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Game Preview #11: New Jersey Devils at Edmonton Oilers

The New Jersey Devils continue their road trip into Alberta for a pair of games. Tonight is against the Edmonton Oilers featuring Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse, and some other players. The Oilers are better than Vancouver, but how much? Learn more with this preview.

Edmonton Oilers v Chicago Blackhawks
The terrifying two of Edmonton: McDavid (L) and Draisaitl (R)
Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils continue their road trip through Western Canada. They will be in Alberta for a couple of days. They begin tonight in Edmonton to take on The Best Player in the World, the Best German NHL Player Ever, and a bunch of guys who are good enough to make them somewhat of a contender. Needless to say, they are a step above the Canucks. And both teams are coming in hot.

The Time: 9:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG, SNW; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Edmonton Oilers (SBN Blog: The Copper & Blue)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils visited Vancouver on Tuesday night. After a sluggish first few minutes, the Devils got their first shot on net. A lovely re-direction on Thatcher Demko’s blindside by Nico Hischier to complete a passing sequence from Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt on a power play. Yes, the Devils scored on their first shot on net. The Devils acclimated to the ice and the game as the first period went on. Mackenzie Blackwood was sharp early. The fourth line struck later in the first period with a Nathan Bastian yielding a rebound goal for Michael McLeod. The Devils led 2-0 going into the first intermission. After a bizarrely non-called board by Luke Schenn, Miles Wood elected to fight Schenn. That went poorly for Wood and he got an extra minor for instigation. But the Devils not only killed the call but Dawson Mercer finished a 2-on-1 from Sharangovich near its end for a shorthanded goal. Not long after, Jesper Boqvist led a 2-on-1 and set up Sharangovich for a score. The Devils were up 4-0. Penalties, legitimate calls would have Vancouver get on the board. A Bo Horvat PPG in the second period got the Canucks on the board. After a whole lot of not much in the third period, a late power play and a pulled Demko led to another Horvat PPG from the slot to make it 4-2. The game was effectively made over when Jack Hughes sailed a cleared puck into an empty net. The Devils won 5-2 and their fourth in a row. Chris recapped the win in this post.

The Last Oilers Game: The Oilers hosted Nashville on Tuesday night, beginning a week of home games for them. It got off to a poor start when Mattias Ekholm score 34 seconds into the period. The rest of the first period was all Oilers. Evander Kane scored two in the first period, both set up by Leon Draisaitl. Connor McDavid scored right after Kane’s second goal to make it 3-1. Later in the first, Derek Ryan made it a dominant 4-1 score. The scoring would not stop, although it slowed down in the second. McDavid scored a PPG thanks to Draisaitl to make it 5-1. Ryan Johansen responded with a PPG of his own to make it 4-2. There was a sign of hope for Nashville early in the third period when Filip Forsberg beat Jack Campbell to make it 4-3. Edmonton’s response was as you would expect: more offense. Draisaitl scored a PPG of his own to make it 5-3. While Nino Neiderreiter pulled the Preds within two with a late PPG, Draisaitl set up Evander Kane for the third time to make it 7-4. Yes, Kane had a hat trick. Yes, McDavid had 4 points. Yes, Draisaitl had 5 points. Yes, Edmonton out-attacked Nashville 37-23 in shots and 72-44 in attempts. Yes, the Oilers are an offensive machine. Alex St. Cyr has this recap of the win at The Copper & Blue.

The Goal: Stay out of the box! Again! This really is the goal for all three games on this trip as Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary have had very potent power plays in the early part of this season. Even if you correctly feel the penalty disparity in Vancouver was not right, the Devils still conceded five shorthanded situations and two power play goals against. Edmonton could do even more damage if given the chances. They just went 2-for-6 on Nashville on Tuesday. Edmonton’s power play success rate of 33.3% with 13 PPGs scored already. It will not shock you that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have feasted on opposition penalty kills. Enough to be league leaders in power play points - in addition to all scoring in the league. Some of their on-ice rates may not be that high in power play situations, but a big reason for that is that they are ending power plays early with goals. Their process is still quite good as indicated by their top-ten xGF/60 rate of 9.06 in man advantage situations. So once again: Stay out of the box!

