TORONTO — If you suffered through the entire 60 minutes of this underwhelming affair, perhaps you’ll take some solace from the fact Auston Matthews felt about as good about the way things played out as most of you watching at home.
“I think we were just too safe,” said the Toronto Maple Leafs centre, who fired six shots at Mikko Koskinen and was the only one to beat him during a 3-1 Edmonton Oilers victory on Wednesday.
That’s notable because both of these teams are trying to eradicate the same perceived affliction with too much going on at both ends of the ice.
So in a perverse way, it was at least possible that they might view a no-event night as a step in the right direction. Particularly when it was a night featuring McDavid, Draisaitl, Matthews, Marner and Tavares and there were only a handful of dangerous odd-man rushes in either direction.
For entertainment’s sake, let’s call it a win that on the losing end of this ledger there were no moral victories being claimed.
“I mean we’ve got to go out there to make plays,” Matthews continued. “We’re going to make mistakes — obviously you want to try to limit those, especially against those two guys [McDavid and Draisaitl]. But you’ve still got to go out there and play hockey, and play to our strengths and try to create offence.
“Play to win, not play to lose.”
It was clear that Toronto’s best player felt they were paralyzed by not wanting to get dunked on by either of the Hart Trophy winners.
That’s what happened here a little more than a year ago when McDavid torched Morgan Rielly with a goal that they’ll probably include among the highlights when No. 97 is inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame one day.
Perhaps that helps explain why a usually dangerous Leafs team only managed to produce a fraction more expected goals (.36) than actual goals (0) through 40 minutes in the first meeting of 2021.
“They’re extremely dangerous, two of the top players in the world,” said Matthews. “But we can’t get away from our game, too. 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.”
This is a delicate line to walk.
Neither Sheldon Keefe nor Dave Tippett want to see their superstars go out there and trade chances. This actually marked a fourth straight game where Toronto kept its opponent under 30 shots, and Keefe brushed aside the suggestion that his players got too focused on the wrong end of the ice.
“I mean if you don’t play a little bit safe against this team they’re going to embarrass you like they did the last time they were in here,” he said, pointing to the 6-4 loss to Edmonton last January. “So you have to be intelligent with how you play, but at the same time we had our opportunities to play with the puck. They defended well and we didn’t make any plays, we didn’t get off the wall, we didn’t do anything.
“So we can talk about it whatever way we wish but both teams defended well today and they were just a little bit better offensively than we were. And that’s the difference.”
Toronto surrendered an own goal (off Jimmy Vesey’s stick, off Jake Muzzin’s leg), a power-play goal (to Draisaitl) and an empty-net goal (to Josh Archibald). It saw Matthews tie the score 1-1 in the third period on a determined individual effort but didn’t include nearly enough sustained pressure overall.
Of note was the fact Joe Thornton left with an apparent wrist injury, one that could sideline the 41-year-old for a significant stretch. That’s part of the risk of dressing 11 forwards and seven defencemen, as they did, which forced Marner (26:16) and Matthews (24:14) to again log monster minutes.
There will be a different approach when they meet again here on Friday.
“I feel like we weren’t really pressuring too hard on the offence,” said Marner. “We were kind of worried about staying above them all night. … We’ve got to play more down low and make it harder.”
While we understand intuitively that the path to improvement for both organizations involves better defensively play, this wasn’t the answer either.
The Leafs and Oilers were each playing for a fifth time in eight nights and there were 10 high-danger chances in total, according to naturalstattrick.com. That’s no path to success either.
“Today was the first game to me, it felt like a game with no fans in that it was a really quiet and slow-paced game,” said Keefe. “The first period was tough to get through. Just being on the bench, it just felt like one of those nights and we’re just trying to get something going.
“It didn’t feel like we ever really got there.”
At least there’s a bright side here: The Leafs and Oilers have eight more tries to get it right.