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Game Preview #43: New Jersey Devils at Edmonton Oilers

A rematch with the Edmonton Oilers is the first stop for the New Jersey Devils’ final four-game road trip of the season. This game preview points out why Connor McDavid is a big deal for Edmonton and more about the Devils.

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at New Jersey Devils
Get ready for more of Connor McDavid, Devils.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Get ready for another night filled with Connor McDavid.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (16-18-8) at Edmonton Oilers (21-15-7; SBN Blog: The Copper & Blue)

The Time: 9:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Florida on Monday. Pavel Zacha was assessed a major penalty for boarding. The Devils did get the benefit of a Shawn Thornton roughing minor to knock the five minutes down to a three minute power play. Before it ended, Jussi Jokinen found Reilly Smith all alone in front of Cory Schneider. Smith took one shot and then put in his own rebound for a goal. The Devils tried to fight back but they struggled to really put a lot of offensive pressure on the Panthers, save for a few choice moments against Roberto Luongo. Luongo stopped them; the Panthers scored two empty net goals; and so the Devils played lame in a 0-3 loss to Florida. My recap of the loss is here.

The Last Oilers Game: On Tuesday, the Oilers hosted San Jose. Mikkel Boedker opened the scoring early to punish Edmonton for a slow start. Edmonton would tie it up a 1-1 with a first period goals from Drake Caggiula; but Brent Burns would put the Sharks back up 1-2 within the final minute of the period on a shot that just found its way through traffic. Boedker increased his impact in the second period with two goals. Yes, he potted a hat trick and the Oilers had no response until the third period. There, they had hope when Matt Benning and Oscar Klefbom both scored with shots from distance. Those two goals were scored within the first four minutes of the period, plenty of time for a third goal, right? Wrong, said Logan Couture. At around five minutes into the period, he managed to get a breakaway and score to put San Jose up 3-5. Goaltender Martin Jones held off any other shots to keep that score steady, which meant the Oilers lost 3-5. Minnia Fang had this recap at Copper & Blue of the loss.

The Last Devils-Oilers Game: The Devils hosted Edmonton last Saturday, so these two teams are very familiar with each other. It was my first time seeing Connor McDavid live and he pretty much ate up the Devils alive. So did most of the Oilers as they dominated the run of play from the fourth line all the way up to McDavid’s line. Adding to the difficulty was that defenseman Yohann Auvitu was injured in his first shift of the game; that forced the Devils to play with only five defenders. Fortunately, Cory Schneider was sensational all night long. And Miles Wood was able to torch Eric Gryba and beat Cam Talbot for a 1-0 lead. Schneider pretty much maintained that lead until early in the third period. With Oilers’ fourth line pressing, Benning was able to get a shot past Ben Lovejoy and Matt Hendricks in front, which helped the puck go past Schneider. Schneider held it down at 1-1 as regulation ended with the Devils out-shot 39-19. In overtime, the Oilers continued to dictate play and received a power play. There, McDavid (8 shots) and Klefbom (9 shots) would get on the box score as they provided the passes that led to Mark Letestu wiring a slapshot past Schneider for the overtime winner. The Devils lost 1-2 in overtime. My recap that appropriately praised Schneider but few others on the Devils is here. For the other side, Minnia Fang had this recap, praising an excellent Oilers performance.

The Goal: Win the non-McDavid matchup. As of this writing (Wednesday at 7:40 PM ET) Connor McDavid is the league’s leader in scoring. He has fourteen goals, thirty-four assists, 129 shots, and amazing hands to go with his amazing skating abilities. McDavid bodied the Devils for eight shots and eleven shooting attempts last Saturday. My interpretation from that is that McDavid is going to do what McDavid wants and there is little the Devils can do about it. What made Saturday’s game so dominant for Edmonton was that the other lines were beating on the Devils too. Edmonton’s bottom six was doing great business against New Jersey’s. This isn’t so much to say that, oh, Sergey Kalinin lost that game for New Jersey or that he and others around him have to play like stars. But losing the matchup against pretty much the whole lineup is a lot more damaging than losing only one matchup to a line that features one of the best players in the world. If the Devils can show up when McDavid is not present, then I think they’ll have a chance tonight.

McDavid for Hart: Sidney Crosby is a fine candidate as any for MVP. But in my mind, McDavid is just as if not more worthy of the award at the moment. What makes Pittsburgh such a scary opponent is that if somehow Crosby is not having a good night, then there are other top-tier players to carry them to victory. Edmonton has McDavid - and that’s pretty much it. It’s not to say that the Oilers don’t have other players to know for this game. It’s to say that he’s really important to Edmonton’s success. And if Edmonton is really going to push for the postseason - which is possible for the first time in over a decade - then they need to perform well without him.

