WINNIPEG -- This is the type of assignment that can make opponents cringe -- and can often lead to being on the wrong side of a highlight-reel moment.
But judging by the smile that occupied the face of Pierre-Luc Dubois as he sat at the podium after a 5-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, you got the feeling the Winnipeg Jets centre not only embraced the challenge of going head-to-head against Connor McDavid, he relished it.
Dubois scored his ninth goal of the season on Tuesday night and his inspired play in all three zones -- often while matched up against the most dynamic player in the NHL -- was one of the keys to the Jets closing out this seven-game homestand with a record of 5-1-1, which allowed them to jump into top spot of the Central Division at 9-3-3.
It wasn’t just Dubois shadowing McDavid and the challenge got tougher when Dave Tippett decided to bump Leon Draisaitl up to the top line after the Oilers fell behind 4-0.
But along with linemates Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler and often the defence pairing of Nate Schmidt and Josh Morrissey (with a little Neal Pionk and Brenden Dillon sprinkled in), the Jets held the Oilers completely off the board at even strength and frustrated them at almost every turn.
“I went against him when I was in Columbus a lot. I mean, not a lot, we played twice a year, but I went against him before,” said Dubois, who is up to 15 points in 15 games this season. “Last year in the playoffs, we didn’t play against him but, I mean, everybody knows who he is. There’s no hiding what he wants to do out there. There’s no hiding his tendencies.
“So you know it’s going to be a big challenge but the hard part is it’s 60 minutes, he never stops skating out there. He’s always moving, you always have to have your head up for him, even when you’re in the offensive zone. It’s a good challenge, but when you get a big win like that, it feels even better.”
The evidence presented in the game suggests that the more responsibility that Dubois is given, the better he plays.
He was physically engaged, generating scoring chances for himself (including five shots on goal and nine shot-attempts) while continuing to connect with Connor, whose empty-net goal gave him a team-leading 12 on the season.
“Every game is different. Every game you can bring different things,” said Dubois. “The player I want to be is the guy who can play this kind of game, a 1-0 kind of game, a 7-6 kind of game. I want to become the guy that can do everything out there.
“(Against) team’s like this, you can go to sleep for a shift or two and it can be a goal against. You can’t doze off at any point. You can’t cheat for offence. At times, you’re going to have to stay behind even if you want to go out for a little more offence and they’re going to have shifts where they have the puck for a minute in your zone and the only opportunity you’re going to get is off a mistake and you have to take advantage of it off the rush. We did a really good job defending as a unit of five.”
In past seasons, Jets head coach Paul Maurice has often played Mark Scheifele in the head-to-head matchup with McDavid, but he chose to play that line (with Nikolaj Ehlers and Andrew Copp) against Draisaitl instead -- until Ryan Nugent-Hopkins moved to centre on the second line after Draisaitl was promoted.
Scheifele’s line responded by scoring twice (one from Scheifele and another from Ehlers) at even strength.
Dubois and company took care of their portion of the matchup game as well.
“I’ve liked Pierre-Luc’s game all year. I thought it was a continuation,” said Maurice. “You don’t play Connor McDavid one-on-one, I thought our back end was very good. Both sets that played against him. But Pierre-Luc was as he’s been.
“You’re right with the word comfortable... He’s going to hit his peak in another three or four years. He’s just going to keep growing and getting faster and stronger. But confidence and all those other things are true, right from day one he’s found a great connection with Kyle Connor and that’s allowed him to do some things that he probably couldn’t do last year.”
A cursory look at the box score will show that Draisaitl scored twice (to give him a league-leading 17 goals) and McDavid chipped in a pair of assists, but those offensive exploits came on the league-leading power play -- which included a goal on a two-man advantage and another that was initially disallowed but was overturned after the Oilers used a successful coach’s challenge.
Ultimately, it was decided that Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi was pushed into Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, so the goal counted.
Hellebuyck, who was rock solid in making 32 saves, didn’t agree with the decision.
"His initial read was right,” said Hellebuyck, referring to the goal being waved off initially. “Maybe if I had a chance to move or if Puljujarvi, I think is the guy who got knocked into me, he definitely got pushed a little bit but he sold it and then he stayed, that's my problem is he didn't try to get out. Like the puck hit me in the middle of the pad and it still goes in, that means I had no chance. For that reason I think it shouldn't be overturned.”
Hellebuyck played a key role in this game as well, standing tall when his team needed him -- especially after the Oilers trimmed the lead to two goals with the two early strikes in the third period.
For as much as players and coaches like to downplay the topic of litmus tests and measuring sticks, the Jets were excited to test out their upgraded personnel against the team that led the Western Conference coming into the contest.
"Any time a team comes in that's winning a lot of games, it's on,” said Hellebuyck.
This was the most complete effort of the season by the Jets, who understood the challenge and then delivered what can be considered to be a template style of game.
Whether it was the precise passing and support given to one another that led to cleaner exits and spending less time in the defensive zone or the ability to attack as a five-man unit, the Jets played a style that can be difficult to duplicate but will now serve as a standard moving forward.
"You can see in our game our details are right, everyone's buying into our game and it's translating,” said Hellebuyck, who has given up two goals or fewer in each of his past five starts. “We've got the offensive power to do a lot with a little and we're controlling it the right way.”
The Oilers will be looking to rebound in Thursday’s rematch in Edmonton, but it represents another opportunity for the Jets to show that they’ve got what it takes to compete as the battle for supremacy in the Western Conference continues.