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The Buffalo Sabres were able to salvage their three-game Western Canada road trip on Sunday night with a 3-2 overtime win over the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Pace in Edmonton, Alberta. With the win, the Sabres ended their trip by going 1-1-1 and earning three of a possible six points in the standings.

After getting out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, the Oilers came back to tie the game in the second period and eventually force overtime.

It took Buffalo just 1:13 into overtime for defenseman Colin Miller to score his first goal as a member of the Sabres to give the team a much-needed two points. Miller was able to finish off a nice passing play in front of the Oilers net with a snap shot that just got past goalie Mike Smith and into the back of the net.

It was Sabres forward Kyle Okposo who got things started in the first period with his third goal of the year and second goal in as many games. Sabres defenseman Marco Scandella fired a slap shot from the point off a turnover in the Edmonton zone that found its way to Okposo’s stick and in past Smith for the first goal of the game.

After the Sabres and Oilers traded a couple of penalties back and forth, the Sabres found the back of the net again shortly after getting to even strength. This time, it was Johan Larsson giving the Sabres a two-goal lead after a shot from Jimmy Vesey left him wide open in front of the net with the puck. Larsson slipped it between Smith’s legs to give him his third goal of the season.

The Sabres ended up outshooting the Oilers through the opening 20 minutes, 11-10, and took a 2-0 lead heading into the locker room.

The Oilers took over the second period and were able to battle their way back to tie the game.

Edmonton closed the gap to 2-1 at the 8:25 mark of the period when forward Riley Sheahan was sprung for a breakaway in on Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark after a turnover in the Oilers end. Sheahan turned to the backhand and slid the puck through the five-hole of Ullmark for his first goal of the season.

Later in the period, Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian took his second penalty of the period for a hook on on Oilers forward Jujhar Khaira. In the dying seconds of the power play chance, the Oilers were able to convert as forward Joakim Nygard was able to get a piece of a Darnell Nurse shot from the point to tie the game at 2-2.

Buffalo ended up getting outshot in the period 12-4, and were lucky to be tied at 2-2 heading into the third period.

The final 20 minutes saw its chances for both teams, but Ullmark came up big, making a huge save on Connor McDavid late in the period to keep the Sabres in it.

Both teams had six shots on goal in the third, while also earning a point in the standings by forcing overtime.

At the 1:13 mark of the overtime period, the Sabres got the game-winning goal from Miller after a nice passing play with forwards Marcus Johansson and Jack Eichel. The goal was Miller’s first career overtime goal.

With the secondary assist on the overtime goal, Eichel was able to extend his career-long point streak to 13 games. In that stretch, the Sabres captain has scored 10 goals and registered 13 assists for 23 points.

GAME SUMMARY

Goal Summary:

First Period:

BUF: 4:08 – Kyle Okposo (3) (Marco Scandella), 10:43 – Johan Larsson (3) (Jimmy Vesey, Rasmus Asplund)
EDM: NONE

Second Period:

BUF: NONE
EDM: 8:25 – Riley Sheahan (1) (Darnell Nurse, Joakim Nygard), 15:56 – Joakim Nygard (2) PPG (Darnell Nurse, Gaetan Haas)

Third Period:

BUF: NONE
EDM: NONE

Overtime:

BUF: 1:13 – Colin Miller (1) (Marcus Johansson, Jack Eichel)
EDM: NONE

Penalty Summary:

First Period:

BUF: 5:22 – Brandon Montour (Tripping – 2 min.)
EDM: 7:42 – Markus Granlund (High-sticking – 2 min.); 15:26 – Connor McDavid (Hooking – 2 min.)

Second Period:

BUF: 5:40 – Zach Bogosian (Holding the Stick – 2 min.); 13:57 – Zach Bogosian (Hooking – 2 min.)
EDM: 17:31 – Joel Persson (Hooking – 2 min.)

