TORONTO, ON - Tonight the Oilers face the Leafs under the bright lights of a major Canadian market. It's a day that's special for several players on the roster, starting with their captain, Connor McDavid.
"It means a lot," said McDavid. "I've actually played in this building a few times, but never against the Leafs and never wearing the Oilers logo. I'm definitely excited to do that in front of a bunch of family and friends. It's going to be a special night for me."
McDavid is from Newmarket, ON, just down the 404 highway. His family will be in attendance tonight. Also in attendance tonight will be the family of Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse.
"Everyone is coming," he said.
Aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents will all be there to root on number 25.
"I like to play close to home," said the Hamilton, ON native. "It's always good to have family here. I live here in the summer so it's always fun to be around the city. The ACC is somewhere I watched a lot of games growing up so it will fun to be here again."
There are a lot of storylines in this game that will have both squads hyped up to play.
"I think they're going to be excited about playing here and the environment Toronto presents," said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. "My experience coming into this building is that a lot of young players and older players have family that come in here. They want to perform well, they have a tendency to be ready to go. Last year we came in here, we didn't play very well but we were at the back end of a five or six-game road trip. Toronto played a real good game. We hope to reverse that this year, coming in fresh and ready to go at the front end of the trip."
MCDAVID VS MATTHEWS PART 1
In addition to it being a coming-home party for McDavid, the game has also been hyped up as McDavid vs. Matthews Part 1. The last two first-overall selections face off against each other for the first time as NHL stars, after being teammates together on Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey in September.
"He's such a good player," McDavid said of Auston Matthews. "He's quick and he's got a lot of skill and a good shot. He's pretty hard to shut down. I'm not sure if I'll play against him all night or somebody else but it'll be a good test for our team."
Matthews echoes McDavid's praises.
"He's just a really special player," said Matthews. "It's tough. You've just got to try to contain him. He's obviously got that explosive speed and quick hands. Along with him and the number of other players, we have to be on our toes tonight."
There are expectations for these two players in their first meeting. Even Wayne Gretzky, The Great One himself, flew to Toronto to witness it. But in the end, both teams are treating it as a regular game and not anything more special than it is.
"It's just another game," said Matthews. "We've got 82 of them this year. We're going to play a lot of good teams with a lot of good players. It's not a head-to-head matchup every time we play somebody. It's the Maple Leafs against the Oilers tonight. You don't really make too much of it. You just go out there, play your game and try to get a win."
The Oilers are also more concerned about Toronto overall as a team than the individual Matthews.
"Our group of players are beginning to understand (Matthews') talent level and his skill level," said McLellan, who coached Matthews at the World Cup. "Fortunately, for us as a coaching staff, some of us have been around Auston and some of us, (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) and Connor have played with Auston so they can spread the news that he is the real thing. With that being said, in watching the Leafs play I think it's more than just the individual. It's the group. They generate a lot of offence, they're able to keep plays alive. It's just not one and done. Their secondary and third shot attempts are evident in their games and they're very quick to loose pucks so our game plan will focus more on them as a whole rather than them as individuals."
BENNING GETS THE NOD
Matt Benning is expected to get the nod for his first NHL game tonight. The 22-year-old defenceman took rushes with Nurse in the morning skate.
"It's exciting for me," Benning said. "It's a game in Toronto, such a great Canadian market with a young team and the noise they've made so far. I'm just going to try to go out there, play my game and take it as another game, not as my first NHL game."
Although he's just 21 himself, Nurse can serve as a little bit of a calming presence for the young player who is jumping into his first taste of regular season NHL action.
"Just being in the right spots and being there to support him," said Nurse, who is playing in his 81st NHL game tonight. "He had a great camp and he's a great player. He's going to be able to do a lot of stuff on his own. But for me, just be in the right spots, always give him an outlet and defensively just be strong."
Although Benning is playing his first NHL game, he has been around the team for much of the season. He played just two games in the American Hockey League, scoring a goal and an assist.
Will that familiarity help him tonight?
"I definitely think so," he said. "Just being with the team all the time, knowing the guys, going out for dinner and those kinds of things. Then the hockey aspect, when you're practicing with all the elite players like there are on this team it helps you get prepared for a dynamic, young team like the Maple Leafs."
"He's had an opportunity to be around the guys," said Nurse. "He knows the system and goes out every day and works hard. I think he's definitely ready and it's exciting to play with him."
Benning slides into Eric Gryba's spot on the third pairing. There are no other changes to the Oilers lineup, based on morning skate. Cam Talbot gets the start once again, as he was the first off the ice this morning.
-- Chris Wescott, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS (7-2-0) vs. MAPLE LEAFS (2-4-3)
TV: 5:30 p.m. MT; Televised on Sportsnet Oilers
This is the first of two meetings this season between the Leafs and Oilers. The next time these teams will meet is on November 29th in Edmonton.
The last time the Oilers and Leafs met was on February 11th in Edmonton, where the Oilers won 5-2. Jordan Eberle posted his first career hat-trick, including one assist and Connor McDavid posted his first career five-point game (2G, 3A).
Oilers team scope:
The Oilers dropped their last game by a 2-0 score at home against Ottawa. Prior to that, they had won five in a row. Edmonton remains atop the Pacific Division and Western Conference with 14 points.
Jordan Eberle has 10 goals in as many career games against Toronto, including his first NHL hat trick, which he registered on Feb. 11, 2016 vs. Ottawa. Eberle has 16 points (10G, 6A) in 10 career games against Toronto.
Defencemen Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera and forward Benoit Pouliot have more career points against Toronto than against any other NHL team: Larsson has six career points (1G, 5A) in 11 games against Toronto, all as a member of the New Jersey Devils. ... Sekera has 12 points (3G, 9A) in 33 career games against Toronto. ... Pouliot has 21 career points (7G, 14A) in 23 games against Toronto.
In six career games against Toronto, goaltender Cam Talbot has a 4-1-0 record, with a 2.38 goals against average and a .921 save percentage.
Maple Leafs team scope:
Toronto is tied for second last in the Eastern Conference with only seven points but they are 2-1-0 on home ice. ... Auston Matthews is tied for the League lead in goals with six. He scored four of them in his first career NHL game, setting an NHL record. Matthews, the 2016 first-overall pick faces off against McDavid who was the 2015 top selection, for the first time in his career. McDavid is tied for the NHL lead in points with 12 but right behind him with 11 is William Nylander of Toronto, who has four goals and seven assists.
Defenceman Jake Gardiner has seven points (3G, 4A) in eight career games against the Oilers. Forward James van Riemsdyk has eight points (4G, 4A) in eight career contests versus Edmonton. ... Nazem Kadri has seven points (3G, 4A) in seven games against the Oil.