EDMONTON — The Toronto Maple Leafs have aimed to compete hard for a full 60 minutes this season, and really what team doesn't? Putting in the effort is one thing, but having the resolve to deliver a counterblow when needed may be what separates this team from the past.
For the second-consecutive game, the Leafs gave up a two-goal lead but managed to find a way to pull out a victory. On Thursday, they defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 after twice surrendering the lead.
"The greatest news of all is that none of the games have been perfect and there is lots of room for growth," Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "We're not even close to being the team that I think we can be and need to be, but a lot of positive things have gotten us to 7-2."
The Maple Leafs started well as they outscored their opponent in the first period for the fourth consecutive game. Veteran forward Jason Spezza —fresh off a one-game rest at Keefe's discretion — opened the scoring with a backhanded goal that trickled past Edmonton goalie Mikko Koskinen at 9:29.
Spezza picked up the second assist on Toronto's second goal when William Nylander beat Koskinen at 18:22.
"Sheldon told me that it's been a lot of hockey in a short period of time, (he) thought I could benefit from a day of rest and with a day off yesterday, it gave me some time to recover," Spezza said. "Obviously, he was right. I felt good tonight and a little bit extra jump."
Nylander's marker snapped a personal seven-game goalless streak.
In the second period, the Maple Leafs took four minor penalties, including a questionable slashing call assessed to Alex Kerfoot that caused Keefe to motion for the officials and argue the call's veracity at 17:01. Zach Hyman tripped Connor McDavid just 30 seconds later and that resulted in a 5-on-3 power-play for Edmonton. Leon Draisaitl took advantage with a power-play goal at 18:11.
In the third period, Draisaitl scored his second power-play goal to even the score at 2-2 at 7:00. Just 56 seconds later, Toronto reclaimed the lead when Wayne Simmonds scored his third goal in as many games to put Toronto back in front. Zack Kassian erased Toronto's lead a second time with his first goal of the season at 11:12 before Auston Matthews scored the game-winner at 4-3 at 13:37
Every Leafs game this season has been decided by two goals or less and even though Toronto took a lot of penalties and Edmonton's possession numbers in the second and third period at 5-on-5 was 61 percent, the Leafs still pulled out a win.
"I just think the biggest thing is that when we need a goal it seems like we’re coming through," said Matthews. "It’s obviously a positive for us and special teams is a big part of the game so we just want to continue that momentum."
The Leafs have scored a power-play goal in eight of their nine games. The Leafs have 15 even-strength goals and 12 power-play goals this season.
Although possession metrics may tell one side of the story, the quality of the chances given up gives the Leafs a sense of confidence of where they stand.
"The guys are working in and have really significantly cut down on the high danger chances and odd-man rushes," Keefe said. "The players have been really committed to that."
Rielly vs. McDavid
Morgan Rielly seems to have found a groove since pairing up with newcomer TJ Brodie.
This season Rielly has been tasked with defending the McDavid line. Although McDavid picked up a couple of power-play assists, Rielly managed to keep him from making an impact at even strength.
"He's taken that on and I think he's done a really good job with it," Keefe said of Rielly defending McDavid. "He's still played his game offensively, but he's defended fast and hard and competitive. He's been really good."
Rielly missed two months last season with a broken foot. He returned for one game in March before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the end of the regular season and Rielly didn't play again until August in the qualifying round of the NHL playoffs.
"He’s a huge part of this team," Matthews said of Rielly. "When he’s healthy like he is right now, he’s an elite defenseman."
Travis Boyd produces
Boyd set up Spezza's goal in the first period and the fourth-line center has two points in two games. The first-year Maple Leaf was the only holdover on the fourth line from the team's 3-2 win against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday as Keefe looked to find the right balance of players.
Boyd played 6:13 tonight and has likely earned himself at least another game as the fourth-line spot going into to rematch on Saturday.
After sitting out last game to make way for Mikko Lehtonen, Dermott recorded the best 5-on-5 Corsi of any Leaf at 65 percent.