Third Period:

BUF: NONE
EDM: NONE

Overtime:

BUF: NONE
EDM: NONE

Shots on Goal:

BUF: 22 (11, 4, 6, 1)
EDM: 28 (10, 12, 6, 0)

Goalies:

BUF: Linus Ullmark – 26 saves
EDM: Mike Smith – 19 saves

Power Plays:

BUF: 0 for 3 (0%)
EDM: 1 for 3 (33.3%)

Three Stars:

Darnell Nurse
Linus Ullmark
Joakim Nygard

What’s Next:

The Sabres return home for a matchup with the top team in the Central Division, the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night at KeyBank Center. Faceoff is set for 7:30 p.m. with the Paul William Beltz Pregame Show starting at 6:30 p.m. with Schopp and the Bulldog at (716) Food and Sport. The game will be televised on NBCSN, so the only place to hear local coverage of the game is on WGR.

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This in, a great quote from Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett, answering questions at today’s press scrum from the Journal’s Jim Matheson about why Kris Russell missed part of Wednesday night’s game against Colorado and what his injury status is.

Said Tippett: “Russell just took a bad cut on his ear last night and was sore today. I think he’ll be available to play on Saturday. He’s a tough little guy. I don’t know if you’ve ever had your ear sewed up before but that’s one of the worst spots. His ears hurt bad, and I remember I felt for him seeing him lying on the table last night, they were sewing him up and half of his ear hanging off there. So we decided to give him the day off. He earned a day off today.”

My take
There’s faction of Edmonton fans who don’t think Kris Russell is a quality NHL defender, but another faction who appreciate what he brings, an absolute determination to thwart any and all Grade A chances for opposition attackers in the defensive slot, as well as a useful package of talents when it comes to preventing said chances.
Russell will twist, battle, dart, dive, block, hack, stab and sprawl to prevent an opposition slot shot. His dark defensive arts were all on display during one brief thrilling moment for the Oilers in their loss to the Avs, Edmonton’s successful five minutes penalty kill in the second period.
That PK was a masterpiece, with Russell, Ethan Bear and Oscar Klefbom playing the lead roles. In that heroic five minutes, Edmonton constantly disrupted the Avs attack, clearing the defensive zone 10 times, including four times on the five-on-three portion of the kill.
To name names for a moment, in the three minutes of the five-on-four portion of the kill, Klefbom had one clearance, Patrick Russell had one, Markus Granlund and Jujhar Khaira combined on one, Bear and Patrick Russell combined on one, Klefbom, Leon Draisaitl and Kris Russell combined on one, Kris Russell, and Josh Archibald and Klefbom combined on one.
In the five-on-three portion, Klefbom forced a zone exit, Bear had one d-zone clearance, Archibald skated the puck out of the d-zone once, Sheahan blocked a shot, and Russell and Klefbom combined on a d-zone clearance.
After the five minute penalty was up over, however, the Oilers struggled to get it out of their own zone. They looked utterly spent. The puck came into the slot and Russell dove to block it. Avs winger Vladislav Kamenev snapped a dangerous shot, with Russell blocking the follow though of Kamenev’s stick with the side of his head, injuring his ear.
That Russell got banged up was no surprise, as he’s constantly risking his health to block bodies and shots. But neither was his returning to the game a shocker. As Tippett put it: “He’s a tough little guy.”
Russell was a major point producer in major junior hockey, and he had some OK offensive years mid-NHL career in Calgary. But in Edmonton his speciality has been in the defensive slot. In his first three years with the OIlers he was routinely asked to play on the right side, his off-wing, which limited his ability to clear the zone and move the puck. This year the left shot player has been on his natural left wide. He’s still a cautious puck mover but he’s playing the same smart, courageous and effective defensive hockey, where his primary focus is limiting slot shots.
At the Cult of Hockey we track the major mistakes inside or outside the slot that directly lead to Grade A chances against the Oilers at even strength. In his time here, Russell has always made the least or second least number of such mistakes for d-men playing tough minutes. In 2016-17, only Andrej Sekera made fewer such mistakes on Grade A chances against. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, Russell made the fewest, and he’s again making the fewest rate of such mistake this year. This year he’s played somewhat fewer minutes in a Top 4 role, but when he has been on the ice, he’s been as stingy as ever. The man will never be confused with Cale Makar on the attack, but he can still flat out defend. He’s no all-star, but that kind of effort can help a team win, as did with the Oilers in 2016-17 and is now doing again.

Joakim Nygard Jersey

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Edmonton Oilers centre Riley Sheahan had been down this road before in Detroit where the games and the zeroes kept piling up like sign-posts on an interminable journey: 20 games, 40 games, 60 games, 80 games.

