TORONTO – Imagine you’ve time-travelled back to Tuesday.
How many 5-on-5 goals would you predict the teams would combine for? A dozen? More?
Try four. And two of those were accidentally directed off skates, not sticks. One was an own-goal.
As the years of playoff disappointment stack like poker chips in Alberta and Ontario, the Leafs and Oilers appear to be grasping the idea that they cannot flick some magical switch when the postseason hits.
They have to start rehearsing now for the time of year where they’ll ultimately be judged, and these mini-series during a 56-game divisional round-robin are turning out to be fine training ground for the real thing.
Even-strength goals are tough to come by. Special teams and goaltending become paramount. One careless penalty or brain-fart giveaway can unravel a team quicker than a loose thread on a Bargain Harold’s cardigan.
“Just the nature of the schedule, the games have way more of a playoff type of feel in terms of how they’re being played versus what you get in a normal regular season, where you play a team once and you maybe don’t see them again for another couple of months,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said after Wednesday’s 3-1 loss to the visiting Oilers. “We’ve got to adapt to that.”
Indeed, the Leafs did, clapping back at the Oilers with a tightly contested 4-2 win of their own, improving their record without Auston Matthews in the lineup to an impressive 21-12-2.
Thing is, the Oilers predicted this counterpunch after suffocating the vaunted Leafs’ rush attack and keeping their all-stars to the perimeter in Game 1.
Edmonton dropped its opener to Vancouver, then responded by thumping the Canucks, 5-2. The Oilers were soft in their first run-in with Montreal and came back with an effort many Oilers believe was strong enough to win.
So, when they drew first blood in T.O., Edmonton figured a sweep would be a tall order.
“We’ve seen it in all three mini-series here,” Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “Second game, the team that lost comes out flying. You have to prepare for that.”
It’s human nature. Or Chumbawamba. Get knocked down? Get back up again.
With each puck drop presenting another four-point swing in the North Division standings, there is a healthy fear preventing clubs from sliding too far.
“We recognize the urgency,” Oilers coach Dave Tippett said.
“Once you win the first game, the second game becomes more of a challenge. The other side of it is, if you’re up for that challenge, those are bonus points. Those are points that are probably gonna decide who’s in the playoffs at the end of the year.”
For large swaths of Friday’s rematch, Edmonton did just that.
With two thirds of Toronto’s top line injured (Matthews and Joe Thornton) and Keefe scrambling all four forward units in search of vengeance’s correct combination, the Leafs appeared out of sorts in the early going.
Frederik Andersen came up big as Edmonton grabbed a slight edge in high-danger chances.
An atrocious Toronto breakout on the power play and a pouncing Leon Draisaitl gave the visitors a shorthanded goal and another lead.
But Adam Brooks’s first NHL goal — on the very same man-advantage — tied the contest. Then a beautiful passing sequence from Alexander Kerfoot to William Nylander to Jimmy Vesey gave Toronto its first lead of the series.
A deft Connor McDavid tip off a shoulder-high Ethan Bear point blast knotted the game 2-2 early in third.
But Toronto’s captain, John Tavares, countered with a nifty deflection of his own, on the power-play, and that would be enough. (Mitch Marner sealed the split with an empty-net buzzer-beater.)
That Edmonton and Toronto took turns sealing victory by a one-goal margin (plus an empty-netter) this week is one thing.
It’s quite another that, in the dying moments of each contest, the leading team behaved like they had the points locked up — not like they were out to pad personal stats.
“It’s almost funny to me how everybody talked all summer about Toronto and Edmonton have to defend better, and then Toronto and Edmonton actually defend well, and now they think it’s a bad hockey game. It just baffles me sometimes hearing what’s going on,” Tippett said Thursday, responding to the short highlight reel.
“So, would we like to score more? Yeah, we’d like to score more, but the other team has a say in that. Just like we had a say in Toronto not scoring.”
The Oilers fly west to Winnipeg for their next two-game miniseries, Sunday and Tuesday, before returning home.
“This is a huge road trip for us,” McDavid said. “We’ve got to come back .500 or better overall.”
Anything above that is a bonus.