Maple Leafs raise the standard with defensive dismantling of Oilers

Jimmy Vesey scored the first two goals of the game and the Toronto Maple Leafs went on to beat the Edmonton Oilers 6-1.

When an injury forced Auston Matthews to miss the first two games of this statement-sending series in Edmonton, Sheldon Keefe reminded his players that they were essentially losing a goal per night from the lineup.

Rather than focusing on where else they might look for it, he wanted the Toronto Maple Leafs to play like they had one less to allow a high-octane opponent and they responded by pitching back-to-back shutouts against the Oilers.

It was natural to wonder, then, if some of the gains might be lost when Matthews returned Wednesday. That subconsciously or not, his presence might see the team loosen the noose they’d strung around their closest pursuant in the North Division standings by cheating for offence or having players down the lineup start deferring to the league’s most lethal scorer.

That’s why the 6-1 dismantling was even more impressive than the victories that came before it at Rogers Place

The Leafs didn’t even need their customary goal from Matthews, who was stymied despite producing a game-high seven shots and 10 attempts. They regained a superstar and just kept on working to keep the puck from getting anywhere near their own net.

“I think the three games here is a good example that we [can] score a lot and still [not want] to give up anything. We’re not just satisfied with leads and winning a couple games,” said goaltender Frederik Andersen, who made 26 saves in his own return from injury.

“We want to keep suffocating them and not really give them anything really. Yeah, show how good we can be for 60 minutes every night.”

You might need a VHS player to find the last time a Leafs team played three better games in a row. Granted, the bar hasn’t been set too high for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004 or played for a Stanley Cup since the last time it won one in 1967.

They are now off to the best start in franchise history with 18 wins and 38 points through 24 games, but something changed during five days in Edmonton. This group raised the standard. Not only did they outscore the Oilers 13-1 while playing two games without Matthews, they did it by giving Jack Campbell, Michael Hutchinson and Andersen each a start in net.

“Three different goalies,” said Matthews. “Three phenomenal games.”

“To win three games like that so decisively, I think it’s a real step of growth for our team,” said fourth-liner Jimmy Vesey, who broke a personal 17-game drought by scoring twice on Wednesday night.

The Leafs boarded a flight to Vancouver for Thursday’s quick turnaround game sitting atop the NHL in points percentage (.792), wins (18), regulation wins (16) and goals per game (3.63). More impressively, they were fourth overall in goals against per game (2.33) and sixth in shots allowed per game (28.6).

All of that talk on Day 1 of training camp about defending the net-front area more fiercely and cutting back on the rush chances against has turned out to be much more than just talk.

“There’s still room for improvement, but I think we’ve definitely made some pretty huge strides from last year into this year,” said Matthews. “That’s obviously positive and I think we’re realizing what it really takes to win and that’s going to be playing well on the defensive side of the puck for us to really break through and play a long time in playoff time.”

The Oilers entered the series with wins in 11 of 13 games and left it looking crushed. They simply had no answers.

Connor McDavid, the sport’s most gifted offensive weapon, failed to register a point in any of the three games. That’s only the third time in his entire NHL career he’s been held without one for three consecutive games.

He saw a steady diet of the Jake Muzzin-Justin Holl defensive pairing and was completely nullified in Wednesday’s finale with just one shot on goal. It didn’t help that Edmonton failed to get a power-play opportunity in the game and had only four in the entire series.

“We knew coming in we were playing against a very good team that was as hot or hotter than any team in the NHL and coming in with lots of confidence, so for us to get results like this is a really good and healthy sign,” said Keefe.

Toronto breaks an opponent’s spirit in a way not captured by shot metrics like Corsi. They have the puck all the time but are content to reload on zone entries and offensive zone shifts rather than just firing low-percentage attempts all night long.

The stat that might best encapsulate what happened during this series in Edmonton is an old-school one which probably would have been held against the Leafs once upon a time: They were outhit 105-58 because the Oilers were in pursuit for most of 180 minutes.

This was an entire team effort.

As I highlighted earlier this week, Kyle Dubas has done an excellent job of balancing his top-heavy salary cap chart with depth players vastly outperforming their pay cheques.

Vesey has been the only off-season signing yet to really bear fruit and even he’s up to four even-strength goals after the two he potted Wednesday. Jason Spezza picked up three assists and now has 15 points on the season — a total that would currently lead a handful of NHL teams.

But this 18-4-2 squad isn’t now earning buzz as a bonafide Stanley Cup contender because of the dazzling offence it produces. That’s not new. What they did in Edmonton is make it look like only one team on the ice was a constant threat to score.

“I think we’re starting to understand what it feels like when we play good defence and we’re able to replicate it a few games in a row here,” said Spezza. “That’s a good sign for our team. We’ll just keep building and moving forward.”

If they can build on this, the sky’s the limit.

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