He scored in game 82, two goals actually in that final game of the 2016-2017 season.

So, breaking through in the Oilers 32nd game Sunday against Buffalo must have felt like a speed bump for the Oilers best penalty-killer. He tucked one through the legs of Linus Ullmark eight minutes into the second period racing in alone off a nice Joakim Nygard feed.

Nygard also scored on a deflection—more on that later—as the Oiler role players were all over the scoresheet in this 3-2 OT loss while the No. 1 lines on both sides were negated through 60 minutes.

“Huge relief for sure…it’s up and down and every guy deals with it,” said Sheahan, who had two terrific chances earlier on the penalty-kill and finished with four shots, just like Connor McDavid.

McDavid didn’t speak after the loss but Sheahan had a rare chance to talk about offence.

“I dealt with a few years back in Detroit and that was really tough and I was trying to bear down and make sure it wasn’t a repeat,” he said.

Sheahan was at fault on Kyle Okposo’s tip of Marc Scandella’s shot four minutes into the game when his clearing pass ending up on the Buffalo defenceman’s stick. But he ripped a shortie off Ullmark’s blocker and got stopped in close shortly after that. No mistake in alone though.

The Oilers have the NHL’s second-best PK but haven’t scored shorthanded yet. Sheahan came close as they let him sashay into the Buffalo end in the first for an uncontested shot. A rare offensive foray for Sheahan, really. “We’ve got so many guys who can put the puck in the net on our power play and on the penalty-kill we’re just trying to do our job (stopping chances),” he said.

He got stopped there but not on his breakaway.

“I kind of had positive thoughts there. I don’t get breakaways often but I knew the move I was going to do. Great pass from Ny (Nygard) and an earlier block by Darnell,” he said.

“It’s important, the whole depth thing…every team wants that,” said Sheahan. “I think we have scored a few the last while, and Connor and Leon get a lot of ice and if we can help them out, that’s huge.”

Two-point night for Nygard
Nygard only played 8:27, but they were quality minutes. Only Gaetan Haas (7:58), who set up the Nygard deflection on the last few seconds of a power play in the second, played less. Nygard’s goal and assist came in eight shifts over 5:11 in the first 40 minutes. His first multi-point game.

“I haven’t been satisfied with my performance for a few games since I came back from my injury (ribs),” said Nygard, who was a healthy scratch in three. “I feel much better now.”

He isn’t getting much ice-time (averaging 10:18) but that’s life for first-year NHLers.

“Of course it’s harder to produce but you have to earn it (minuets),” said Nygard.

“They (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) produce every night and we have to produce a bit too.” But when the Oilers best two players don’t get a point in the same game, the Oilers have lost 24 consecutive games, a stat that stings.

Nygard’s Swedish teammate Oscar Klefbom knows how hard it is for NHL rookies.

“Back home he’s on the power play, he has a different role on his team…but the way he played tonight, I’m really happy. He brings a lot of speed. Even though he won’t get a lot of chances himself, he’ll create a lot for his teammates,’ said Klefbom.

“And if he continues to go to the net, he’ll score more goals.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse is off to a strong start to his season. He’s on pace to approach 40 points for the second straight season while sitting second on the team in ice time per game at a little under 23 minutes per night. Suffice it to say, he’s certainly positioning himself well to land a long-term deal at a considerable raise from his current $3.2M AAV this summer when he’ll be a restricted free agent with salary-arbitration eligibility.

With that in mind, Postmedia’s David Staples argues that Edmonton GM Ken Holland should be looking to get a deal done now over waiting until the offseason where the price tag could potentially jump higher. There is a sizable list of potential comparable players and they all point to an AAV around the $6M mark, depending on the term of the deal. The Oilers already have over $57.5M committed to just 10 players for next season already but given how important Nurse is to their back end, Holland should have no qualms about adding another big ticket contract to their books.

