Columnist image
Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

|Archive

The Maple Leafs and Oilers held optional skates at Scotiabank Arena on Friday morning. 


For the first time since November 2018, the Leafs will play a game without Auston Matthews. The top-line centre is listed as day-to-day with what head coach Sheldon Keefe describes as "upper-body soreness."

"Everyone has to find ways to elevate," said captain John Tavares. "We just have to elevate our game and find another level when everyone's executing at a high rate and making as big of an impact as you can. We're doing that as a group through our structure."​

Matthews, the only forward to dress in every game for the Leafs last season, scored the team's only goal in a 3-1 loss to the Oilers a couple nights ago. 

"We need to get more offence at five-on-five," Keefe stressed. "No matter who's in the lineup, no matter what the lines are, we got to find a way to get to the net a lot more. It’s been an issue for us, not just last game ... We have a good recipe here for the defensive side of the puck and we have to find a way to get that balance without sacrificing what we're doing on the other side defensively." 

Despite all the firepower on both rosters, the Oilers and Leafs seemed determined to play a lockdown style in their first meeting of the condensed campaign. 

"The more you go through that game you just see the type of commitment they had away from the puck," noted Keefe. "It's a tough game to play when you're constantly going through four and five people so it’s on us to get comfortable in that, because we're going to see a lot of that throughout the season with the nature of the schedule. The games have way more of a playoff type of feel versus what you get in a normal regular season where you play a team once and then maybe you don't see them again for another couple of months. We got to adapt to that."

After allowing 15 goals in their first four games, Edmonton is aiming to make Wednesday's result more the norm. 

"We definitely checked better last game and it needs to continue on to another level," said defenceman Darnell Nurse. "That's how you frustrate teams is by being in good positions and on top of players."

---

Matthews did a good job limiting Connor McDavid on Wednesday. Tonight that job likely falls to Tavares, who struggled to keep up with the lightning-fast Oilers captain when McDavid produced a four-point night in Toronto last January. 

"He's going to get the puck at times and it's just trying to really make him come through five people and not let him get into too much open ice and feel good about having the puck on his stick a lot and getting into good areas without having to earn that ice, earn that space," Tavares said. 

Tavares is looking and feeling a lot quicker this season. The 30-year-old noted that Toronto's short stay in the playoff bubble in the summer, while disappointing, gave him more time to have a full off-season routine without feeling worn down.​ 

"I was able to get right back at it ... and focus on those areas that can help me become consistent," said Tavares. "Always trying to work on my pace. Something I’ve always had to work on is my speed and my quickness. So, trying to get a little lighter. I didn't try to be very drastic, [but it's] something I've been very mindful of over the last few years."

Tavares was listed at 211 pounds on the training camp roster this season after being listed at 215 at the end of last year. 

"I got the opportunity to train with him a bit this summer and he was in there working hard a lot of the time," noted defenceman Travis Dermott. "Every time that I saw him he was doing something to make sure he was getting that one per cent better every day and I think it’s paid off. I think definitely his skating is looking faster than it was last year."

Felled by an oblique injury, Tavares didn’t get a chance to have a full off-season training regiment leading into the 2019-20 season. 

---

This is the third two-game series that the Oilers have played this season, but the first time they won the first game. 

"Once you win the first game, the second game becomes more of a challenge," admitted coach Dave Tippett, "but the other side of it is if you're up to the challenge those are bonus points and those are points that are probably going to decide who's in the playoffs at end of the year."

The Oilers started 1-3-0 this season and the sense of urgency was evident leading into Wednesday's game. McDavid had declared the goal was to come back from this four-game trip with a .500 record overall. 

"The question becomes who's more hungry," said Nurse. "It’s easy to look at the team that lost and say they'll be the more hungry team, but for us we have to have the mindset that these two points are even more important than the two we got the other night." 

The Oilers will finish the road swing with two games in Winnipeg. 

---

This is the first Oilers road trip since March and they're still getting used to travelling in a pandemic. Zack Kassian described it as "essentially a travelling bubble." 

Nurse said guys are passing the increased down time by playing Nintendo Switch​ and reading books. The 25-year-old is currently reading The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance by George Mumford and revealed he's doing some meditation. 

"I actually started to get into that a little bit," he said. "I'm not very good at it yet. It takes a lot of practice, so I'll have to get that more into the daily routine."

Nurse likes how meditation creates a "calming state."

"This day and age, you know, you sit on your phone, TV and everything is going a million miles an hour so to be able to sit down and put life in perspective and slow down, I find that really useful," he said.

---

Kassian, who hit the crossbar on a glorious chance on Wednesday, has just one assist in four games this season despite skating alongside McDavid. 

"When you play on the top line you got to score," the winger said. "There's no first-line player who goes the whole year without creating and scoring a lot of goals, so you definitely need to score. Is there pressure? Yes, but that's just the name of the game. 

“I'm not hitting the panic button. We’re five games in here ... I'd like to get a little more production, but at the same time just stay patient and stick with it and not get frustrated. I know it will come, it's just a matter of time."