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Defense Key in Avalanche vs. Oilers

by Ron Knabenbauer / Colorado Avalanche

This isn't the Edmonton Oilers of last year, or really of the past couple that have earned the right to select first overall at four of the last six NHL Drafts.

The 2015-16 Oilers have been playing a more structured offensive and defensive game under head coach Todd McLellan, who is in his first season in the Alberta capital. That dedication on both sides of the puck has shown with Edmonton just two points out of a playoff spot in the Pacific Division entering this evening's game against the Colorado Avalanche.

"You can see the difference, the positioning," said Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy of the Oilers. "Even when they take point shots, they have always the same structure. It's not the flavor of the month. They know where they are going on the ice. Obviously they are well coached, and it will be a good challenge for our team tonight."

According to Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson, part of the new structure that has been brought in by McLellan is playing a complete 200-foot game; forwards helping on the back end and defensemen contributing up front.

"I think you'll see more structured zone play," Johnson said of what he expects from Edmonton. "Have them come out as a five-man unit as opposed to sometimes they fly some guys or leave a guy hanging in the past. That element of their game has definitely helped them defensively. Maybe it sacrifices a bit of offense, but their game as a whole is a lot better."

The Avs have also been playing an improved brand of hockey as of late, winning four in a row and seven of their last nine. Colorado is just three points out of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference and its defense has been a big part of the recent success, having only given up more than one goal once during those seven victories.

With plenty of firepower upfront and on the back end, the Avalanche still has the ability to win high-scoring affairs. However, its recent wins have come from its success in close games. Colorado last scored four or more goals on Nov. 28 against Winnipeg.

"It is how the league is now," Roy said of his club's defensive play. "I'm not saying we're trying to change our entire philosophy. Part of it is we still want to see our 'D' very involved in the rush. We want to attack as five guys. We want a lot of 'D' motion in the offensive zone, giving them the freedom to come because we also believe it's the responsibility of the forwards to back them up if they are involved in the rush or even in the O-zone. We're not going to change that part, but we try to slow down the game sometimes in the neutral zone by playing that 1-3-1 and it seems like it has been working well for us."

The play of goaltender Semyon Varlamov—who has won five straight and owns a 0.99 goals-against average and .969 save percentage in those contests—and the team's structured neutral zone has been a key to the Avs' success.

Colorado's 1-3-1 neutral-zone alignment has frustrated opponents' top lines and the league's biggest stars in recent weeks.

"Teams aren't coming off the rush at us as much," Johnson said. "We're forcing those guys to dump pucks when they want to make plays. If you ask any of the top lines around the league, they don't want to dump the puck. They want to try and create something off the rush. How structured we've been in the neutral zone has helped a lot."

While tonight's 8 p.m. tilt at Pepsi Center might seem to be set up as a defensive bout, don't be fooled. Both clubs can still score.

The Oilers had won a season-high six in a row, averaging 3.83 goals in those games before losing their last two to the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks.

Playing stingy defense will once again be vital for the Avalanche.

Much like Colorado and its No. 1 line, Edmonton is likely to put all three of its top-scoring forwards together in Taylor Hall (35 points), Leon Draisaitl (27 points) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (23 points).

Roy will have the home-team benefit tonight of the last change and choosing which trio of the Avs to match up against the Oilers' top group. He'll likely give the task to the combo of center Carl Soderberg and wingers Blake Comeau and Andreas Martinsen, a line Roy has praised often recently.

"I'm comfortable with the Soderberg line. They've been playing so well," Roy said. "Martinsen, since he's been here, he's been playing some good hockey. That line has been playing really well for us."

The Soderberg-centered group has been playing good offensively and defensively. The trio had more shots than they gave up in the Avs' last game on Thursday against the New York Islanders and set up both of Francois Beauchemin's tallies in the win. Not bad for a line that started most of time in the defensive zone.

"I think we're working hard. That's the common," Soderberg said of him and his linemates. "That's the most important thing, and that's the key to being successful. You have to work hard, then everything else kind of comes by itself."

"The bottom line is you have to stick up for one another. You got to work. Comeau is one of the best forecheckers in the league. I love to play with him. Marty, he's fitting in well."

Despite Edmonton's recent struggles the past few years, it has had success against Colorado. The Oilers are 6-3-1 in their last 10 matchups and went 2-1-0 last season versus the Avalanche

Tonight's contest should be a good barometer of where each club is at as they head toward the Holiday Break next week.

"This isn't a game where we can come in and expect it to be an easy one," Johnson said. "They are playing pretty well as of late, and we know it will be a good test for us and a good test for them too."

PROJECTED AVALANCHE LINEUP

Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonMatt Duchene
Andreas Martinsen
Carl SoderbergBlake Comeau
Alex Tanguay
—John Mitchell—Jarome Iginla
Cody McLeod
Mikhail GrigorenkoJack Skille

Francois BeaucheminErik Johnson
Nick Holden
Tyson Barrie
Nate Guenin
Zach Redmond

Semyon Varlamov
Reto Berra

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