Elsewhere out West:

Blackhawks blueliner Duncan Keith will miss Saturday’s game against Colorado due to a groin injury, head coach Jeremy Colliton told reporters, including Charlie Roumeliotis of NBC Sports Chicago. He has been skipping practices lately for maintenance purposes but it appears the team will give him at least one game off to see if that helps. To replace him on the roster, the team announced (via Twitter) the recall of blueliner Ian McCoshen from AHL Rockford while winger Matthew Highmore has been sent back to the IceHogs.
Jets defenseman Dmitry Kulikov sustained an upper-body injury early in today’s game against Anaheim, the team announced (Twitter link). There is no timetable yet for how long he might miss. In the short term, expect Carl Dahlstrom, a waiver claim from Chicago before the season started, to draw back into the lineup.

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Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins celebrates after scoring against the Anaheim Ducks during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Anaheim, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson). AP Photo/Chris Carlson
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Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zack Kassian are both expected to return to action Sunday night when the Edmonton Oilers host the Buffalo Sabres.

“I feel really good,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who has missed six games after a hand issue. “It’s been a bit of a process. Felt good yesterday, even better today.”

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“It’s only been three games, but it seems way longer than that,” said Kassian, who has been hampered by a sore back.

READ MORE: Mikko Koskinen backstops Edmonton Oilers to win over Kings

With Nugent-Hopkins returning, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid will be reunited on the Oilers top line. Nugent-Hopkins will slide back into his second line centre slot.

“I just gives our team so much more depth,” said Draisaitl. “He plays in all situations. He’s very good in all situations.”

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“Nuge is significant because we need that depth at centre,” said head coach Dave Tippett. “He’s a guy who just plays in all the situations and is smart in all the situations.

“He makes other players around him better.”

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READ MORE: Senators win over Oilers again in Edmonton

The Oilers went 3-3 without Nugent-Hopkins in the lineup. On Friday, they beat Los Angeles 2-1 despite being outshot 36-20.

“You look at the guts of the game. L.A. is a volume shooting team. A big percentage of those shots I wouldn’t even call scoring chances,” said Tippett. “When I watched the game here today, it wasn’t a concern of mine.”

Oscar Klefbom and James Neal didn’t practice Sunday but are expected to play against the Sabres. Mike Smith is the probable starter in goal.

The Oilers and Sabres will be on 630 CHED with the Face-off Show at 4:30 p.m. The game starts at 6 p.m.

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When you look at the numbers over the last ten games, it’s not fair, by any means, to suggest the Edmonton Oilers struggles can be blamed on any one person. At the same time, it’s hard not to look at the recent stretch of games and wonder where the offense has gone from a player like James Neal?

Neal started the 2019-20 season like a house-on-fire and skyrocketed up the NHL standings, leading the league in goals. He’s still second in the league with 10 power play markers but if you look at his recent production, it’s worrying.

Neal’s got three points in the month of December. Worse yet, this comes on the heels of a month of November where he scored four points in 14 games. Have fans been watching two different players?

What’s Happened to Neal?
There are a few explanations as to what might be going on here. First, what’s happening to Neal is happening, in a manner of speaking, to almost every Oilers forward.

James Neal Edmonton Oilers
James Neal, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)
A poor goals-for versus goals-against ratio has hit the team and Neal has been arguably hit the hardest by a drop in scoring. Some of that comes with a lack of Edmonton’s top-six to shoot the puck, some of it comes with more time spent in the defensive zone and some of it comes with teams prepping for an Oilers roster that wasn’t supposed to be as good as they realized it might be after the season began.

The Oilers put some early points in the bank to start the season. They’ve settled in to what they might actually be as an organization since.

Second, Neal himself has come back down to Earth in terms of certain statistics like shooting percentage. In November, he posted a monstrous 26.2% shooting percentage but that number was cut by more than half to only 11.5% in November. So far, in December, his numbers have jumped back up a bit to 18% but he’s probably somewhere closer to the 11 than he is to the 26.

Finally, the Oilers have also used him less.

Going from over 243 minutes in October to a month of November where the Oilers dropped him to 216 minutes in the same number of games, Edmonton chose to use others where he might have been a shoe-in before. Call it the Oilers trying to balance out the lines or trying to boost certain players like Alex Chiasson, Neal has seen the consequences of those decisions.

Related: Line of the Times: The Legion of Doom

Should the Oilers Be Worried?
When you look down Highway 2 towards the Calgary area, fans are starting to see a player in Milan Lucic go on a hot streak. Lucic was the piece Edmonton moved to acquire Neal and while Lucic spent the first 20 games of this NHL season doing not much more than getting himself in trouble, the Flames and Lucic have turned things around. The natural tendency of fans might be to panic a little.

