Never look a gift horse in the mouth, especially an NHL thoroughbred like Auston Matthews — you catch a break and it should be full gallop ahead.
But with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best weapon scratched with an upper-body issue and Jumbo Joe Thornton out with a busted rib, the Edmonton Oilers spit the bit in a 4-2 loss Friday night.
They got a very strong game from Connor McDavid, who played 23 and a half minutes and had seven shots, but with Matthews out, Leafs captain John Tavares picked up the slack with the power-play winner to outlast the Oilers.
So, no rinse and repeat for Edmonton, who played rope-a-dope in a 3-1 win Wednesday to come within striking distance of .500. But they’re now 2-4 with two games in Winnipeg on Sunday and Tuesday before likely seeing Matthews again at Rogers Place next weekend. Then we can rev up the McDavid vs. Matthews machine, but with Matthews in the press box wearing a mask, this was a golden opportunity for the Oilers to make some hay, and they didn’t do it.
While McDavid scored on a waist-high deflection and Leon Draisaitl got his seventh career shorthanded goal on a quick goalmouth tuck after some strong hounding-of-the-puck by Kailer Yamamoto, it wasn’t enough. Tavares tipped a Mitch Marner shot past Mikko Koskinen midway through the third after a hooking call on Devin Shore. It was his fourth of the year on the power play, the league’s No. 1. He had seven all last season.
Marner added the last one into the empty net with half a second left.
Former Western Hockey League scoring champion Adam Brooks, with his first NHL goal, got another on the power play just 43 seconds after Draisaitl’s goal, while the Oilers didn’t get a sniff and are now 0-16 with the man-advantage in their four losses this season. Jimmy Vesey scored the other on Koskinen, who has played every minute of Edmonton’s first six games and didn’t have a prayer on any puck that got past him Friday.
After last year’s fantastic powerplay, it’s turned into a jugger-not for Edmonton this year. In their two wins, it’s three-for-seven and three-for-23 overall, after scoring one out of every three tries last year.
“We have to get back to the level, we can certainly improve,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
By a lot. They could use an oil change.
“It certainly doesn’t look as fluid as it did last year,” said Oilers coach Dave Tippett
Trying to beat a team back-to-back has become a chore in the North Division, although Montreal beat the Oilers two straight at Rogers Place before heading to Vancouver.
“Once you win the first, the second becomes a challenge, you realize the other team is playing with more urgency,” Tippett said.
McDavid tied it in the first minute of the third, tipping an Ethan Bear shot past Freddie Andersen from the high slot to tie it 2-2, but they never got another one on Andersen, who won his 139th Leafs game, moving past ex-Oilers netminder Curtis Joseph into fourth spot on their all-time list.
“Fast-paced game, both teams played hard,” said Tippett. “We had chances in the first period, then got a bit ragged in the second and in the end they got a lucky break on their first goal (off Brooks skate). And we took a penalty in the third, didn’t get in the lane and it cost us the game.
“It’s still a step in the right direction. We have to compete very night and we did that in the two games.”
The Oilers made two lineup changes after Game 1, putting James Neal in on the fourth line for Alex Chiasson and Tyler Ennis on the third for Joakim Nygard, who went to the taxi squad.
Neal, who got COVID-19 in December, just before he was leaving his off-season home in Nashville and had to quarantine both there and in Edmonton, played his first game on a line with Shore and Josh Archibald and also got some power-play work.
With 85 career power-play goals and six in the first eight games last season, Neal had one chance in the second off a McDavid pass, but couldn’t jam it past Andersen.
“It looked like it was Neal’s first game in a while. He was mucking and grinding but he hasn’t played in a long time. He has to get his timing back but we had to play him sometime,” said Tippett.
This ‘n’ that:
The last time Matthews missed a game because of medical issues was three years ago, due to a bad shoulder in February of 2018. He played 24 minutes in Game 1 of the back-to-back to lead the league with 27 shots … Oilers winger Josh Archibald is a hitter in a small package, sitting second in the NHL with 22 hits … The Oilers sat defencean Caleb Jones for a third straight game … With Neal back on the 23-man roster, Nygard returned to the taxi squad because he has already cleared waivers, unlike Chiasson … The Oilers took goalie Olivier Rodrigue off to get Nygard onto the taxi squad. Rodrigue, just back from playing in Austria, will report to Bakersfield for their Jan. 25 camp opening. The Condors’ 40-game AHL schedule opens Feb. 5 in San Diego .. .The Leafs brought Pierre Engvall in off the taxi squad for Thornton. He’s a powerful skater and had a strong first game.
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