The Maple Leafs talked a lot about finding consistency following last summer’s disappointment in the NHL’s post-season bubble.
A top-heavy roster stacked with offensive talent in recent years, Toronto would often look like world beaters one night and something completely different the next.
Loose play in the neutral zone, maddening negligence without the puck and salary cap concerns raised serious questions about whether or not the team’s core had the required commitment and desire to figure things out.
The pandemic-shortened campaign isn’t yet at its midway point, but the Leafs are serving resounding notice they’ve unearthed a much better version of themselves in 2021.
Jimmy Vesey scored twice to snap a long goal drought and Frederik Andersen made 26 saves in his return from injury as Toronto completed a dominant three-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers with an emphatic 6-1 victory Wednesday.
The home side entered the series just four points back of Toronto (18-4-2) in the North Division standings, and could have overtaken the Leafs with three straight regulation wins.
The Oilers instead got an up-close look at how far the Leafs have come since losing to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the August qualifying round.
“Just the process, not getting discouraged when things aren’t going our way, just trying to pick back up and get the momentum on our side,” Toronto centre Auston Matthews said of what’s different about his group. “When we’re really at our best and playing really well like we did these last three games, we’re keeping things really simple. When the play’s there to be made, we’re making the play.
“When it’s not, we’re just putting it behind the (defence) and we’re forechecking well and doing our best to keep their top guys to the outside. It’s a full team effort.”
John Tavares and Zach Hyman, with a goal and an assist each, William Nylander and Ilya Mikheyhev provided the rest of the offence for Toronto.
“Edmonton was red-hot coming into in and chasing us in the standings,” Vesey said. “To win three games like that so decisively, I think it’s a real step.”
Jason Spezza added three assists and Travis Boyd chipped in with two for the Leafs, who thumped the Oilers by a combined 13-1 score over a dominant nine periods that saw NHL scoring leader Connor McDavid held without a point.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins replied for Edmonton (14-11-0), which had won five in a row and 11 of its last 13 before the NHL’s top team arrived at Rogers Place. Mike Smith allowed six goals on 32 shots.
“We came out strong,” said McDavid, who failed to get on the scoresheet in three straight games for just the third time in his career. “But I thought we came out strong in all three games, and they find a way to get up a couple goals and it’s the same old story.
“For whatever reason, we couldn’t figure those guys out.”
Second in the league in scoring behind McDavid, Oilers centre Leon Draisaitl assisted on his team’s only goal.
“Not good enough,” he said. “We just didn’t win any battles.”
Matthews, who leads the NHL with 18 goals, also returned to the lineup after missing the last two games with a sore wrist/hand, but was held off the scoresheet.
It didn’t matter on this night – or Saturday or Monday – as the Leafs took away time and space for Edmonton’s offensive dynamos.
“An all-around team effort on everybody’s part of just taking care of the puck,” Matthews said. “Especially with their top-2 guys out there, not feeding the transition because they really feed of turnovers and have got so much speed and skill and talent.”
The Leafs blanked the Oilers 4-0 in backup goalie Jack Campbell’s return from injury Saturday before third-stringer Michael Hutchinson produced a 3-0 victory behind Toronto’s stifling structure with the team’s No. 1 and No. 2 netminders unavailable Monday.
Andersen, who missed four games with a lower-body injury, wasn’t able to keep the shutout streak going, but Toronto won’t mind after improving to 5-1-1 versus Edmonton in the all-Canadian division.
The Leafs open a two-game series in Vancouver against the Canucks on Thursday, while the Oilers host the Calgary Flames on Saturday before welcoming the Ottawa Senators for three straight.
“It’s very concerning,” Edmonton head coach Dave Tippett said. “It’s very concerning that we don’t want to grab the competitive level in a series like this.”
The Oilers came out firing with five shots in just over two minutes to open the first period, but Andersen, like Campbell and Hutchinson in the two previous contests, weathered the early storm.
“We’ve had a big commitment to team defence from Day 1 of training camp,” Spezza said. “We’re starting to understand what it feel like when we play good defence.”
Toronto found its legs as the frantic pace continued, with Matthews showing no lingering injury issues by wiring a shot off Smith’s far post.
The Leafs nudged in front at 9:03 thanks to their fourth line when Spezza’s pass found a hard-charging Vesey to bury his third of the season and first in 18 games.
Toronto made it 2-0 at 2:57 of the second when Boyd and Spezza combined to set up Vesey, who took a cross-check in the neck from Alex Chiasson after Monday’s final buzzer that resulted in a one-game suspension.
After the Leafs’ top-ranked road power play connected on its only opportunity Saturday and its first chance Monday, Tavares scored six seconds into Toronto’s initial man advantage when he took a little pass from Joe Thornton in front to bury his fifth at 4:44.
Mikheyev then made it 4-0 with his third at 7:02 as the Leafs scored three times in 4:05 and held a stunning 11-0 edge on the Oilers through in just over 147 minutes of action.
Nugent-Hopkins finally broke Toronto’s shutout streak at 13:46 when he banged home a rebound for his 10th.
Edmonton came close to getting within two not long after that, but Leafs defenceman T.J. Brodie snuffed out Draisaitl’s wraparound attempt.
Nylander put the game out of reach with 98 seconds left in the period when he snapped his 10th, and fifth in his last four games, past Smith to make it 5-1.
Andersen, who improved to 15-1-2 all-time against the Oilers, stopped Draisaitl on a short-handed breakaway early in the third before Hyman continued the onslaught on a power play with his seventh at 10:33.
“It’s a full team effort,” Matthews said. “Our goaltending’s been unbelievable these last three games. Three different goalies, three phenomenal games.
“We’ve got to put this one behind us and move onto the next.”