James Neal Edmonton Oilers Jonathan Quick Los Angeles Kings
James Neal of the Edmonton Oilers screens goaltender Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Alas, this is not to suggest the Oilers made a poor decision. No one should be second-guessing this trade. Neal is the more prolific of the two scorers, he’s already seeing a slight rebound in December and the Oilers will start to go to the well more often, deploying what they know in terms of line combinations. Coach Dave Tippett needs to rely on his trusted players to try and improve on-ice results. Neal will see more ice time as a result.

Related: Oilers History: The Importance of Jimmy Carson

He’s Still the Real Deal
Neal has already destroyed the abysmal season he had last year in Calgary. He’s on his way to his regular Neal-like numbers with plenty of season left to go.

He may not be the player that lit up the NHL in October, but he’s certainly a 20-goal man on a team that could really use a 20-goal top-six forward right about now. He’s the real deal, even if his last few games haven’t suggested as much.

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This in from the Edmonton Oilers’ practice, news that Zack Kassian and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are both on the ice and practicing with their regular lines. Jack Michaels of the Oilers reported this:

Draisaitl-McDavid-Kassian

Khaira-RNH-Gagner

Nygard-Haas-Chiasson

Granlund-Sheahan-Archibald

Jack Michaels

@EdmontonJack
Practice lines—

Draisaitl-McDavid-Kassian
Khaira-RNH-Gagner
Nygard-Haas-Chiasson
Granlund-Sheahan-Archibald

562
3:13 AM – Dec 8, 2019
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My take
These are indeed glad tidings for the Oilers. This year Edmonton has four classes of forwards, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in a class of their own as arguably the NHL’s two best players, then Zack Kassian and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins being solid top line attackers, then James Neal being a brilliant power play guy but so-so even strength player, then everybody else, all of them looking OK on defence at even strength and especially on the penalty kill, but generally not providing much on the attack. So to have Kassian and RNH back is huge for this particular team.
At even strength, the team struggles to score, but that is especially the case when the top line of McDavid, Draisaitl and Kassian aren’t united. McDavid and Draisaitl have developed such immense on-ice chemistry that even someone like me — who has long advocated that they play on their own lines — has to admit that having them together is the right strategy for right now.
For his part, Kassian has been the perfect complementary player this year for McDavid and Draisaitl. He’s both a nasty police officer, who can go bad cop in a second if things turn ugly on the ice, and a skilled player, who has the strength and skill to cycle the puck well with Draisaitl.
RNH came into the year craving some chemistry of his own with a linemate or two. He’s yet to find that, though things have gone OK with James Neal and him. Neal is now out of this line-up, so perhaps he’s a bit banged up. If we hear more, we’ll update.
Sam Gagner and Jujhar Khaira were solid against the Kings with Draisaitl, mainly because Draisaitl and Khaira were so effective on a heavy, heavy forecheck. Gagner and RNH are both smart and skilled players. Perhaps they can make a few plays, while Khaira keeps up and adds an element of physical force and protection.
Oscar Klefbom was also not on the ice for practice, with Reid Wilkins of CHED speculating that both he and Neal were getting maintenance days.
Shocking stat of the day
P.S. After 31 games last year, the Oilers had 17 wins and 14 losses for 36 points, 87 goals for, 91 goals against. This year, Edmonton has 18 wins and 13 losses, 39 points, 93 goals for, 89 goals against. What went so wrong last year? Kris Russell and Oscar Klefbom got knocked out with major injuries and the Oilers lacked defensive depth.

At the Cult
STAPLES: Player grades: Koskinen leads way in victory over Kings

McCURDY: Time for Oilers to take charge on home ice

McCURDY: Game 21-30 review — Oilers treading water at best

LEAVINS: Player grades from head-scratching loss to Senators

STAPLES: Oilers likely to be outbid on Taylor Hall, Friedman says

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Sam Gagner has been working hard to try and reestablish solid footing in the NHL during his second stint with the Edmonton Oilers.

The former sixth overall pick was back in the lineup Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks, playing his third consecutive contest after three straight games in the press box as a healthy scratch.

