EDMONTON — When Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored at 13:46 of the second period to end the Toronto Maple Leafs bid of shutting out the series, it may have been a blessing in disguise.
Although a shutout by three different goaltenders against the same team in three straight games would have been historic, watching the Leafs respond to the allowed goal by continuing to push while staying committed to playing defense was the bigger victory.
"We score a lot and still wanted to not give up anything," Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen said when asked about the difference in front of him. "We're not just satisfied with leads and winning a couple of games, we want to keep suffocating them and not give them anything, really."
The Leafs continued to exert their dominance over the Oilers as they swept the three-game trip to Edmonton with a 6-1 victory at Rogers Place on Wednesday. Andersen, who made his first start after missing the last four games with a lower-body injury, was tested early when he made a couple of saves in the opening minute off Edmonton's Ethan Bear and had to fight a rebound from Nugent-Hopkins. That allowed him to get a feel for the game early.
Edmonton came into the evening leading the league with 29 first-period goals and didn't score any in the three games against Toronto.
The only goal in the opening 20 minutes came from Jimmy Vesey, who busted out of a 17-game goalless skid at 9:03.
"I think it's obviously nice when anytime you score a goal you feel a little bit better," Vesey said. "The puck seems to follow you around and you just have more confidence."
Vesey used the added boost to collect his second goal of the game. Toronto caught Edmonton on a bad line change and Jason Spezza found Vesey for the the pass and the goal at 2:57 of the second period.
"Obviously when you're getting that, that's when you know are going really well for your team," Keefe said of Vesey's production.
John Tavares scored his first goal in six games on Toronto's first power-play opportunity of the game at 4:44.
Ilya Mikheyev also scored his first in six games from Zach Hyman and Pierre Engvall at 7:02.
Nugent-Hopkins ended Toronto's bid for the shutout when he quickly picked up the rebound off a shot from Leon Draisaitl and beat Andersen at 13:46.
But Toronto stayed committed to the defensive game. In the following four minutes, Toronto allowed just two shots on goal and blocked four shots from Edmonton, including an incredible stick block by TJ Brodie to rob Draisaitl of a chance to make it 4-2.
"He keeps it really simple it's just so effective," Auston Matthews said of Brodie's defensive play. "He's got a great stick and obviously saw him picking up a lot of plays tonight.
Brodie dominated Draisaitl defensive at other points in the game as well.
Less than a minute later, William Nylander scored his fifth goal in his last four games to put Toronto up 5-1 at 18:22.
"We're building a real strong bond here. Defense is a real focus," said Spezza. "We're beginning to understand what team defense is."
In the third period, Toronto got a bit loose on the power plays and gave up a few scoring chances, but Andersen shut the door and made 27 saves in his return to the net.
Hyman capped the scoring with Toronto's second power-play goal at 10:33. Spezza collected his game-leading third assist.
Matthews made his return to the lineup and didn't show any signs of favouring his injured wrist.
His best chance came at 4:36 of the first period when he wired a shot off the post. His line was a -1 for the night, but the team's top unit has been responsible for so much offense this season that it's hard to knock how they played.
The other three lines provided more than enough production and players like Vesey, Mikheyev and Tavares needed the boost.
"There's a lot of good things that come out of this series for us," Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "We knew coming in playing against a very good team that was as hot or hotter than any other team coming into the NHL."
The Leafs were better served by having that one goal against on Wednesday. That told us a lot about a team that is proving itself to be elite. And you can’t be elite without strong defense.