NHL·Preview

Leafs expect fired up McDavid in Oilers captain's return from suspension

The Edmonton Oilers are expected to have their all-world captain back in the lineup Wednesday following a two-game suspension for an illegal check to the head on New York Islanders defenceman Nick Leddy when they visit Toronto.

Toronto defenceman Jake Gardiner out week-to-week with back injury

Edmonton captain Connor McDavid makes his return from a two-game suspension against Toronto on Wednesday. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Leaning up against a screen in the locker room at the Maple Leafs' practice facility, Auston Matthews looked slightly annoyed by one particular query.

"What, for you, stands out about [Connor] McDavid?" Toronto's star centre was asked.

"I don't think I need to answer that question," Matthews responded, rubbing the side of his face and forehead. "You guys all know."

And so do the Leafs.

WATCH | Leafs' 2nd-period outburst paves way:

Toronto scored 4 goals in the 2nd period on the way to beating the Buffalo Sabres 5-3 on Monday night in Toronto. 1:55

The Edmonton Oilers are expected to have their all-world captain back in the lineup Wednesday following a two-game suspension for an illegal check to the head on New York Islanders defenceman Nick Leddy when they visit Toronto, which will be minus defenceman Jake Gardiner, who is out week-to-week with a back injury.

So how do you try to slow down McDavid, the fastest and arguably most skilled player on the planet?

"That's a great question," Leafs centre John Tavares said with a smile following Tuesday's on-ice session. "You've just got to make it as difficult as possible for him. It's a lot easier said than done.

"He's missed the last couple games. We expect him to be shot out of a cannon."

The 22-year-old McDavid, who cheered for the Leafs as a kid growing up in nearby Richmond Hill, Ont., sits third in the NHL with 85 points (32 goals, 53 assists).

Put another way, he's been in on exactly half of the Oilers' 170 goals this season.

WATCH | Oilers lose in shootout

Despite a 2-goal effort from Leon Draisaitl, the Edmonton Oilers fell 3-2 to the Nashville Predators on Monday night in Tennessee. 2:03

Tavares, who like McDavid was granted exceptional status to play junior in the Ontario Hockey League at age 15, said Edmonton's superstar is more than just blinding speed — it's his awareness and vision coupled with those wheels that separates him.

"His ability to read the play, anticipate is arguably the best in the league," said Tavares, who has a team-high 35 goals. "And then his ability to keep his speed and maintain it for as long as he can, and doing it with the puck and then being able to make plays at that top-end speed and really be able to see the play two, three steps ahead."

Toronto will be looking for a better first period against Edmonton after falling behind 3-0 to Montreal on Saturday and 1-0 to Buffalo before flicking a switch and storming back for consecutive come-from-behind wins.

"We never really lost our cool," Matthews said. "Everybody had faith in one another.

Hint of turnaround

"We should be able to take control of the game early on instead of letting the other team dictate."

The Leafs sat a point back of Boston for second in the Atlantic Division heading into Tuesday's action, while the Oilers, who have two of the NHL's top seven scorers in McDavid and Leo Draisaitl (38 goals, 38 assists) were seven adrift of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

Edmonton has registered six of a possible eight points in its last four games, but is just 3-8-4 over its last 15.

"Connor, being from this area, is going to be fresh," said Toronto head coach Mike Babcock, whose team visits Edmonton on March 9. "McDavid's got that higher octane of speed. It's going to be a challenge for us.

"We'll have to be above the puck and try not to turn it over when he's on the ice."

With Toronto's Nazem Kadri out with injury, teammate Auston Matthews can expect to find more head-to-head time against Edmonton's Connor McDavid. (Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Nazem Kadri has been assigned to frustrate McDavid in the past — he still has eight points in five career games against Toronto — but the Leafs centre is out with a concussion, meaning that responsibility will fall to either Matthews or Tavares.

"You're playing against stars every night," said Matthews, who scored his 30th goal of the season Monday. "You could be against Sidney Crosby, the next night Patrice Bergeron.

"There's good players on every team. There's superstars on pretty much every team."

But only one Connor McDavid.

Ailing Gardiner's ice time down

Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Gardiner takes a seat after missing games against the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 20 and Washington Capitals on Jan. 23 with back spasms. The eighth-year NHLer had the all-star break to rest and has played in all 13 Leafs games since then.

Before the back spasms, Gardiner averaged 21 minutes 40 seconds per game, but since then that time has dropped to 19:31.

Gardiner has two goals and 27 assists in 60 games played this season, but only five assists in his past 13 games.

Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said Igor Ozhiganov will start in Gardiner's place.

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