Gagner, 30, started the contest centring the Oilers second line between Alex Chiasson and James Neal in place of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who missed his third straight game with a hand injury.

“Sam’s a smart guy, he understands the game and understands what his capabilities are,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “I’ve had some good conversations with him way back to when I had him in Arizona. He’s a utility player, he’s smart enough to play in a lot of situations and that’s what you’re going to see; he’s going to go up and down the lineup.”

Acquired from the Vancouver Canucks last season, who had loaned him to the Toronto Marlies after a demotion to the AHL, Gagner was expected to begin the season on the Oilers roster out of training camp.

Yet, he was sent to the Bakersfield Condors to start the year where he had four points in four games before being recalled three weeks into the season. Going in against the Canucks, Gagner had a goal and four points in 11 games with the Oilers.

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It’s time for the hockey world to recognize Leon Draisaitl as one of the NHL’s elite stars. Hidden behind the glow of teammate Connor McDavid, Draisaitl has quietly emerged as one of the league’s best over the past two seasons. He has rolled an incredible 2018-19 into a start in 2019-20 that’s poised to set some huge numbers.

Draisaitl has 41 points through 21 games this season. Let that fact sink in for a moment. His league-leading 41 points checks in at a jaw-dropping 1.95 points-per-game pace. Using some fancy math, we can forecast that he is on pace to tally nearly 160 points should his torrid scoring rate continue. Even factoring in an extended scoring slump or reduced pace, Draisaitl looks like a lock for another 100+ point season.

Are you surprised to see Draisaitl leading the league in points? You shouldn’t be, but that’s a familiar reaction considering how under the radar he flew last season despite scoring 50 goals. How crazy is it that he wasn’t named to the first or second all-star lineup at the end of last season after posting 50 goals and 55 assists? It’s been easy to overlook Draisaitl’s accomplishments when fellow teammate McDavid is routinely making headlines.

Via the National Post, Oilers forward Zack Kassian may have summed things up the best when discussing McDavid and Draisaitl.

“They’re wired differently. They’re the elite of the elite. Edmonton is spoiled to get to watch these two guys every night.”

The Oilers have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to their offensive talent. Most teams would be thrilled to have one player in the category of McDavid or Draisaitl, let alone both who can make opponents look silly on a nightly basis. Try to shut down one player and the other will burn you.

With Draisaitl and McDavid sitting atop the league in points scored, are the two worried about a scoring race? Hardly. The two both maintain a humble attitude that makes their achievements look like another day at the office. To say the two are grounded would be an understatement.

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It’s time for Draisaitl to receive the same level of praise as McDavid. At 24, Draisaitl already has a 50-goal season to his name and appears to be well on his way to back-to-back 100+ point seasons. That’s an incredible accomplishment that shouldn’t be swept under the rug because his teammate is just as talented.

These types of columns almost always end with a “Can this continue?” type of question. It’s a fair question when you see a player putting up points seemingly at will and taking the league by storm. With Draisaitl, his approach to the game makes answering that question a bit more difficult. Where other players have a fairly similar style each game, Draisaitl appears to have a way of adapting to the situation better than most. He can play physical or he can play with finesse. He can play a quick style or grind and wear opponents down. That ability to pick apart opponents has fueled his rapid scoring pace.

You can make a strong argument that Draisaitl is a top-5 or top-10 player in the NHL. It’s time for fans and the hockey media to start recognizing him as such.

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In the tight Western Conference games against most west opponents seems more important than ever. The Oilers sit in first place in the Pacific Division, but they are only six points ahead of ninth place Vancouver, who have two games in hand. Minnesota is seven points back, also with two games in hand, and with the cross over potential for the wildcard spot available games against Central Division teams pushing for a playoff spot are equally important.

Edmonton is 2-4-1 in their last seven games, and tonight they will once again look to avoid a three-game winless streak for the first time this season. They’ve been on the ropes a few times this season, but have always found a way to punch their way back into the fight and avoid taking on more punishment. Can they do it again tonight?

1. The Wild had points in 11 consecutive games (8-0-3) from November 14th to December 5th, before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes on December 7th. Starting goalie Devan Dubnyk was in net for the games on November 14th and 16th, but he hasn’t played since. He went home after their game on the 16th and found his wife, Jennifer, ill. He rushed her to the hospital and has been focused on her health ever since.

