EDMONTON, AB - The Dallas Stars bring their high-powered offence to Rexall Place tonight to duel with the Edmonton Oilers, who are coming off a confidence-building win over the Boston Bruins.
“It will be a big challenge for us for sure,” said Oilers centre Leon Draisaitl. “I think we have been playing pretty good defensive hockey lately, but this is going to be a huge challenge for us, obviously. They have two of the best scorers in the league and all the other guys around them are really good too so it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
The Stars are the league’s best at scoring with an average of 3.50 goals per game.
“They do have firepower. They can skate. Their skill has some size, they get a lot from the backend and they’re obviously extremely confident when it comes to offence,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. “I was looking at some of their scores and they’ve only played five games all year where they’ve scored two or fewer goals. They’re almost counting on scoring in that 3-4 range. You don’t stop Dallas, you try to limit them. We’ll need to be puck sound, positionally sound, we’ll need to play a very smart game to have a chance at success. With that said, maybe we can create some situations where they make mistakes offensively and we can take advantage of them.”
For the Oilers forwards, it’s not about keeping up with the Stars offensively. Getting into a track meet could end in disaster. The Oilers fell to the Stars 4-2 in their first meeting of the season on October 13.
“We were overwhelmed in Dallas earlier in the year with their speed and their transition,” said McLellan. “Yes, near the end of the game, we looked up and there was still two on the board. That night we got into a track meet with them and it certainly didn’t favour us. To think we’re going to open things up and try and shoot for four or five, I don’t think is a game plan that’s going to get it done for any team in the league. You’re going to have to defend well, check well and take advantage of any opportunities that you get.”
As for the lineup for the Oilers, Brandon Davidson is questionable and more likely to play on Sunday per McLellan. The forward group looks to go unchanged from the team’s win over Boston.
Anders Nilsson is no longer the relatively unknown newcomer on the Oilers roster. The goaltender has been swarmed by media the last week or so, considering how much he is starting and how well he is performing. Nilsson will start tonight for the 12th time in 15 games.
His first start of the season came against these very Dallas Stars, and he made 48 saves in the loss. It wasn’t a bad way to start off his season but since then, Nilsson has grown has a player.
“I think I’ve developed my game in a few areas,” he said. “I’ve kind of adapted a little more to the North American style of hockey. I’ve gotten a little more comfortable out there. I’ve played a few more games so I definitely feel a little more comfortable out there than I did back then.”
Confidence is perhaps the biggest thing that’s changed since that October evening in Dallas. With more starts and more success, it continues to show.
“High confidence level, big, challenging,” said McLellan. “The team feels good about him. Played against this team last time we were in that building and was exceptional. You might review the goals and say, ‘well, they scored from the corner.’ Yeah, they got one by him like that, but the other 47 saves he made… he was very sharp. I think our group feels very good about him now, as he does himself.”
The Oilers were outshot 52-28 in their first meeting with the Stars. Nilsson says he doesn’t know if his workload will be as high, but Dallas is a huge test.
“You never know. They’re a very good team,” said Nilsson. “They’re one of the best teams in the NHL right now so it’s going to be a big test for us and the whole team. We really need to give our best effort tonight to beat them.”
Jujhar Khaira is three games into his NHL career. The hulking forward continues to try and make an impression on the coaching staff, and the Oilers see improvement in his game since taking him 63rd overall in 2012.
“I knew from exhibition, from training camp, that he had a good awareness of how to use his size,” said McLellan. “It was whether he could use that size at a pace that was going to be effective and he’s showed that he can. I think there is more in his game as we move forward. He’s just still trying to get his feet wet. He’s excited about being here. Positionally, he’s been in the right spot many times and when the puck is around him, he’s bigger, he’s stronger. I recall a moment in Pittsburgh where I don’t think he was looking to finish a check, but somebody bounced off him. It’s nice to have that heaviness.”
Khaira has gotten his chance in Edmonton give the injuries to the Oilers forward group. He’ll continue to stay as long as injuries are an issue, but whether he stays after that is up to him.
“We have really good staff in the AHL,” said McLellan. “They’re very good at what they do, we believe in them as well, and they take our ideas and our approach and apply them down there. If our group here in Edmonton can reward JJ with seven minutes a night and their staff down there can reward him with 18 minutes a night, we have to weigh what’s best for the individual. The team always comes first, but what’s best for the individual? Right now, he’s earned the right to stay here. Right now, we’re beat up like crazy with forwards. I hope that he pushes so hard that we don’t consider sending him back, but we have some time right now to make those decisions because of injuries.”
-- Chris Wescott, edmontonoilers.com
STARS (20-5-1) at OILERS (9-15-2)
TV: FS-SW+, SNW
Season series: The Dallas Stars defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 on Oct. 13 at American Airlines Center. Jason Spezza had a hat trick, and Dallas outshot Edmonton 52-28. Oilers goalie Anders Nilsson made 48 saves.
Stars team scope: Dallas, which is tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the NHL lead in goals (91), appears to have found another offensive option with Valeri Nichushkin moved up to play with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Nichushkin had a goal and an assist in his first game on the top line, a 4-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday. Patrick Sharp, who was dropped from the top line, scored the game-winning goal on a pretty solo rush of his own. Goalie Kari Lehtonen said the Stars' League-leading offense allows them to be better on defense. "We have so many great forwards, one of them is going to have a great night every night, so they can now think more about defense," he said. Antti Niemi is expected to start after Lehtonen returned from a neck injury to play against the Canucks. Ruff could also re-insert defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka in the second half of back-to-back games for either Jamie Oleksiak or Patrik Nemeth.
Oilers team scope: Edmonton is coming off a 3-2 shootout win against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, its second victory in three games. "We've got to find a way to put another good effort in and win another hockey game," forward Jordan Eberle told the Oilers website after practice Thursday. "It can't just be a one-in-every-three-game thing. We have to find a way to consistently play well and play together." Edmonton likely will be without forward Benoit Pouliot for a second straight game because of a lower-body injury that kept him out of practice. Forward Rob Klinkhammer, out since Oct. 27, skated Thursday but won't play, and forwards Nail Yakupov (ankle) and Connor McDavid (collarbone) remain out. Nilsson is expected to start for the 12th time in the past 15 games.