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Red-hot Oilers type of challenge Maple Leafs have been waiting for

The trip west to Edmonton required a quick layover in the trainer’s room.

That’s where Auston Matthews, Joe Thornton, Jake Muzzin, Frederik Andersen and other key members of the Toronto Maple Leafs had to spend time before heading out on a five-games-in-eight-days roadie featuring a tasty mini-series against the Oilers.

On the surface it didn’t look like an ideal way to prepare for the scorching-hot team challenging their North Division supremacy, but there’s an argument to be made that the opposite is in fact true.

Fundamentally, this is the kind of opportunity the Leafs have been waiting for. The grind is real right now, both with the injuries and the fact many of them probably won’t even step outside from the moment they check into the JW Marriott until they’re boarding a bus to the airport late Wednesday night after playing the Oilers for a third straight time.

Their reward?

A game in Vancouver the very next night.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Muzzin. “This whole season has been different.”

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It’s the kind of stretch a dominant regular season team finds a way to navigate with only limited damage. And the Leafs, who’ve roared out of the gates with a 15-4-2 start, are setting the internal bar at dominance.

They’ve spoken with respect in the past about the way a former Atlantic Division foe like the Boston Bruins always seemed to be winning or challenging for the Presidents’ Trophy no matter what kind of absences they incurred along the way.

That has not historically been a hallmark of their own group, but there are encouraging signs of growth so far this season. Toronto is fresh off a 1-1 split with the Calgary Flames in games where they had to start No. 3 goaltender Michael Hutchinson while Thornton, Muzzin, Wayne Simmonds and other trusted veterans watched injured from the stands.

Matthews has played most of this season with a nagging wrist issue and wasn’t able to take faceoffs for the final 24 minutes of Wednesday’s 2-1 overtime win over the Flames. Still, he managed to keep his tremendously productive run going by picking up assists on both of William Nylander’s goals.

“While he had to adapt his game and I had to adapt how we used him a little bit, he still competed his ass off right till the very end,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said Friday of Matthews. “In fact, (he) makes a great play to give Willy the space to make the play he made on the overtime-winning goal.

“That’s a good sign for both: The fact that we feel like the injury isn’t something that’s going to slow him down too much here, but also just the fact that he just competes and finds ways to adapt and has done the things that he’s able to.”

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The guess here is we’ll see Matthews go head-to-head with Connor McDavid on Saturday even though he didn’t take part in Friday’s practice. A final determination on his availability for the game won’t be made until the hours before puck drop, but he’s found a way to score a league-best 18 goals while managing the situation so far.

There will also be an “all hands on deck” approach with the way the Oilers have been rolling. They’ve picked up 11 wins in 13 games starting with the last meeting between the teams — a 4-3 overtime victory that ended with McDavid’s goal at Rogers Place on Jan. 30 — and are now within a whisper of the Leafs, just four points behind in the standings.

“They’re playing great team hockey right now,” said Thornton.

“We’re going to have to be ready. We looked at some stuff today,” added Muzzin. “They’re a team that’s firing right now. They’ve got good goaltending, their defence is doing well and the stars are playing hard.”

He’ll return for Saturday’s game and not a moment too soon. The Leafs have somewhat managed to contain McDavid in the 5-on-5 minutes against their top shutdown pair of Muzzin and Justin Holl this season, and that duo has had success against Leon Draisaitl as well.

Muzzin missed a week after breaking a bone below his right eye last Saturday night when Tyler Toffoli’s stick hit him on the follow through of a shot and described it as a harrowing experience.

“Yeah, a little bit scary, I’m not going to lie,” said Muzzin. “When you get hit in the face, you kind of black out a little bit and then you see the blood coming. So I was just praying that the eye was OK.”

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Thornton also got nicked-up during that visit to Montreal and missed the subsequent two games. He hopes to return against Edmonton. And Jack Campbell should be ready to start in goal for the first time since injuring his leg on Jan. 24.

But even some of the guys who’ve been dressing are doing so at less than 100 per cent — Zach Hyman, notably, didn’t participate in special team’s drills during Friday’s practice after taking a couple of recent shots off the skate boot — because we’ve simply reached that point in the schedule.

The difference between good and great can be established by teams when they’re tired, banged-up and operating at reduced physical capacity. Everyone has to deal with those stretches at some point during the season.

Toronto is in one at a moment when the Oilers have eaten into their division lead and they’ve got three straight head-to-head meetings on deck.

“We feel like we’ve been going pretty well as a team here and it’s still real close [in the standings],” said Keefe. “You can’t take any games or any days off.”

If they can take care of their own business, the path ahead should get easier.

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