How’s Edmonton Doing?: It was a good October for Edmonton fans. They finished October at 6-3-0. They took down Carolina, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and got revenge over their hated rivals in Calgary in their building on October 29. They just won big against Nashville, flexing their offensive muscle and putting themselves at 7-3-0 with five straight wins. McDavid and Draisaitl continue to be two of the best players on the planet. Kane’s, Zach Hyman’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ performances and production are evidence the Oilers are more than just two amazing hockey players and a bunch of dudes. The team is even around the break-even mark in 5-on-5 metrics. This is not the Oilers of the past. This is an Oilers team that has every reason to feel good.

While the Oilers just played their tenth game, Czechboy at The Copper & Blue has a summary of the team’s first nine games of the season and it is mostly positive. There are negatives. The Oilers remain top-heavy in terms of its distribution of minutes. Jack Campbell is not playing all that well. Still, the Oilers are in a prime position in the Pacific Division. They can keep up their pace record-wise and cruise to a playoff position. Of course, the Oilers should not be thinking about just making it. With McDavid and Draisaitl and big money moves made to obtain or keep Darnell Nurse, Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane, Campbell, and Hyman, they should be thinking about going for it. So far, it looks like it is working out quite well.

The Edmonton Offense: McDavid rules. Draisaitl rules. The Devils or anyone else should be looking to stop them. The best they can probably do is contain them. As stingy as the Devils’ defense has been and as well as they have done against McKinnon and Gaudreau in recent games, I am going into this one expecting McDavid and/or Draisaitl to do damage. They are league leaders in scoring. McDavid was just named the First Star of October and both just dropped 4 and 5 point nights on Nashville on Tuesday. They are fast, skilled, and can ruin a team by themselves.

Of course, the game of hockey requires more than just two players. Edmonton, as a team, can score a lot of goals. However, some of their 5-on-5 offensive rates per Natural Stat Trick are a bit closer to league median. It can be potent; but an xGF/60 of 2.83 is just a bit above league median and it is out-done by Edmonton’s defensive “prowess.” This suggests that when McDavid and Draisaitl are not attacking, the Oilers become more ordinary in attack. Sure, they have depth in production with Zach Hyman having six goals and 11 points, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins having five goals and eleven points, and Evander Kane warming up with eight points. But beyond them, the point totals drop. In terms of individual on-ice metrics, some of those not-so-productive players like Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele have some positive on-ice rates. That suggests some of their depth may be more unlucky than not. Interestingly, players like McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins have seen a lot of attempts and shots against them as much as they create or witness. All the same, the Oilers are a bit more than just two dudes wrecking teams in 5-on-5 and the Devils have to respect that. As it is a road game, Lindy Ruff may not be able to get John Marino always out there against McDavid and Draisaitl. Hopefully, Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler draw those matchups instead of, say, Brendan Smith and Damon Severson.

More importantly, hope that the Devils goalie has a decent-to-great night and not one to forget. Blackwood did well in Vancouver, especially when the Devils were having a slow start and Smith-Severson got turnover happy. Whether he gets another start as a reward or Vitek Vanecek draws in from the previous three games, the aim is the same. Be prepared for a lot. And do not get dejected if McDavid-Draisaitl light the lamp. They do it a lot. Just ask Juuse Saros and the other goalies Edmonton has faced this season.

Now, while Edmonton at 5-on-5 is not a total nightmare for opponents, their power play absolutely has been a total nightmare for opponents. Again, the Oilers have a power play success rate above 30%, and their two best players are also among league leaders in power play points. McDavid and Draisaitl with extra space on the ice in an offensive situation is great for them and bad for their opponents. Nugent-Hopkins and Tyson Barrie have enjoyed the extra space as well. Hyman, Kane, and Evan Bouchard on a second unit can be dangerous as well. I cannot stress enough that the Devils need to avoid taking calls against them. As good as the Devils’ penalty kill has been - even after being beaten twice by Vancouver’s potent power play - the Oilers can stomp right through it.

The Edmonton Defense: For the majority of this season so far, the Devils have been able to get flying and flood the opposition with shot attempts, shots, and scoring chances for the better part of three periods. This eventually cracks goaltenders and breaks defenses down to be pinned back a lot. They are forced to look for hopeful counter-attacking passes, simple clearances to just get a break, and/or scramble on shifts. The Oilers defense on paper can be a prime target for the Devils’ attack led by Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and more. They were a little slow to get going in Vancouver. By the night’s end, they out-shot the Canucks 37-23. And, as with their past games this season, it was a team effort by New Jersey. The Oilers will not be able to just match one line and quell the rest so easily.

