The Maple Leafs didn’t have much success in tight games last season.
The script has been flipped — at least early — in this abbreviated, still-young campaign.
Auston Matthews scored the winner on a third-period power play Thursday as Toronto defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 in a back-and-forth encounter that featured 11 power plays and big momentum swings.
The Leafs led 2-0 and 3-2 before finally sealing the victory with 6:23 left in regulation when Matthews walked into one of his trademark snapshots and beat Mikko Koskinen with his fifth goal of the season.
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“We got the win, which is all that matters,” said Matthews, who has scored in four straight appearances. “There was a lot of disrupted flow. We’re taking way too many penalties right now, but special teams came up big.
“We squeaked out with this one.”
Jason Spezza, with a goal and an assist, William Nylander and Wayne Simmonds also scored for Toronto (7-2-0), which has won four straight and six of its last seven.
“We’ve defended hard,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “The guys are working and have significantly cut down on the high-danger chances and odd-man rushes.
“It’s been far from perfect. We’ve got a lot of areas to grow.”
Toronto improved to an NHL-best 5-0-0 in one-goal games in 2020-21 after tying for last with just 10 victories under the same parameters in 2019-20, while Frederik Andersen, who made 26 saves, is now 14-1-1 in his career against the Oilers.
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“Just finding a way is big,” Andersen after moving to 6-0-0 all-time in Edmonton. “Sticking with the process, even though it’s a game that goes back and forth … our resiliency has been good.”
Leon Draisaitl, with his fifth and sixth goals in the last five games, and Zack Kassian replied for Edmonton (3-6-0), while Connor McDavid added two assists. Koskinen stopped 23 shots as the Oilers lost their second straight contest.
“It’s definitely not easy to chase games,” McDavid said. “I liked how we were able to find ways to get back to even, but when we get it to even we’ve got to hold it there and keep building on that.”
The Leafs and Oilers — who split a pair of games in Toronto last week that failed to produce the expected fireworks with the likes of McDavid, Matthews, Draisaitl and Mitch Marner sharing the same ice surface — will go right back at it Saturday in Edmonton for the fourth of nine meetings between the teams in this season’s all-Canadian North Division.
The Oilers tied things 2-2 seven minutes into the final period when Draisaitl poked home his second of the night and sixth of the campaign on an Edmonton man advantage.
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The Leafs responded just 53 seconds later when Simmonds scored his third of the season, and third in as many games, when he tipped Marner’s shot on a Toronto power play.
But the Oilers battled back once again at 11:11 when Kassian picked up his own rebound off a deflection to deposit his first.
After the Leafs went ahead 4-3 thanks on Matthews’ goal, Edmonton got its seventh man advantage with under three minutes to go when Nylander went off for tripping, but couldn’t find the mark with Koskinen on the bench as Draisaitl hit the post from a sharp angle.
“There’s definitely a belief that’s growing within our group,” Spezza said. “We still feel like we can do better when we have leads.
“Winning breeds confidence, and we’re starting to believe we can win every night.”