EDMONTON, AB - The Oilers host the Pittsburgh Penguins in what was supposed to be the first meeting between Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. With the Oilers rookie falling out of the lineup for the next “months” due to a broken left clavicle, that meeting has been postponed. But while the Oilers lose one highly skilled forward from their top six, another slides back in. Jordan Eberle returns from his shoulder injury that has kept him out since the pre-season.
“Obviously, with Connor, when you lose a player of his calibre it definitely hurts. But we’ve got a guy with pretty much the same calibre back,” said Oilers centre Leon Draisaitl. “Ebs I think is one of the best goal scorers or best players in this league and he’ll help for sure.”
There will be no easing Eberle back into the lineup as he draws in with Draisaitl and Taylor Hall.
“I think we’ll open the gate and let him figure it out,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. “He’ll tell us, based on his play, can he take more on? Should we pull him back a little bit? I talked to him yesterday and he’s actually a little nervous. For all the big games he’s played in, the big moments he’s had, I think that’s a good thing for him to come back and have sweaty palms and be ready to go.”
Hall is excited to get Eberle back in.
“It adds a whole new dimension to our top six,” said Hall. “With Connor being out, you can’t replace his skill set but Ebs goes a long way in doing that. He has a lot of skill in tight and he’s played a long time for this team. We know what he brings. Consistent guy that is going to be ready to play tonight and he’s excited.”
With McDavid out, Draisaitl shifts from the wing to centre, his natural position. This game tonight against Pittsburgh will be quite the test for the 20-year-old as he draws responsibilities against players like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“It’s definitely special,” said Draisaitl. “Those are two of the best centremen, or players, in the whole world. It’s definitely special playing against them. I think the worst thing to do as a young guy is be afraid or be in awe of them, or whatever it is. I think that’s the worst possible thing you can do. For me, no matter who I’m up against, I’m just going to try and stay confident, play my game and just keep playing the way I’ve been playing.”
Hall and Draisaitl have clicked these last three games. Hall told Draisaitl in his first game of the season to just go out there and play. His advice remains the same.
“Just go play. I think with Leon, he’s a guy that wants to slow the game down and think it,” said Hall. “The last few games, he’s had a lot of success just going out and playing and that’s the key for a lot of us. If we get caught up in match-ups and getting intimidated by those two guys and the other skilled players on their team, we’re going to lose. We’ve got to go after them.”
Things won’t get easier for Draisaitl as he navigates through his second NHL season. Tonight is just another night where he’ll be matched up against really good players.
“He’s gonna get used to it, basically,” said McLellan. “We go to Chicago, we go to Anaheim and you just keep going down the line. Every team has two big, fairly big, experienced, dominant centremen. That’s Leon. That description is Leon. It’s Leon at 20 versus Leon at 25. He’s going back to a position he’s accustomed to. He feels good in the middle, he’s played there all his life. We believe he can do it, but it’s not just about him doing it. It’s about his linemates getting it done, the D contributing and the rest of the team taking more on as well.”
NILSSON BACK IN & LINEUP NOTES
Anders Nilsson will play his fourth game of the season tonight as he gets the start in goal against the Penguins. As a goalie, the challenges when playing against a team like Pittsburgh are clear.
“If you look at their roster, they’ve got a lot of good players, skilled players, and they have a few of the best players in the whole league on their team,” said Nilsson. “It’s going to be a tough challenge for me and for the whole team. It’s a team game and I think everyone needs to be on their toes, play a good game, a hard game and make it tough on them.”
Forward combinations, based on morning skate, are as follows.
Season series: The Pittsburgh Penguins were 2-0-0 against the Edmonton Oilers last season. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made 22 saves in a 2-0 win at Rexall Place on Feb. 15. After blowing a 4-0 lead, Steve Downie and Patric Hornqvist scored 1:06 apart to give the Penguins a 6-4 victory March 15 at Consol Energy Center. Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby had four points (goal, three assists).
Penguins team scope: Pittsburgh was expecting to face Edmonton's Connor McDavid for the first time, but McDavid sustained a fractured left clavicle Tuesday. "I was looking forward to playing against him, honestly," center Eric Fehr told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after practice Thursday. "There's been a lot of hype the past couple years. He's one of the up-and-coming stars. It's always fun playing against those guys." Forward David Perron, who scored his first goal in 24 games Wednesday, has embraced his blue-collar role on a line with center Evgeni Malkin. "My job when I play with [Malkin and Phil Kessel] is to get in on the forecheck, work hard and get pucks back to them," Perron said. "That's what I did Wednesday. I have to keep doing that." Pittsburgh has won five straight and is 8-1-0 after starting the season with three losses. Fleury has won seven straight against the Oilers with a 2.15 goals-against average.
Oilers team scope: Edmonton will play its first game without McDavid, who is out indefinitely, but forward Jordan Eberle will make his season debut after being sidelined with a shoulder injury sustained in a preseason game Sept. 29. "I'm as ready as I'm going to be," said Eberle, who skated to the right of Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl at practice Thursday. Draisaitl was moved to his natural center position from right wing on a line with Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins that combined for 20 points in the past three games. "We have to look at the rest of the team and we can't rely on one line," coach Todd McLellan said. Nugent-Hopkins took McDavid's place at center between Benoit Pouliot and Nail Yakupov. "I've played with Pouliot a little bit last year and really enjoyed playing with him, and we had some success at the end of last year," Nugent-Hopkins said. "It was fun, so hopefully, the chemistry picks up from there."