As a team in 5-on-5, the Oilers have not been bad. While they have allowed more shots than they have created, they are above 50% in terms of scoring chances, high danger chances, and shooting attempts. Yet, that difference is not wide enough to keep the Oilers from having a suspect 2.89 xGA/60 rate. This is one of the lower rates in the NHL and it speaks to a defensive effort that is not that strong. Remember: McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins have very high against rate stats to go with their very high for rate stats. That suggests opponents have been able to attack the Oilers a lot with their best forward on the ice. Not that getting into a wide-open, up-and-down game with McDavid and Draisaitl is an excellent idea - but it can be exploited by a team as up tempo as New Jersey. On the blueline, the Oilers have done quite well when Evan Bouchard or big-minute-eater Darnell Nurse takes a shift. Cody Ceci has not been so bad. But opponents have lit up Brett Kulak, Ryan Murray, Markus Neimelainen, and especially Ty Barrie. An on-ice xGA/60 above 3 is not bad and Barrie has a 3.49. The good news for New Jersey is that since so many of their forward lines have been offensive, Edmonton cannot just send Nurse out to just shut one line down. They can and should attack the lesser defenders.

While that is all at 5-on-5, what of the Edmonton penalty kill? It is not the worst, but it is not that strong. The Oilers are in the bottom ten of the NHL with a success rate just above 73%. They took a hit by giving up two power play goals out of two opportunities to Nashville They have conceded 12 power play goals and allowed 42 shorthanded opportunities. So their PK has received work and it could be a lot better Their on-ice rates in shorthanded situations is either around the league median or among the bottom ten in terms of allowing attempts and shots. And Jack Campbell certainly has not helped (more on him in a bit). It can certainly use improvement. Whether that is in scheme or personnel (or both), I cannot be sure. The Devils’ power play currently has a streak of four games with at least one conversion. They could take advantage of a not-good Edmonton penalty kill if (or when) they take calls. Given how the Oilers can attack, the Devils power play may need to be effective to keep up on the scoreboard. Or keep the Oilers away. Whichever.

The Edmonton Goaltenders: No longer is Edmonton reliant on a Mike Smith in his 40s. They now have two goaltenders well under the age of 35: Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner. As a team, the Oilers have one of the best 5-on-5 save percentages at 93.15%. Surely, the goaltending should be seen a strength for the Oilers, right? Not so fast. There is a divide between Edmonton’s tandem.

Campbell was one of the big prizes in free agency in July for Edmonton. The Oilers inked the former Leaf to a five season contract worth $25 million. They are not exactly getting their money’s worth right now. Campbell has posted a 90.3% save percentage in 5-on-5 play and a 90.7% in all even strength situations. Campbell has been ripped apart in shorthanded situations with ten power play goals allowed over 48 shots; a save percentage of 79.2%. That has tanked his overall save percentage to 88.1%, which is simply not good enough for a NHL goaltender. Nevermind a goalie with a $5 million cap hit. Keep in mind that Campbell has played all of seven games this season. He did not play the team’s final two games in October. He did start against Nashville and the Oilers did win that one, albeit 7-4 and not because Campbell was particularly great at allowing 4 goals out of 23 shots.

Skinner, on the other hand, is the third round draft pick from the 2017 NHL Draft still on a two-way contract worth the league minimum for this season before hitting restricted free agency. In four appearances, Skinner has been more like a wall for the Oilers. Skinner has a 5-on-5 save percentage of 97.1% and an even strength save percentage of 97.2%. That great team save percentage I pointed out two paragraphs ago? Skinner is the reason for that. Both are very impressive marks. He has been expected to give up 9.21 goals in 5-on-5 and has allowed only three actual goals. In shorthanded situations, Skinner has beaten just twice out of 22 shots for a very good PK save percentage of 90.9%. His overall save percentage is an excellent 95.5%. Skinner has not been great in his four games; he has been fantastically better than Campbell.

Given that Edmonton paid out big for Campbell, I suspect there is some pressure for him to keep getting games to figure it out. It could be as simple as he is in an early-season slump and will turn out to be quite good for the remainder of this season (and the next four for Edmonton’s sake). However, from my outsider perspective, the near 50-50 split games suggests that the Edmonton coaches know Skinner has been the hotter goalie and should keep getting minutes himself. The Oilers have had just one back-to-back set this season so far and Skinner did get the big game in Calgary on October 29. Then again, Campbell did play on Tuesday. Maybe it is not a controversy, but it will become one should this wide gap between the two continues and the minutes remain about the same or go more to Campbell. Someone outside of the organization will surely notice.

