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New and Improved Defensive Genius Oilers face the Maple Leafs for 2 Games

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Everyone said the last two games were defensive duels, that has to be true, right?

Edmonton Oilers v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Maple Leafs @ Edmonton Oilers

Thursday night at 10 pm Toronto time on Sportsnet West and TSN4

Saturday night at 7 pm Toronto time on Sportsnet and NHLN - Note: this is not the HNIC game, that’s the Habs hosting Calgary.

The Maple Leafs played the Oilers twice at home and split the series with a 3-1 win going to Edmonton and the Leafs taking the second match 4-2. Wait, that was just last week? And we’re doing this again? Two Oilers games?

Sigh.

The talk around those two games had them as defensive duels. And like most things that get repeated because they were repeated by someone who heard it somewhere, it’s not always true, so let’s factcheck this first.

From the Oilers POV, the two Toronto games were their best and third best at five-on-five by Expected Goals Against. The first one was their second best by Corsi Against, and the second the fourth best, which is the same as fifth worst, so middling. Was that them defending or the Leafs failing at offence?

The Toronto games were also their second and third worst offensive efforts so far this season by Expected Goals and Corsi For. Was that Toronto defending well or the Oilers playing poorly?

When does a game become a defensive duel and when is it just low-event? All of that is semantics and depends on your POV. Most people see a game from their team’s perspective, of course.

For the Leafs, those two Edmonton games were their most successful defensive efforts by Expected Goals Against, and it’s not particularly close. The Corsi Against allowed was not as impressive, but they were both low-shot games.

They were also the Leafs worst outings by Expected Goals For and in the first game, the one they lost, it was the most abysmal performance, with .79 xGF, the Leafs have put on the ice since....

February 16, 2019 vs the Arizona Coyotes, when the Leafs managed only 0.55 xGF in the game and lost 2-0. You have to go back to 2017 to find another game that bad. So it’s a rare event, and shouldn’t be seen as very indicative of the Oilers or the Leafs true nature. It was fun to see Connor McDavid totally shut down, but that’s where the fun stopped.

When they aren’t playing the Leafs, the Oilers have been great once vs the Jets and terrible once, great against Vancouver once and terrible once, and they got beat once by Montreal and pummeled once by Montreal.

So aside from not playing up to the Canadiens’ level, who are they?

They are a hot, hot offensive team that can only get it going against worse teams, that’s what. And so far, when it comes to that side of the equation, the Leafs are more than a match for them. That leads me to think the Leafs need to do something less pathetic in the Oilers’ zone than a once-a-year debacle like that previous game, and if they do, all will be well.

The other thing about the Oilers is that their power play is merely average, and that’s weird because it should be the one competing with the Leafs for unsustainably good. I vote they keep it average for a while longer, but the Leafs PK is decent, if not world beating, so the special teams battle isn’t a concern.

As you may have heard, the Oilers sent Tyler Ennis to the Taxi Squad when they rejigged their lineup after the return of James Neal. It currently looks like this:

Edmonton Oilers Lines

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Connor McDavid - Jesse Puljujarvi
Dominik Kahun - Leon Draisaitl - Kailer Yamamoto
James Neal - Kyle Turris - Zack Kassian
Joakim Nygard - Devin Shore - Josh Archibald

Darnell Nurese - Ethan Bear
Kris Russell - Tyson Barrie
Caleb Jones - Adam Larsson

Mikko Koskinen
Stuart Skinner

Things to note: The Oilers have discovered that Puljujarvi is better than Kassian and swapped them around. The top two lines are very good, the depth is very bad (there are some extras we might see for game two). The defence pairs all have one okay defender and one very bad defender, except for the third pair, who are both mildly okay.

This mix leads the Oilers to exactly the results they’ve had, but they are dangerous if you let them near your net.

Skinner has yet to start for the Oilers, and I assume they will play Koskinen until he just disappears one night on a night flight to Finland.

The Leafs have a lot of depth options right now, but the lines so far look like this:

Maple Leafs Lines

Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
William Nylander - John Tavares - Ilya Mikheyev
Jimmy Vesey - Alexander Kerfoot - Wayne Simmonds
Three of: Joey Anderson, Travis Boyd, Jason Spezza, Alex Barabanov, Adam Brooks and Pierre Engvall

Morgan Rielly - T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin - Justin Holl
Mikko Lehtonen or Travis Dermott - Zach Bogosian

Frederik Andersen
Michael Hutchinson

I expect Jason Spezza to draw in and bounce Joey Anderson, possibly for both games. I don’t expect the Leafs to play anyone but Andersen in net. The defence is another open question, but until they play Mikko Lehtonen, they don’t know if they want to play Mikko Lehtonen, so just play him and decide is my feeling.

One report has Spezza, Barabanov in and Engvall and Anderson out for game one.

The Leafs need to push offensively against the Oilers, and they will give themselves real chances to win. Their record is good, they have a break coming up after these two games, and a push now puts them in a very good position while they await the return of injured players or genuinely try to trade for a forward.

The Leafs top three lines are better than the Oilers. They need to act like it for two games.