Connor McDavid and Darnell Nurse caution hockey fans looking forward to an old-fashioned, 80’s-style track meet in a three-game series that opens Saturday between the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs.
For McDavid and Nurse say their Oilers know better than to give Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares on-ice real estate to work their magic.
“Every time we play Toronto, the games have been pretty low scoring,” McDavid says. “People expect these big offensive nights and I think both teams have that respect for each other where neither of them want to open it up and let the other offensive guys get going.
“I think you can expect a tight-checking little series.”
Tight checking or not, the baseball-style set in Edmonton represents a rare mid-season opportunity – thanks to the creation of the NHL North Division due to the COVID-19 pandemic – to witness two of the league’s best clash in a mini-playoff.
And the stakes are high. The first-place Leafs (15-4-2) hold a four-point lead over the Oilers (14-8) in the North. League-leading Toronto has a game in a hand.
The Oilers are the hottest team on the entire circuit, riding a five-game winning streaking with victories in 11 of their last 13.
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“We’re obviously playing better,” McDavid says. “Special teams have helped. Goaltending has helped. Everyone’s buying in and starting to really believe. I think that’s the main thing. When everyone believes in what we’re doing, that’s when it gets real dangerous.”
On the line: North Division supremacy.
“A team like Edmonton has played as good or better than anybody in the league here the last while,” says Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe. “They’ve been picking up a lot of points here.
‘But we feel like we’ve been going pretty well as a team here and it’s still real close. You can’t take any games or any days off and certainly this week, that’s going to be the case going head-to-head.”
The series promises some amazing hockey featuring four of the top five most prolific offensive stars in the game.
McDavid (14 goals, 40 points) leads the league in scoring. His Oiler teammate Leon Draisaitl is right behind in second (10 goals, 34 points.)
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Battling a hand injury, Matthews is the league’s top goal scorer (18) and tied for third in points with 31. Marner is fifth in league-scoring with 30 points.
“They’re a team with a lot of really, really good offensive weapons that can score at will if you give them time and space,” Nurse says of the Leafs. “We want to check hard and not give free ice and free space to their creative players.
“Because they will make you pay.”
Toronto defenceman Jake Muzzin feels the same about the McDavid and the Oilers.
“You have to be aware when he’s on the ice,” Muzzin says. “You try to take away his speed, try to take away his time. You give him open ice and boom, he makes plays. And he’s pretty good at it.”
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On defence, Nurse, for Edmonton, and Toronto’s Morgan Rielly are two of the brightest stars in the game – with both in the conversation for inclusion on the Canadian Olympic team at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
In goal, Jack Campbell should be ready to start for Toronto for the first time since injuring his leg last month against Montreal. Fiery veteran Mike Smith is splitting time with Mikko Koskinen in the net for Edmonton.
At age 38, Smith is a perfect 6-0 to start the season after missing the first month due to injury.
“I just really want to play well for this group,” Smith says. “I feel like we’ve done a lot of good things this year to put us in a good spot right now, and I don’t want that to slide away because of goaltending.
“It’s a mission I’m on.”
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In a season with no training camp, both the Leafs and the Oilers have established themselves as contenders.
Now they get to see where they stand against the best.
“We’re going to have to be ready,” Muzzin says. “They’re a team that’s firing right now. They’ve got good goaltending. Their defence is playing well, and their stars are playing hard. It’s going to be a challenge.”
Let the puck drop.