Tonight the Oilers host another of the NHL’s elite, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sidney Crosby and company come to town sporting a 17-3-0 record in their last 20 games and hope to continue that stretch of success against Edmonton. However, the Oilers feel that they matchup better with the Penguins than against teams like Los Angeles or San Jose.
“I think Pittsburgh just plays a faster, more skilled approach,” said Oilers Head Coach Dallas Eakins. “The way those other teams play, they play such a simple, straight lined, chip and chase game. It’s almost impossible some nights to get something going in their zone. Their (defence) are big, their forwards are big, they lean on you and your cycle or your offensive zone game are done. Then we run into the other thing in our zone, where they’re big and they’re heavy and they’re hard to get them off the puck. The one thing that is slightly encouraging I think, is size-wise we matchup well. I think we have not the same skill set, but a similar one and we’re maybe a little bit more suited to play teams like this and the Tampa Bays of the world.”
Jordan Eberle said, “They’re definitely built a little bit different than say, the LA Kings or the Phoenix Coyotes or whoever. They have a lot of skill. They play a much similar game to the one we play, as far as aggressiveness, and they prey on turnovers… You’ve got to be careful with what you’re doing with the puck, managing it and not giving it away. That being said too, they’ve got a great power play. Obviously with all that skill, you have to be aware of staying out of the box and be disciplined.”
Tonight figures to be a fast paced and aggressive game with a lot more skill than bash.
“They play, kind of, the same way as us,” said Oilers defenceman Justin Schultz. “They’re a fast team, so it should be a fast paced game out there and we’ll see how we matchup. It’s going to be a fun one out there.”
The overall sentiment in the Oilers dressing room was one of excitement to measure up against one of the best players in the world. When facing a player like Sidney Crosby, the Oilers will look to take the game right too him and not get caught up in just watching as he will most certainly capitalize on hesitation.
“He’s a great player but, on the ice, you’ve got to play him hard,” said Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “You can’t give him too much and you can’t sit back and watch him or else he’ll take advantage of that. Like I said, you’ve just got to play him as hard as possible.”
The role of Crosby patrol will rest, at least at the start of the game, on the shoulders of the Oilers top line of Taylor Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner, who will play on the wing tonight.
“That’ll be the plan early, to play that line against Mr. Crosby and company,” said Eakins. “That’s my job, to monitor it and see how it goes. I think it should be a good matchup. The lines have got some speed and some skill. Obviously, we’re going to have to be very responsible with our puck management. Pittsburgh transitions the puck probably as good as anyone in the league. We certainly don’t want to be all going one way, turn the puck over and be caught in an odd-man rush the other way. That is the plan here early and I’ll monitor it and see how it goes.”
Nugent-Hopkins says he understands the challenge in front of him.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” the centre said. “He’s an unbelievable player so we have to take care and we have to know where he is all the time on the ice. You can’t just sit back and watch him. You’ve got to go on him and play him hard or he’s going to take advantage of that.”
“If I do get the chance to play against him, I’ll make sure I’m not watching and just got to play him.”
With players like Jordan Eberle, there’s no longer an ‘awe’ of his opponents however, and it has been replaced with competitiveness.
“You definitely, when you’re out there against him, you compete a little harder,” said Eberle. “When you play against the best, and he’s obviously one of the best players in the NHL, when you’re out there against him you don’t want to get beat by him. I remember my first couple of years you get into the league, there is definitely a ‘wow factor’. You’re against these guys that you grew up watching and you’re competing against them. As the years go on, I think as the more competitiveness in yourself comes in, you want to beat guys like that. This team is kind of built similar to we are, but they’ve found a way to win and found a team identity and we’re kind of still searching for that. You watch a team like this and try to translate your game towards them.”
The Oilers and Penguins both went through some tough times and began rebuilds. While the Oilers are still trying to find their winning ways, the Penguins have shifted to NHL elite. Still, there are some comparisons to the overall thought process in each organizations’ rebuild. Both attempted to build their teams through the draft.
“I think, for sure, they’ve built through the draft,” said Eberle. “You look at (Marc-Andre) Fleury, (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin and obviously, getting (James) Neal in a trade, they’ve built through the draft. That’s something that we’ve tried to do, obviously with Taylor (Hall), (Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. There transition has been a little bit quicker… In the third year, they were in the cup. Here we are in our fourth, still kind of in the bottom end of the (league). They play a similar game as us. A lot of skill, much like we do, but they found a way to win games and play with a great identity. We’re searching for that still and, it’ll come. I have confidence in it but obviously frustrating when it hasn’t come as soon as they have.”
“Pittsburgh is a good example of kind of what we’re going through right now,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “We want to make the next step really soon. There’s a few teams… Chicago kind of went through the same thing. They start young and they kind of grow as a team together and then they’re always a good team, they’re always in the playoff picture and that’s what we want to be.”
EDMONTON, AB - Check back shortly after the morning skate for a full report.
-- Chris Wescott, edmontonoilers.com
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
PENGUINS (32-12-1) at OILERS (14-27-5)
TV: ROOT, TSN
Last 10: Pittsburgh 8-2-0; Edmonton 3-5-2
Season series: This is the second and final game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers. Pittsburgh beat Edmonton 3-2 on Oct. 15 at Consol Energy Center, with Sidney Crosby assisting on all three Penguins' goals. Pittsburgh dropped its last game in Edmonton 2-1 on Oct. 9, 2011, as Ales Hemsky scored in the second round of the shootout to give the Oilers the win.
Big story: These teams enter this game heading in very different directions. Despite a slew of injuries, the Penguins have won 12 of their past 14 games. The Oilers have managed to avoid injuries to any of their top players but have lost 11 of their past 14.
Penguins:Pascal Dupuis' recent knee injury notwithstanding, Pittsburgh appears to be getting healthy. In the past two weeks, the Penguins have seen the return of center Evgeni Malkin and defensemen Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik from injuries. Having those players back has done wonders for Pittsburgh's offense, which has scored 15 goals in the past three games. The defense is another story.
After allowing five goals in a 6-5 home win against the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday, Pittsburgh came into Rogers Arena on Tuesday night and had trouble stopping the Vancouver Canucks. The Penguins jumped to a 2-0 lead before allowing four unanswered goals. But Letang and Sidney Crosby scored in the final 71 seconds of regulation before Crosby scored the lone goal in the shootout to give the Penguins a 5-4 win.
"They did it to us, so it was nice we did it back," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. "When your team does something like that, you just want to help out, and I got my chance in the shootout."
Backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff was the first player out for practice Thursday, which could mean he'll start against the Oilers.
Oilers: Three wins in four games at the end of December gave a glimmer of hope to Edmonton. But the Oilers have gone 1-3-2 since then, including a 5-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday.
Coach Dallas Eakins did some experimenting at practice on Thursday, moving center Sam Gagner to the wing on a line with Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Eakins told the media after practice that the move is intended to "jumpstart" Gagner, who has 17 points in 33 games. Gagner said he already feels like it’s working.
“I feel jumpstarted. I feel like I’m playing well," he said. "I just want to keep going. I think when you’re playing with Nuge and Hallsy, they’re great players and I’m just excited to get a chance to play with them so I could have a good night tomorrow.”
Defenseman Brad Hunt was assigned to Oklahoma City of the American Hockey League on Thursday, potentially opening the door for Corey Potter to return from injury.
Who's hot: Crosby has 11 points during a six-game point streak. Malkin has four points in two games since returning from injury. … Edmonton's Nail Yakupov has three goals in his past four games and Gagner has three assists in his past two games.