If you believed the players at face value, this game was just another chance to claim two points on Hockey Night in Canada. If you believed the broadcasters, this was a tectonic event that could’ve served as a precursor to this summer’s Stanley Cup final.
And in truth, Saturday’s thriller between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers rose above all expectations, a regular-season classic elevating the monotony of Game 65 as the Maple Leafs emerged with a 7-4 victory.
Mitch Marner was left off the marquee, a contest advertised as a showdown between the reigning Hart Trophy winner in teammate Auston Matthews and this year’s presumptive, unanimous favourite in Connor McDavid. Marner has been the Maple Leafs’ best player this season and, with the Leafs trailing 3-1 in this one, he picked off an errant Ryan McLeod pass, dangled Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner out of his pads and reawakened a dormant giant with an absolutely breathtaking goal.
Just moments later, Marner picked off another pass and found William Nylander with a delightful feed before Nylander finished through Skinner’s five-hole to tie the game, and Scotiabank Arena hit a decibel level not heard this season.
Shortly after, Auston Matthews set up John Tavares to give Toronto the lead — capping a three-goals-in-three-minutes stretch for the Leafs. Marner’s imprint was felt again mere minutes later as he stole the attention of three Oilers defenders, bounced a pass off Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ skates and onto Tavares’ stick for his second straight goal of the contest —Marner’s third point in a span of six minutes —in what stood up to be the game-winner.
In a contest full of the world’s best players and future Hall of Famers — including two teenage-prodigies-turned-captains with identical routes to the NHL — Marner shone brightest.
McDavid and the Oilers pushed the Maple Leafs to the limit in this one but, led by Marner, the Leafs rose from the dead.
Here’s everything else you need to know from Saturday’s thriller in Toronto.
1) Mitch Marner, Maple Leafs
Marner’s second-period goal pumped life into a dormant Maple Leafs attack, and he was the focal point of everything his team did well Saturday — Toronto scored three goals in three minutes to take an insurmountable lead, and it wouldn’t have begun without Marner’s heads-up play.
“It’s stealing it, it’s anticipating it, and then it’s the all in one motion to get the goalie to bite. It’s really impressive,” Tavares said of Marner’s goal post-game.
Along with his game-changing marker, Marner had three primary assists, while working tirelessly to intercept passes and win back pucks, as he often does. In a similar vein to Matthews and McDavid, the Oilers defense began to panic nearly every time Marner touched the puck after the first period. An outstanding performance, with lots of competition for the top spot.
“He’s just so smart. A high-end player like that, you kind of think what the other players are going to be anticipating. Especially when you’re playing as well as he has,” Matthews said of Marner post-game.
2) John Tavares, Maple Leafs
If Marner started the Maple Leafs’ onslaught, Tavares punctuated maybe the best period of the season. Tavares outplayed his counterpart McDavid and improved with every shift as the game progressed. Toronto’s captain notched his first of two goals after stripping Darnell Nurse, then proceeded to burst into a clear shooting lane. Matthews found Tavares in full stride and Stuart Skinner had no chance.
Tavares’ silky mitts paid off once again on the man advantage, redirected an errant feed from Marner like a pinball machine for his second goal of the evening. He also recorded a primary assist on Matthews’ third-period power-play goal for a clean three-point night. Once again, this is why Tavares wears the C.
3) Noel Acciari, Maple Leafs
Acciari was the recipient of the team belt, awarded to the team’s best player after every win. He was an absolute wrecking ball, scoring the game’s first goal, while adding an unassisted tally in the final minute of the game. Since joining the Maple Leafs in a trade with the Blues, he’s completely reinvigorated the fourth line, providing the requisite toughness his club needs to advance in the postseason. Acciari finished with five hits. He also recorded six shots and that aforementioned goal. Scoring, tenacity, physicality — get you a man who can do it all.
“I thought Noel Acciari was unbelievable in all regards. He scored and defended, physical, generated scoring chances. He was excellent,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said unprompted post-game.
Honourable mention: Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs (one goal, two points, four shots, 60 percent on faceoffs, on the ice for five goals)
Bunting wasn’t outright awful but he’s no longer playing like a player who was a staple of the Maple Leafs’ top-six. Playing against inferior competition, Bunting failed to make an impact, with the exception of standing up to Evander Kane as both players earned double minors for roughings after a spirited bout. He had the worst underlying numbers of any Maple Leafs player on Saturday night by some distance. We’re not going as far to say his confidence is shot, but he certainly is capable of playing better than he did against the Oilers.
Play of the game:
Marner’s goal could easily be here instead. We could’ve also gone with Connor McDavid’s goal. But given the context of the game, Tavares converting on a 2-on-1 from Auston Matthews almost brought down the house at Scotiabank Arena and sucked the life out of the Oilers completely, who resorted to theatrics in the third period.
Tavares wins the puck from the Oilers’ best defenseman, Darnell Nurse, Matthews corrals the puck and finds Tavares in stride. The rest is history. And once again, just take a look at how happy Tavares is afterwards.
Misplay of the game:
Given the quality of Marner’s spectacular finish, it’s somewhat unfair to put this in the misplay section, but there’s no other choice. Edmonton’s Ryan McLeod put the puck on a tee for Marner right in front of the net. Marner then chose to dance around Stuart Skinner for a highlight-reel goal. As much as we’re wowed by Marner’s tight handles, this goal is McLeod’s fault and it woke up a dormant Maple Leafs volcano in the second frame.
“Those things, they look like a big mistake, but they don’t happen by accident, especially when a guy like Mitch is out there. He’s reading that play, he is in the right spot,” Keefe said of Marner’s goal post-game.
Stat of the night: John Tavares reached the 30-goal mark for the sixth time in his career, while Auston Matthews reached the 30-goal plateau for the seventh consecutive season. It’s a testament to the remarkable consistency shown by both No. 1 overall picks. Tavares and Matthews have both outperformed the preposterous hype surrounding them entering the league, and this is a testimony to their status at-large in the NHL.
Oilers backup goaltender Jack Campbell made his return to Toronto, albeit on the bench. Campbell held court with reporters during the morning skate, fondly reflecting on his time with the Maple Leafs. He was showered with “SOUP” chants during a stoppage in the first period and waved to the fans in attendance.
Quote of the night:
“He hasn’t played defense. Exciting isn’t what I would say. He’s an outstanding talent that’s obviously playing at the top of his game. There is an element of you enjoying watching it as a guy who enjoys watching hockey, I enjoy watching the highlights. It’s impressive to see.” — Morgan Rielly on John Tavares calling Connor McDavid exciting to play against.
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