The Maple Leafs knew even with Auston Matthews they would need to be at their best against a surging opponent.
Subtracting the NHL’s leading goal scorer from Toronto’s lineup due to injury further increased the degree of difficulty.
Sitting in that tricky spot, Jack Campbell and his teammates rose to the occasion Saturday.
The netminder stopped 30 shots for his third career shutout, Mitch Marner sparked the offence with a goal and an assist, and the Leafs blanked the Edmonton Oilers 4-0 in the opener of a three-game series.
Toronto scored on the power play, three times at even strength, didn’t take a penalty, and frustrated the powerhouse offensive duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in one of the club’s most complete performances of the season.
“Everything really came up Leafs here tonight,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said.
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Toronto was minus Matthews, who has 18 goals in 20 games, after he aggravated a wrist injury he’s been dealing with most of the schedule in Wednesday’s 2-1 overtime victory against the Calgary Flames.
Keefe didn’t spell it out to his players what was needed on this night with their best player absent, but the message was clear.
“When you lose a guy like that, you’re essentially taking a goal away from your lineup,” Keefe said as Toronto improved to 22-11-2 all-time with Matthews sidelined. “If you score one less, you’ve got to make sure you give up one less.
“Whether Auston was in or out, to beat an Edmonton team that’s rolling the way that they are and playing as confidently as they are, we had to really play a sound team game.”
William Nylander, Jason Spezza and Zach Hyman also scored for Toronto (16-4-2). John Tavares added two assists as the Leafs stretched their lead atop the North Division to six points over the Oilers.
Campbell played for the first time since injuring his leg Jan. 24 and picked up his first shutout since March 25, 2019, when he was with the Los Angeles Kings.
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“It was awesome,” Toronto’s backup said after getting mobbed in his crease at the final buzzer. “It’s what you play for.”
Mike Smith stopped 25 shots as Edmonton (14-9-0) saw its five-game winning streak come to an end.
“We just didn’t deserve to win,” said Draisaitl, whose Oilers will look to rebound Monday and Wednesday against the same opponent at Rogers Place. “They just outbattled us.”
Matthews hasn’t just been a goal dynamo this season. He also sits tied for fourth in league scoring with 31 points behind McDavid (40), Draisaitl (34), and now Marner (32), and has honed a relentless 200-foot game.
“Auston’s a big part of our team offensively [and] defensively,” Marner said. “Everyone steps up in that moment.”
Campbell was proud of the effort with the team’s top talent looking on in street clothes.
Leafs stay with it
“Losing Auston is a huge blow,” he said. “But it was a great opportunity for all of us to come together and just try and take two points from a really, really good team.
“Auston was fired up in the room after.”
The Leafs also got winger Joe Thornton (lower body) and top-4 defenceman Jake Muzzin (facial fracture) back after both sat out Toronto’s last two games. No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen, meanwhile, remains day-to-day with a lower-body ailment that pressed third-stringer Michael Hutchison into action twice earlier this week with Campbell still working his way back.
Keefe elected to put Tavares in Matthews’ spot between Marner and Thornton, and that line combined for five points. The Leafs, who opened a road trip that will see them play five games in eight nights, also defeated Edmonton 4-2 in Toronto on Jan. 22 without Matthews.
“We did a good job sticking to our game plan,” Muzzin said. “Even when we’re up a few, we stayed with it.”
After both teams had a couple of good chances to open the scoring early, the Leafs got on the board at 14:37 of the first period on the game’s only power play. Marner showed great patience circling behind Smith’s net before finding Nylander, who buried his eighth, and third in two games, as Toronto snapped an 0-for-12 stretch on the man advantage.
Marner then turned finisher just 1:13 later when he took a pass from Tavares in transition and fired a shot through Smith for his 10th.
Campbell’s infectious work ethic
Both goalies were busy before the Leafs broke through, with Campbell denying McDavid off the rush and Smith thwarting Alexander Barabanov.
Tavares has been blown away by Campbell since he was acquired from the Kings last season.
“He’s been absolutely tremendous, not just with the results that he brings and the confidence that he gives the group, but the attitude, the energy he brings every day,” said Toronto’s captain. “The work ethic in practice is second to none. It’s just infectious, what he brings to our team. There’s a lot of things not seen behind the scenes that he brings to our group.
“Thrilled for him, and not surprised.”
Spezza made it 3-0 at 11:15 of the second on a vintage sequence from a player nicknamed “Vintage” by teammates. The 37-year-old forward took a pass from Jimmy Vesey coming down the right side, faked a slapshot that had Smith swimming in his crease before firing his fifth shortside on the 38-year-old netminder, who entered a perfect 6-0-0 with a .944 save percentage.
“What a treat it was to watch,” Campbell said of Spezza’s effort. “He does it in practice, so it’s nice to see it on our end.”
Edmonton, which was on 11-2-0 run after starting the season 3-6-0, came close to getting that one back moments later, but Draisaitl’s pass to Josh Archibald was redirected off Campbell’s crossbar by Leafs centre Alexander Kerfoot before the netminder shut the door on the follow.
Hyman, who missed two of the Leafs’ last four games with a foot injury, then roofed his fifth upstairs on Smith at 13:34 as the visitors picked up their first shutout of the season.
“Just proud of this group,” Campbell said. “It was a heck of a game, and we needed it.
“Let try to keep’er going.”