The Toronto Maple Leafs can see the Edmonton Oilers in their rearview mirror.
And that object is just as close as it appears.
Toronto continues to lead the North Division standings, but hard-charging Edmonton is now just four points back on the all-Canadian circuit heading into a three-game series between the teams in Alberta's capital beginning Saturday.
"That's the nature of the season," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said of the NHL's pandemic-condensed 56-game schedule. "Edmonton has played as good or better than anybody in the league the last while. They've been picking up a lot of points.
"We feel like we've been going pretty well as a team here, and it's still real close."
The Oilers sputtered to a 3-6-0 mark in kicking off the truncated campaign before going an NHL-best 11-2-0 since — a red-hot stretch sparked by a 4-3 overtime victory against Toronto at Rogers Place on Jan. 30.
As a result, Edmonton (14-8-0) has clawed to within shouting distance of Toronto (15-4-2) and could overtake the Leafs with three consecutive regulation victories.
"Everyone's buying in and starting to really believe," said Oilers captain Connor McDavid, whose 40 points leads the NHL. "When everyone believes in what we're doing, that's when it gets real dangerous."
Edmonton centre Leon Draisaitl sits second in the league with 34 points, while Toronto counterpart Auston Matthews tops the goal race with 18. Matthews is also tied with Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane for third in scoring with 31 points, while Leafs linemate Mitch Marner one back in fifth.
Matthews didn't take part in Friday's practice because of a wrist injury he's been dealing with most of 2021 before Toronto flew west to begin a five-game, eight-day road trip that concludes with two contests against the Vancouver Canucks, but Keefe indicated his best player hasn't been ruled out for Saturday.
"He's day-to-day," said the coach. "We're just going to have to see how he continues to progress."
Keefe said the fact Matthews picked up a pair of assists in Wednesday's 2-1 overtime victory against the Calgary Flames, despite not being able to take faceoffs for the second half of the game after aggravating the injury, speaks to how dialled in he is this season.
"He's remained resilient and hasn't allowed little things like that to disrupt him," Keefe said. "While he had to adapt his game and I had to adapt how we used him a little bit, he still competed his ass right to the very end."
Leafs backup goalie Jack Campbell hasn't played since Jan. 24 because of a leg injury, but declared himself ready to go after third-stringer Michael Hutchinson started three of the last four. No. 1 netminder Frederik Andersen (lower body, day-to-day) had an on-ice session before practice and travelled with the team.
Meanwhile, Toronto defencemen Jake Muzzin (facial fracture) and Joe Thornton (lower body) were both full participants Friday and, like Campbell, appear on course to return after missing two games this week.
"We're going to be have to be ready," Muzzin, who will be sporting a full cage, said of facing the Oilers. "They're a team that's firing right now. They've got good goaltending, their defence is doing well, and the stars are playing hard.
"It's going to be a challenge."
Despite the elite talent at the top of both rosters — Edmonton leads the NHL with 79 goals, while Toronto is next with 74 — the four previous meetings between the clubs this season haven't really lived up to the hype, save for McDavid's end-to-end, highlight-reel goal Jan. 30.
"People expect these big offensive nights," said McDavid, who's four back of Matthews in the goal race. "Both teams have respect for each other where neither really wants to open it up and let the other offensive guys get going.
"You can expect a tight-checking little series."
Keefe has preached structure and strong play away from the puck as a key to Toronto's long-term success, and he's noticed Edmonton getting a similar buy-in the last month.
"They're playing a real sound team game," he said. "I see a lot of similarities to how we've found consistency."
Oilers goalie Mike Smith is 6-0-0 since returning from injury after Mikko Koskinen held the fort early. The 38-year-old has a .944 save percentage for a club that has allowed two goals or fewer in seven of its last nine contests.
"I just really want to play well for this group," Smith said. "We've done a lot of good things this year to put us in a good spot. I don't want that to slide away because of goaltending.
"It's a mission I'm on."
Edmonton defenceman Darnell Nurse said he's seen a growth in the group since its shaky opening.
"As you start to put games together and win different ways, the way that we have over the course of this stretch, it creates confidence," he said. "When you find ways to win games when you're down by a few, and find ways to hold on to them when up, win those tight games, it brings confidence in all different types of situations."
The Leafs have two regulation victories over the Oilers this season, while Edmonton has one in normal time to go along with that OT triumph. The teams play twice more after this three-game set — March 27 and 29 in Toronto.
The Oilers and Leafs both had disappointing qualifying round exits from the NHL's summer bubble.
Toronto came out firing with a renewed commitment to playing a 200-foot game that complements its explosive offence. It took some time, but Edmonton appears to have followed suit.
"The one thing is just how motivated everyone is," McDavid said. "Everyone came back with that chip on their shoulder and that bitter taste in their mouth, and want to do something special here.
"Our start didn't show that, but over the last month we've been playing real well."
The Leafs will get to see that up close for three straight starting Saturday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2021.
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