It remains to be seen what the call will be for tonight, but the Devils could, unfortunately, get to face Skinner over Campbell. If it is Campbell, then the Devils should seek to attack him as they did to Sorokin, Nedeljkovic, Stolarz, Merzlikins, and Demko. I figure Campbell and his poor numbers will crack under the pressure. If it is Skinner, the Devils may be wise to be a little more judicious with their shot selection and perhaps make more of an effort to get to the net. Especially if Nurse or Bouchard are not on the ice.

Any Devils-Specific Notes: One thing that Lindy Ruff and his staff did well in Vancouver was getting the preferred defensemen out there against the Canucks in 5-on-5 play. The Canucks’ top players are Horvat, Pettersson, J.T. Miller, Ilya Mikheyev, and Andrei Kuzmenko. Jonas Siegenthaler took on 7+ minutes against Mikheyev and Pettersson, nearly 6 against Kuzmenko, and 4+ against Horvat and Miller. Dougie Hamilton had similar ice times with his usual partner Siegenthaler, except a few more shifts with J.T. Miller. Ryan Graves played over 6 minutes against Miller and Horvat, over 5 with Mikheyev and Pettersson, and just under 5 minutes with Kuzmenko. John Marino, Graves’ usual partner, had similar ice times only he broke 5 minutes with Kuzmenko. The larger point is that despite having the last change, Ruff was able to get his top-four defensemen out there for plenty of shifts against Vancouver’s best forwards. Sure, the Brendan Smith-Damon Severson partnership did get a handful of minutes against those same forwards; but the other two pairings had several more matchups and longer ice-times against them. This is something I would like to see Ruff do again in Edmonton. Trying to slow down McDavid and Draisaitl is a monumental challenge. I like Graves-Marino’s chances or Siegenthaler-Hamilton’s chances against those two as well as Kane, Hyman, and Nugent-Hopkins than the Smith-Severson pairing I fear the Oilers may want to pick on. The Vancouver game showed it is possible to shelter that third pairing a bit. I think New Jersey would be wise to do so.

Related to that, I would anticipate the Devils utilizing the same forward lines and defensive pairings as they had in Vancouver. The Devils won and played up to their standard by the game’s end. Usually, that means Ruff will not change anything unless someone is hurt. As much as I would like to see Smith and his tendency for penalties and turnovers to take a seat for a game, I doubt Kevin Bahl will draw into the defense unless necessary. I also doubt we will see Alexander Holtz or Andreas Johnsson unless a forward cannot go. Goaltending is a bit of a wildcard, though. It was believed Blackwood got the start in Vancouver as the Canucks are the easiest opponents of the three on this trip. But Blackwood legitimately played well in Vancouver. I could go either way. It is less about who does the work in the crease and tries their best against a frightening Edmonton offense and more that it is done at all by someone.

One Last Thought: There is a good chance that this game could be a game of offense versus offense. The Oilers have McDavid, Draisaitl, and may need to out-attack their suspect defense and Jack Campbell. They can absolutely do it. The Devils have enjoyed a lot of offensive pressure from all four of their forward lines and even get some help from most of their defense jumping in on plays. They have been doing it this season. If it is not possible to contain or slow down Edmonton’s attack, then the Devils may just need to come out swinging big on rushes up ice and try to out-score what the Oilers try to do.

Of course, I would have thought that about the Colorado game and that turned into a defensive struggle where both teams did not even register 25 shots on net and it was 1-0 game. A win for New Jersey but far from the offensive explosion I would have expected ahead of the game. As ever, hockey is a strange game and it does not always follow your conceptions of what both teams will do.

Now, seriously, stay out of the box against Edmonton, please. Thank you.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils will have a tougher time in Edmonton, but their performances suggest they have a good chance of any of coming away with something. Edmonton may have two of the best players in the world and a good record, but they are by no means perfect. Both teams are hot; something has to give tonight either way. Do you think the Devils will be able to match up well against the Oilers? What can they do, if anything, to McDavid and Draisaitl? What do you think the final score will be? Please leave your answers, reactions to any lineup changes ahead of the game, and other thoughts about this matchup in the comments. Thank you for reading.