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Game Preview #26: New Jersey Devils @ Edmonton Oilers

The Devils look to finish off a sweep of their Western Canada (plus Seattle) road trip in a late afternoon game against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at New Jersey Devils Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (14-10-1) @ Edmonton Oilers (11-12-1)

The Time: 4:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN

Last Devils Game

The Devils were in Calgary yesterday, where they defeated the Flames, 4-2. Nico Hischier potted two goals while Vitek Vanecek put forth his strongest game in a long time. The win was New Jersey’s sixth in their last seven games.

Last Oilers Game

Edmonton last played on Friday night, when they edged the Minnesota Wild, 4-3. Evan Bouchard scored twice to help the Oilers extend their winning streak to six games.

End of the Road

Four games is not particularly long for a road trip, but when it’s a four-game trip on the opposite side of the continent, it feels longer. For the Devils, the long travel and late nights (by east coast time, anyway) have not hampered them through the first three games of this stretch. The Devils have wins over the Vancouver Canucks, the Seattle Kraken, and yesterday against the Flames on this trip, and they can make it a clean sweep if they manage to top the Oilers this afternoon.

Last season, the Western Canada road trip arguably helped set the tone for the franchise-record setting campaign the Devils were about to embark on. Entering Western Canada with a modest three-game winning streak, New Jersey defeated all three Canadian teams in the Pacific Division, and went on to win a franchise-record tying 13 games in a row. Western Canada has been kind to the Devils the past two years, and a win this afternoon would really start making the good folks of British Columbia and Alberta hold one heck of a grudge against Jersey’s team.

It won’t be easy though. The second half of a back-to-back is always tough, especially when it comes at the end of a three games in four nights stretch. Combine that with a more rested opponent and New Jersey will have their work cut out for them today. But if any team has proven they have what it takes to conquer Western Canada, it’s New Jersey.

Turning the Corner?

The phrase “turning the corner” really can be applied to a few different aspects of this team. Looking at the macro level first, it has been well-documented both on this site and in plenty of other outlets that New Jersey has been struggling relative to expectations for much of the season. Entering their game against the Buffalo Sabres on November 25th, the Devils sat at 8-9-1, a completely unacceptable record for a team of New Jersey’s caliber. Starting with that November 25th game, however, things have been coming up Devils all over the place, as the team has won six of seven games since that date.

Probably not coincidentally, that game against the Sabres marked the return of captain Nico Hischier, who missed a month after taking a headshot from Buffalo’s Connor Clifton. After scoring two goals in yesterday’s game, Hischier has registered nine points in those seven games, and the Devils as a whole look much better organized most nights. The team still isn’t playing perfectly of course, there are still defensive breakdowns and lulls in offense to be found. But having the captain back seems to have made a world of difference for this team.

Meanwhile, the goaltending, a source of pain and suffering for Devils fans everywhere, has also started to stabilize...maybe. Akira Schmid put up a doozy of a clunker against San Jose two Fridays ago, and Vanecek looked shell-shocked beyond repair in the game against Vancouver at the start of this trip.

However, Schmid saved 44 of 47 shots in a win over the Flyers the night before that clunker against the Sharks, and he followed up that abysmal Sharks game with quite possibly the best performance a Devils’ netminder has put forth all season in a 2-1 victory over Seattle on Thursday. Then just yesterday, Vanecek stopped 23 of 25 shots in the win over Calgary. While not a mind-blowing effort by any means, it was a game that Vanecek desperately needed.

The goaltending has a long way to go to prove it is fixed, hence why I included the qualifier of “maybe” a couple paragraphs ago. But recent games have provided hope for this team on that front. Given the fact that Vanecek got the call yesterday, I would think it has to be a foregone conclusion that Schmid will start this afternoon, so hopefully he can build off his stellar performance against Seattle earlier in the week. I personally am in “I’ll believe it when I see it” mode with the goaltending, but the fact that we are at least starting to see it is a very welcome sight.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

I’m of the opinion that the Edmonton Oilers are the team that shares the most similarities with our Devils this season in a few key ways:

