strong defensive presence noticeable in debut as Oilers take down Maple Leafs

Connor McDavid scored twice to keep his multi-goal streak going while both Klim Kostin and Zach Hyman added a goal and assist to lead the Edmonton Oilers to a 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

EDMONTON — Mattias Ekholm has seen the circus before. 

But he’s never been allowed to enjoy it like he did on Wednesday, as the Edmonton Oilers‘ newest addition watched Connor McDavid notch his fifth consecutive two-goal game in a 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs

What was he thinking while McDavid was doing his thing? A thing that hasn’t been accomplished since Alex Mogilny some 30 years ago? 

“It’s kind of nice to see that he doesn’t just do it to you,” the big Swede said with a smile. “Just to see him do it in person, it’s pretty cool. I mean, it’s like nobody else.” 

With Ekholm eating up almost 21 minutes on the blue line, Edmonton’s D-corps looked unlike anything we’ve seen in this building this season. They were a calm, stout and defensively sound unit, never in doubt of dropping a point in a game they dominated for most of 60 minutes — and all the minutes that mattered. 

[brightcove videoID=6321522419112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“He showed exactly what he is going to bring to this team tonight,” McDavid said of Ekholm. “Just stable. A really, really good, solid defender back there.” 

If it was Edmonton’s defensive posture that Ekholm was brought in to help straighten it out, then for one night at least, the Oilers stood up tall against one of the NHL’s best offensive clubs. Toronto had just 22 shots and one goal at five-on-five, as Edmonton led 5-1 after two and gave up only a power-play goal in the third. 

“Our team has been hitting its stride post-Christmas,” said Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft. “We had to make some hard decisions that drive culture, and we’ve seen some strong results. We’ve lost three of the last 20 in regulation.” 

Since Christmas, the Oilers have gone 15-6-6, best in the Western Conference. Most importantly, in those 27 games, they’ve allowed two goals or less 13 times. 

“They defended hard, played us hard,” said Toronto captain John Tavares, the exact quote Woodcroft would want to read coming out of the opposition’s locker room. “We weren’t at the level that we needed to be.” 

[brightcove videoID=6321526789112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

The team with the NHL’s most powerful offence, Edmonton is going to win 80 per cent of games in which it allows two goals or fewer. 

Which is where Ekholm comes in. 

“I take a lot of pride in the defensive side of the game. I think that’s where I’m at my best,” he said. “So, knowing that if I do my job to 100 per cent, there’s a high probability that the outcome of the game is going to be really good.” 

The 32-year-old got to town at 1:30 p.m., and logged 20:50 of ice time — just 30 seconds on the power play. Playing mostly with Evan Bouchard — the pair was plus-2 — Ekholm’s presence simply eases the role of every other defenceman, making the group of seven look better as a whole and individually. 

“When the batting order is set a certain way,” explained Woodcroft, “everybody looks good. I thought we got good minutes from everybody who played tonight — on the back end and up front. But it was nice to add someone of Ekholm’s quality to the lineup.” 

[brightcove videoID=6321525710112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

In front of a full house split equally among Oilers and Leafs fans, Edmonton actually deposited seven pucks past Leafs goalie Ilya Samsonov. One was called back on a minor penalty, and another on an early whistle — and clear referee’s error — that cost Warren Foegele his 12th of the season. 

And it was Samsonov, not Stuart Skinner, who was tasked with stopping three others that had fans with their arms in the air, expecting the red light to go on. Skinner was as good as he had to be, and you can’t sneeze at allowing only two to a team with the weapons that Toronto has. 

But this game was Edmonton’s from the anthems to the post-game beers — a 5-2 game that easily could have been 7-2 or 8-2. 

Of course, McDavid drove the bus. It’s not often he won’t come up large on the big stage — a nationally televised game against the mighty Maple Leafs. And on this night, he simply logged goals 51 and 52 on the season, then added an assist for point No. 118 in game No. 62. 

Another two-goal night — his fifth in a row. Ho hum. 

“Sometimes it just goes in,” he shrugged. “I felt like I was playing good hockey before and it just wasn’t going in for me. You kind of get a bounce and it seems to go in for you. It is a funny game that way.” 

Meanwhile, this marked the 100th game behind the bench for Woodcroft. His record after the century milestone: 59-30-11, for a .645 points percentage that is fifth best in NHL over that span of time. 

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.