EDMONTON — 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.
"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.
"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.
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."
Having swept a two-game set in Calgary against the Flames to kick off this swing through Alberta, the Leafs opened the scoring at 9:31 of the first when Spezza snapped a 27-game goal drought dating back to Feb. 7, 2020. The 37-year-old, who had an assist in each of his two previous games before getting a rest Tuesday, shovelled a shot past Koskinen after the Edmonton netminder coughed up the puck behind his net.
The Oilers, who were coming off Tuesday's 6-4 loss in Winnipeg to the Jets, had a couple of good chances to get even later in the period, but Andersen denied Dominik Kahun on a 2-on-1 before Draisaitl missed a wide-open cage.
Toronto doubled its advantage with 1:38 left in the first just as a power play expired when John Tavares took a pass from Spezza and found Nylander at the lip of the crease to score his third of the campaign, and first since opening night.
The Leafs took four straight minor penalties in the second, but the Oilers couldn't do much with those chances until Alexander Kerfoot went off for a slash that had Keefe seeking an explanation from the officials. Zach Hyman was then whistled for tripping to set up a 5-on-3 power play for 1:30.
Draisaitl, who came in with goals in four straight games, rattled a shot off the post early in the two-man advantage, but got another opportunity from the same spot and wired his fifth past Andersen at 18:11.
"We're not even close to being the team we can be — the team that we would need to be," Keefe said. "But a lot of positive things have gotten us to be (7-2-0).
"The greatest news of all is that none of the games have been perfect and there's lots of room for growth."
Notes: Koskinen has played every minute for Edmonton this season with fellow netminder Mike Smith out injured. ... After wrapping their series with Toronto on Saturday, the Oilers will welcome the Ottawa Senators for two contests Sunday and Tuesday. ... The Leafs' next action after departing Alberta is next Thursday for the first of three straight at home against the Vancouver Canucks.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021.
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