  1. Expectations. Both the Devils and Oilers entered the season as popular Stanley Cup picks by many around the game. Both teams collected well over 100 points in 2022-23, both teams won a playoff round, and both teams were looked at as prime candidates to build off of that success and take the next step.
  2. Early Disappointment. Despite those lofty expectations, New Jersey and Edmonton stumbled out of the gate. The Devils were never in awful shape, falling only one game below NHL-.500 at their low point. But the goodness, the Oilers. Edmonton went from preseason Cup contender to 2-9-1 after a pathetic loss to the Sharks on November 9th (a pathetic loss to the Sharks? Hey there’s another similarity!). Needless to say, that was about the worst-case scenario for Edmonton.
  3. Dismal Goaltending. No more needs to be said about the Devils’ goaltending situation. We all know how bad it’s been, though as I mentioned above, there is reason to believe for the first time in a while. Over in Edmonton, things got so bad for the 25-million dollar man, Jack Campbell, that he was waived and sent down to the AHL on November 7th. The move came a mere 16 months after Campbell signed a 5-year, $25 million contact in free agency with Edmonton. In five games before his demotion, Campbell put up a .873 Save Percentage and a 4.50 Goals Against Average. This coming after a season in which Campbell went .888 and 3.41 in 36 games. Meanwhile, tandem mate Stuart Skinner, who played a large role in saving Edmonton’s season in 2022-23, has regressed hard this year. Skinner is rocking an .888 sv% and a 3.03 GAA in 19 games played. Despite the talent that each team boasts amongst their skaters, goaltending has thus far held the Devils and Oilers back in a big way.
  4. Season Saving Turnarounds. We already detailed how the Devils have played themselves right back into the thick of the playoff race lately. Meanwhile in Alberta, the Oilers are starting to figure it out themselves. After that fateful loss to the Sharks, Edmonton rattled off three straight wins, but then gave it all back with three straight losses right after that. But since that three-game skid, the Oilers cannot be stopped, winning their last six games to get themselves to within a single game of NHL-.500. This season, Edmonton has not been at NHL-.500 or better since...well, never. Unless you count 0-0-0, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t. So while they are still in worse shape than New Jersey at the moment, they are well on their way to saving their season, and in a soft Western Conference it might not take much to make the postseason in the end.

I think you get the idea. Now we get to see these two teams, who parallel one another in a lot of ways, collide as they both try to salvage their respective seasons.

New Kid on the Block

Campbell was not the only one Edmonton management sent packing in November. Head coach Jay Woodcroft was relieved of his duties back on November 12th. It was interesting timing in that the firing came after a win, but nonetheless the Oilers felt a change was necessary.

Woodcroft took over the Edmonton bench midway through the 2021-22 campaign, and in his time heading the Oilers he put up a record of 79-41-13. He also guided his team to the Western Conference Final in 2022, and the second round last season. Woodcroft had a lot of success behind the bench in Edmonton, but the start to this campaign was apparently so cataclysmically bad that none of those accomplishments could save him.

Edmonton decided to replace Woodcroft with Kris Knoblauch, who was plucked from the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack to try and help Edmonton salvage their season. Knoblauch spent the past four seasons coaching the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, and this is his first time as the leader of an NHL club. The start to his tenure was not ideal, as he lost three of five out of the gate. But the aforementioned six game winning streak has things really looking up for his team. We’ll see if he can keep this going and get the Oilers back into the playoff race.

He’s Back

If you ask any hockey fan who the best player in the world is, just about everyone would say Connor McDavid. The Oilers captain is an absolute marvel to watch, with breathtaking straightaway speed and edgework, incredible hockey sense, and a lethal shot that can beat any goaltender. He of course has the production to match all that skill too, and he’s coming off a season in which he put up a staggering 64-goal, 153-point season, both career highs by far.

Much like the rest of his team, however, McDavid’s start to 2023-24 was well below expectations. Well maybe not the very start, as the Oilers’ superstar put up nine points in his first six games. But then he got hurt in Edmonton’s game on October 21st against the Jets, and upon his return eight days later, McDavid put up five points in his next nine games, well off his usual standards. This had people asking what was wrong with McDavid.

They’re not asking that anymore.

Since November 20th, McDavid has played eight games and registered 21 points.

No that’s not a typo.

McDavid had a three game stretch in late November in which he put up four, five, and three points. He is the best player on planet earth, and he has been busy reminding everyone of that fact over the last eight games.

More Than Just McDavid

What makes Edmonton so dangerous is that McDavid is not the only superstar the Oilers can send over the boards. Leon Draisaitl is one of the most dangerous scorers in the league, and despite the Oilers’ struggles he continues to do Draisaitl things this season with 31 points in 24 games played.

Believe it or not on a team with McDavid and Draisaitl, it’s actually another player who currently leads the team in goal scoring: Zach Hyman. The 31-year old has found the back of the net 15 times in 23 games thus far, making him the most effective non McDavid or Draisaitl player on Edmonton’s roster.

Elsewhere, Evander Kane is tied with Draisaitl for second on the team with 11 goals. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a season after putting up a monster career year of 37 goals and 104 points (his previous career highs were 28 and 69 in 2018-19) is very close to a point per game pace with 23 in 24 games. On the back end, Evan Bouchard paces the Edmonton blue line with seven goals and 27 points.

There is star power for days in this lineup, and while there might not be a whole lot of depth, that doesn’t matter all that much when your stars are producing. The goaltending has been the main culprit when it comes to Edmonton’s early spiral, but if the goalies are fixed and the stars continue to do star things for the Oilers, they will find themselves right where they expected to be prior to the season.

Your Take

With a chance to reach NHL-.500 for the first time all season long, I have to imagine the Oilers will come out highly motivated for this game. What will you be looking out for today? What do you expect out of Schmid (assuming he does get the start)? Who besides McDavid and Draisaitl will you be watching closely on the Oilers? As always, thanks for reading!