NEW YORK -- The Edmonton Oilers arrived in New York for their lone game this season at Madison Square Garden with a little spring in their step. Winning four of the past five games will do that to a young team.
Hoping to finish strong as they close out a four-game road trip Thursday in New York and Friday against the New Jersey Devils before the Olympic break, the Oilers have shown improvement of late, and defenseman Justin Schultz has been a big part of that.
"He's been good. Justin has made some great strides this year," Oilers coach Dallas Eakins said after the morning skate. "He's a guy we're relying on heavily right now for minutes. We're able to play him those minutes because of his improved defensive play."
The 23-year-old's offensive skills also helped Edmonton string some wins together. The second-year player has three goals and an assist over that five-game run, including his first game-winner of the season Jan. 29 against the San Jose Sharks.
That offensive flair has sparked the Oilers, who have given Schultz more responsibility following a standout rookie season in which he scored 27 points in 48 games. But Eakins, who was a journeyman NHL defenseman during his playing days, is most concerned about developing Schultz's entire game.
"The one thing Justin Schultz wants to become is an elite defenseman. You pick any elite defenseman, the one thing they all do is defend really well. It's first and foremost," Eakins said. "That’s why you can play them large minutes. Justin understood after a couple of talks with me that if he wanted to be that kind of D-man and play those minutes he was going to have to defend first. He's moving steadily in that direction."
Schultz and the Oilers will look to continue in that direction against the Rangers, who have won four in a row by a combined score of 18-6. And when Schultz takes the ice Thursday for his first game at MSG, there will be a familiar face looking back at home.
As a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, Schultz suited up alongside Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who was a junior when Schultz arrived on campus. On a Badgers team that included future NHL defensemen Jake Gardiner and Brendan Smith, Schultz was an immediate standout.
"He came right in, took the power play over and really ran with it. It's the same thing he's doing here as a young player," McDonagh said. "It was pretty impressive to see a young kid come in when I was a junior in college and not only be able to skate with the tempo of that league and compete but make an impact offensively and defensively. He's continuing to do that with Edmonton."
New York will start Cam Talbot in goal for the first time in six games; Ben Scrivens starts for Edmonton. Eakins would not reveal what his lineup changes would be against the Rangers, but every indication is forward Jesse Joensuu will sit in favor of Ryan Jones, who was a healthy scratch Monday in a 3-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres.
Here are the projected lineups:
Taylor Hall - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Nail Yakupov
David Perron - Sam Gagner - Jordan Eberle
Matt Hendricks - Boyd Gordon - Ales Hemsky
Luke Gazdic - Ryan Smyth - Ryan Jones
Nick Schultz - Justin Schultz
Andrew Ference - Mark Fraser
Martin Marincin - Jeff Petry
Scratched: Jesse Joensuu, Corey Potter, Anton Belov
Injured: Philip Larsen (illness)
Chris Kreider - Derek Stepan - Rick Nash
Carl Hagelin - Brad Richards - Ryan Callahan
Benoit Pouliot - Derick Brassard - Mats Zuccarello
Daniel Carcillo - Brian Boyle - Dominic Moore
Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Marc Staal - Anton Stralman
John Moore - Kevin Klein
Scratched: Justin Falk
Injured: Derek Dorsett (broken fibula)