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Game Preview #31: New Jersey Devils vs Edmonton Oilers

After a solid run of victories, the Devils have fumbled their last two games against the Flyers and the Ducks. They’ve been better of late, but the team still needs to coalesce into, well, a team. Can they take advantage of a stumbling Oilers team?

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils vs. Edmonton Oilers

The Time: 7:30 PM EST

The Broadcast: ESPN+, HULU

Key Takeaways

  • The Devils, previously 7-2 in nine games through late November and December, lost their edge against the Ducks and the Flyers, dropping the former 5-1 and the latter 3-2 in overtime.
  • They sit sixth in the Metropolitan division with 34 points, though they have games in hand against most of the pack leaders.
  • The Oilers, briefly resurgent under new head coach Kris Knoblauch, have recently stumbled and have lost their previous three games.
  • The Oilers still have some of the worst goaltending in the league—but, crucially, Connor McDavid seems to have regained his old form. While trying to outscore a team that has terrible goaltending seems enticing, the Devils can’t run-and-gun with the Oilers. They’ll have to play solid team defense against some of the best offensive players in the game.

The last time the Devils played the Oilers . . .

. . . they lost 4-1. It was a disappointing loss at the end of a very successful road trip where they (including this game) went 3-1 and looked like they were finally turning things around. Chris reported in his recap that the Devils looked out of gas and slow against the faster, more energetic Oilers. We were all willing to forgive that, as they had already won three games on their four-game road trip and had largely played solid hockey. Šimon Nemec had a very good game, and McLeod’s line fought to about even possession against McDavid’s line. Schmid, notably, had a couple gaffes and “allowed three goals on 2.64 expected goals against,” meaning that while he did not sink the team, he certainly helped earn them the defeat.

Here are the highlights if you want a refresher:

Let’s play Colin Miller, please

I, among many many other people on this forum and social media, wondered why Colin Miller did not play against the Flyers. We’ve actually become accustomed to—and even like—Brendan Smith as a fourth-line forward. He’s a reasonably fast skater in a straight line, he brings physicality that others lack, and he shows a lot of heart. He doesn’t always make the best decisions on the ice, but he doesn’t get caved in either—as a forward. If it’s a question between Chris Tierney, Nate Bastian, or Brendan Smith as a fourth-line winger, I expect a lot of people would like to see Smith in that spot. Myself included, usually.

Taking out Colin Miller for Brendan Smith on defense is another matter entirely. Smith did not have a great game. Aside from sitting firmly in the negative across most of the advanced stats that matter, Smith also turned over the puck off a weak check in the neutral zone that eventually led to Ryan Poehling’s second goal. That goal put the Devils down 2-1, and while they did tie the game and force overtime, it put them behind in a game where they were already struggling to generate offense. I’ll give some credit to Smith: most players cannot shift between defense and forward. It’s a credit to him that he can shift to forward and play effectively in that fourth-line role.

I don’t want to see him playing defense instead of Miller. Miller has fit extremely well on the back end and many, including myself, credit him with helping stabilize—in part—the defense corps this season. He’s not perfect every game. He’s had a few rough ones lately. Nevertheless, Miller on his worst night isn’t appreciably different from Smith on his average night. If we want him for his grit, his heart, his whatever, I’m actually quite happy to see him play on the fourth line and moonlight as a defenseman on the penalty kill. But he is not one of the six best defensemen on this team. Unless Miller is secretly injured, let’s try to ice the best lineup every night, please. They need the points.

Oilers flagging after their resurgence

After firing Jay Woodcroft in favor of Kris Knoblauch, the Oilers experienced a brief resurgence. Their goaltending was still very, very bad, but their offense—and Connor McDavid—found their footing, enabling them to beat the Devils 4-1 as recently as December 10. Since that Devils game, the Oilers are 1-3, only beating the Blackhawks. In those three losses, they surrendered 15 goals, including seven against the Lightning. In their losses to the Panthers and the Islanders, they only scored once.

What’s curious is that the Oilers are not banged up—at least not officially. Dylan Holloway remains their sole player on injured reserve, and he’s not exactly one of the Oilers’ high-flying stars. Notably, per Natural Stat Trick, the Oilers’ actual goals for is vastly under their expected goals for. Now, expected goals is not a be-all-end-all stat, but it does suggest that—along with their high-danger scoring chances and Corsi—the Oilers are still a dangerous offensive team that has been snakebitten this season as they struggle to outscore their problems. As a top-heavy offensive team, when McDavid and co. aren’t putting the puck in the back of the net, they don’t win. Anybody could’ve told you that, but it’s that simple.

The Oilers last played on Tuesday when they lost to the Islanders 3-1. It was a special teams battle that Edmonton lost: the Islanders scored twice on the power play and once shorthanded, and the Oilers were unable to convert on any of their four power play opportunities. But the Islanders were decidedly out-possessed, with the Oilers outshooting them 31-21. Aside from special teams, the difference came down to goaltending. Ilya Sorokin was stellar, stopping 30 of 31. Stuart Skinner was not.

The Devils will face Calvin Pickard, per Oilers TV reporter Tony Brar. Pickard has only recently seen NHL games after Jack Campbell became unplayable. In four AHL games, he notched a .939 save percentage; he has a .901 SV% in four NHL games. Notably, Pickard was in net when Edmonton defeated New Jersey 4-1 on December 10.

See their expected lineup below:

Your Thoughts

How do the Devils need to play against the Oilers? Do you agree with Miller sitting for Smith against the Flyers, or should Bastian sit instead? Should the Devils rest Timo Meier instead of playing him through injury? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading. Onward.