That is the main conclusion TV’s Sunil Agnihotri came to at the Copper & Blue recently. He’s had two posts earlier in the season to note how the team does with and without McDavid. His latest post in that series was posted yesterday and it’s a must-read for anyone who wants to know something about tonight’s opponent. The long and short of it is that the Oilers have been great, especially in recent games, when McDavid is on the ice. Less so when he’s not - and it’s not a small drop either. To me, that points to how valuable he is to the organization (and it’s frightening he’s this important at such a young age, he turns 20 on Friday). This is largely why I think the goal for the Devils tonight should be to focus on winning the non-McDavid matchups.

Related, Oscar Klefbom was noted by Agnihotri as being more successful with other centers than, say, Kris Russell. Klefbom went off (in a good way) against the Devils on Saturday. So much so, that I would not be surprised if the Oilers give him more minutes to see if he can replicate that.

The Other Oilers to Know: There are some names to look for tonight in addition to #97, Connor McDavid. Starting from the back out, there’s goaltender Cam Talbot. Talbot has been good for the Oilers per his save percentages at and he was good for them last Saturday against the Devils. Defensively, the Oilers did a very good job against the Devils on Saturday. In this season, they’ve been better than decent. Per Corsica, their SA/60 is below 30 in 5-on-5 play and they have one of the better CA/60 rates in the NHL. While Klefbom bombed away at New Jersey on Saturday, the core of Andrej Sekera, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, and Klefbom has done well. They also have been boosted on the third pairing by the play of Matthew Benning, who did score his first NHL goal against New Jersey last Saturday. It may not be superlative defense, but it has been good and much better than sieves of seasons past.

Up front, whoever is with McDavid is usually one to watch since you’re likely going to see a lot of him in New Jersey’s zone anyway. The biggest one would be Leon Draisaitl. With fifteen goals, eight power play goals (team lead), and twenty assists, the winger just has produced and played rather well with McDavid. He’s the closest Oiler to McDavid in points, in fact, per The other winger is Patrick Maroon, who has had a fantastic season. He’s already surpassed his season high in goals with sixteen so far and he’s a safe bet to have a career year. Yes, playing alongside McDavid helps; but one still needs to be good to have a line work even with an all-world skater. Both Draisaitl and Maroon have been very good. And expect them to shoot as they each have over ninety shots in this season.

Behind them are Milan Lucic, Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Neither have set the world on fire, so to speak. I don’t think their production has been bad. Lucic remains a difficult player to play against, especially in close-quarters. Eberle still has a great shot and Nugent-Hopkins remains adept at distribution. Their production has not been bad, but they’ve been shuffled around in the lineup recently. Still, they are ones to know as they’ll likely be the second offensive line behind McDavid. Their depth at forward has not contributed much, but I will tell you to pay attention to Letestu in all situations. He has eight goals and nineteen points. That includes four power play goals and six power play points as well as two shorthanded goals and three shorthanded points. If there’s an X-factor, it’ll be him. Recall that he scored the overtime power play goal against New Jersey on Saturday; he wasn’t just out there because he was fresh. He’s can contribute.

As for the Devils...New Faces and No Returns Yet: At Fire & Ice, Andrew Gross reported from Wednesday’s practice that Karl Stollery and Blake Coleman both skated with the full team. Gross confirmed in this post that while defenseman Andy Greene and center Vernon Fiddler both skated, they will not play tonight. Stollery was on a power play unit in practice and Coleman skated with Taylor Hall and P.A. Parenteau. While John Hynes could (and should) use different lines tonight, those could be signs that they could make their New Jersey debuts tonight. Given that the Devils are who they are at this point in the season - a bad team - I cannot complain too loudly about their inclusion depending on who they replace. Coleman in for someone like Kalinin or Devante Smith-Pelly? OK. Coleman in for Zacha? Nope. Likewise, I wonder if Stollery will be in for Seth Helgeson. If he’s in for Steve Santini, then I’m not going to be happy. We will have to find out today.

Hot Schneider: Cory Schneider will start this game, as Gross confirmed in this post at Fire & Ice. I think that makes the most sense. Schneider did an excellent job against Edmonton last Saturday, so he’ll know what to expect. Plus, Schneider has just been hot in this new year. Even with that horrible Friday game against Toronto, Schneider has a 96.9% even strength percentage and a 88.9% penalty kill save percentage in 2017. Schneider has conceded only seven goals in five starts in this new year. He’s hot right now. So I am pleased that he will start this one. I would like Keith Kinkaid should start against Calgary on Friday.

One Last Thought: All I want on this four-game road trip is more watchable hockey than the other four-game road trips. Please be watchable, Devils. Give Taylor Hall help, he can only do so much on his own - and with six shots against Florida on Monday, it can be a lot. But imagine if you can be options for Hall instead of guys skating with him. In fact, be an option for the Devils puck-carrier even if it’s not Hall or yourself. I’d like more of that as it was lacking on Monday.

Your Take: The Devils kick off their last four-game road trip of the season by facing off against the Edmonton Oilers. Will this game go better for the Devils than the last Devils-Oilers game? Can the Devils win the non-McDavid matchups? Do you think McDavid is the MVP so far in this season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.