TORONTO – Connor McDavid grabbed all the attention heading into Saturday night.
And rightly so.
The superstar captain of the Edmonton Oilers had raised his own sky-high bar to astronomical new heights in 2022-23 before stepping into the spotlight in his hometown and hockey’s biggest market.
After the game’s best player provided another highlight-reel effort, Toronto’s elite talent responded in impressive fashion.
Mitch Marner had a goal and three assists as the Maple Leafs roared back from a 3-1 deficit to down McDavid and Oilers 7-4.
John Tavares scored twice as part of a four-goal barrage in the second period and added an assist for Toronto (40-17-8), while William Nylander and Auston Matthews each had a goal and set up another.
Noel Acciari had the other two goals, including into the empty net, for the Leafs. Matt Murray made 22 saves.
“You just feel it in the atmosphere in the crowd and everything,” Matthews, who went toe-to-toe with McDavid all night, said of Toronto’s surge in the second that saw the Leafs score four times in just under six minutes.
“There’s that little momentum switch. Good on us to take it and just run with it.”
McDavid replied with his NHL-best 55th goal of the season and added two assists for Edmonton (36-23-8). Leon Draisaitl, Evander Kane and Mattias Ekholm also scored for the Oilers. Evan Bouchard and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins chipped in with two assists each.
Stuart Skinner stopped 31 shots for the Oilers, who were undone by three sloppy turnovers as part of Toronto’s emphatic middle period.
“This one was a game that we could have done better with,” Edmonton head coach Jay Woodcroft said. “When you make mistakes against teams that can hurt you, you’re made to pay.
“Tonight we were made to pay.”
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, whose team lost 5-2 in the Alberta capital on March 1, could sense his stars were up for McDavid’s challenge.
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“I wanted to go with the Matthews-McDavid matchup straight up,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to take the puck out of his hands and play on offence, and try to make him have to defend. I thought those guys were really focused.”
“Always fun going against great players,” Matthews added. “(McDavid’s) at the top of our game.”
Down 3-1 in the second, the Leafs got their comeback started when Marner intercepted a Ryan McLeod pass in front of Edmonton’s net before beating Skinner on a slick spin-o-rama for his 24th.
Marner then stole another puck — this time off Vincent Desharnais — to feed Nylander for his 34th that tied the game 3-3.
“Trained a lot for it when I was a kid,” the Leafs winger said of his ability to pick opponents’ pockets. “Instincts kick in.”
Tavares made it 4-3 to complete a three-goal outburst in exactly three minutes after he and Matthews forced another turnover out of Darnell Nurse.
The Leafs went to the power play late in the period, and Tavares scored his second of the night and 30th overall for a 5-3 advantage.
“You want to approach the game the same,” Tavares said of tangling with McDavid. “But I think you do recognize what’s on the other side.”
Matthews scored his 30th on a power play in the third before Draisaitl replied with his 42nd on another man advantage for a 6-4 decifit, but Acciari iced it into the empty net.
Held off the scoresheet for just the seventh time this season in Thursday’s victory over Boston, McDavid grabbed the early headlines in his first-ever Saturday game at Scotiabank Arena with fans in attendance.
The league leader in goals, assists and points put the Oilers ahead 3-1 early in the second after being whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct with Matthews.
Edmonton’s captain, who grew up in nearby Newmarket, Ont., subsequently exited the penalty box and took a pass in the neutral zone before cutting into the middle and firing through Murray’s pads.
Toronto opened the scoring three minutes into the first when Acciari bagged his 12th, but Ekholm blasted his sixth just 22 seconds later.
Kane then made it 2-1 for the visitors with his 10th on a wraparound before the stars — McDavid and Toronto’s four-headed offensive monster — took over.
“We got it handed it to us pretty good not long ago out in Edmonton,” Keefe said. “That is fresh in our mind. The guys responded well.”
Jack Campbell made his return to Toronto after bolting for Edmonton in free agency last summer, but spent his evening on the bench.
A member of the Leafs for parts of three seasons, the veteran goaltender brought into be the Oilers’ No. 1 option has struggled in 2022-23.
Campbell, who is 17-9-4 with a .882 save percentage and a 3.57 goals-against average, received a nice ovation from the crowd during a first-period TV timeout.
“The city really embraced me during my time here,” the 31-year-old said before the game. “And there were other great memories — things I’ll cherish my whole life.”
Leafs: Host Buffalo on Monday.
Oilers: Host Ottawa on Tuesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2023.
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© 2023 The Canadian Press