2. He returned to practice on November 28th and shared a bit of what happened to Jennifer. “I don’t know how much I want to say, details-wise,” he said. “It’s just something that I need to be here for, and I need to be with her and the kids. There were some days in the hospital over the last week that were tough. It’s still pretty foggy as far as what’s going to happen going forward.” Dubnyk joined the Wild late in the morning skate today, but he won’t dress tonight.

3. I applaud the Wild’s handling of this situation. They put family first, as they should, over hockey. Dubnyk is very popular among his teammates, and with the Wild being the oldest team in the NHL, many of their players are married with kids. This situation hits home for many of them, and I’m not surprised the Wild went on a winning streak afterwards. You realize pretty quickly that hockey is just a game. Of course they want to win, but the angst and frustration they get from losing pales in comparison to how you feel when a loved one becomes sick. It puts things in perspective.

4. Minnesota is 7-1-3 without their starting goalie. Alex Stalock is 5-1-2 with a .909sv% and 3.00 GAA in Dubnyk’s absence, while rookie Kaapo Kahkonen is 2-0-1 with a .946sv% and 2.00 GAA. The WIld have allowed 34.2 shots/game over the past eleven. They haven’t played stellar defensively, but their offence has picked up, scoring 3.36 goals/game. They averaged 2.65 in 20 games prior to Jennifer being rushed to the hospital.

5. The Oilers need to create some powerplays tonight. The Wild have allowed a powerplay goal in five consecutive games, and in nine of their previous 10. Their PK is an ugly 64.3% in that 10-game span. The Oilers’ PP success rate is virtually identical at home or on the road. They are 31.5% at home (17 of 54) and 31.8% on the road (14 goals on 44 chances). The major difference is they’re only averaging 2.58 PP/game on the road compared to 3.38/game at home.

6. Their PK is a league-best 90.8% on the road killing off 49 of 54 penalties. The Wild home PP is 27.8% (sixth best), so special teams could be a major factor like they were Tuesday against the Hurricanes. The Oilers PK has been great all season, but after allowing three goals to the Hurricanes, and allowing too many seam passes, Dave Tippett will want them to fix that right away.

7. Mikko Koivu played his 1,000th on December 1st, all as a member of the Wild, but then he got injured two nights later against the Florida Panthers. The Wild had a pre-game ceremony recognizing his great accomplishment Tuesday against the Ducks. Koivu didn’t play, but he did get dressed in his hockey gear for the ceremony. The Wild surprised him by bringing in many of his former teammates, including injured Oilers forward Kyle Brodziak. Mike Russo had a great story on what the Wild planned for Koivu.

8. The Oilers have sprung a leak defensively allowing 26 goals during their 2-4-1 slide. They need to tighten up defensively, and their top gunners need to produce a bit more at 5-on-5. The Oilers have scored 15 goals in the past seven games, but only eight at 5×5. Zack Kassian has three goals, in only four games, while Jujhar Khaira has two, and Riley Sheahan, Josh Archibald and Connor McDavid have one.

9. Leon Draisaitl, James Neal, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins need to finish more. Draisaitl still leads the NHL in 5×5 points with 30, but he only has one point at 5×5 in his last seven games, and he’s been getting scored on too much. He can play better, and I fully expect he will soon. RNH and Neal haven’t done nearly enough at 5×5 all season, and if the new Draisaitl-RNH combination can produce some points the Oilers’ skid will likely stop.

10. The San Jose Sharks fired head coach Pete Deboer last night. They are the fifth team to change coaches in the past 21 days, and second in the Pacific Division. The Leafs are 6-3 under Sheldon Keefe, the Calgary Flames are 6-0 with Geoff Ward, the New Jersey Devils are 0-3-1 and the Dallas Stars are 1-0 under Rick Bowness. The Sharks sit sixth in the Pacific with 32 points and are looking for a spark. If it works then the Pacific will only become more competitive and the need for the Oilers to stop their skid becomes even more important.

11. The response to my article yesterday was outstanding. I couldn’t reply to all of your comments, but many of you made great points. A member of the Oilers business team reached out to me and said the comments were read and noted. We’ll see what comes of it, but good on your for replying with well thought out and honest comments.