EDMONTON — As the Ottawa Senators arrive in Northern Alberta in hopes of solving an opponent who is 4-0 against them this season, a special surprise awaits the North’s last place team: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the same line.
Welcome to Edmonton!
Since moving on to separate lines last season, reuniting the Oilers' two superstars has been a tactical last resort for head coach Dave Tippett. Like on Saturday, when his team needed a spark against Calgary he re-jigged his lines mid-game, and McDavid and/or Draisaitl were in on all three goals in a 3-2 Oilers win over Calgary.
So he’ll stick with that unit tonight — with Kailer Yamamoto on the right wing — while building a second line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins between Tyler Ennis and Jesse Puljujarvi. It’s a relatively new look that will test Edmonton’s support scoring.
“It puts pressure on that depth to contribute. We haven’t tried it to this point,” Tippett said. “We know that Connor and Leon are going to drive some offence, but to be a good team we have to have that throughout our lineup. Not just chipping in, but we need consistency.”
On one hand, with last change against an Ottawa team with a young defence corps — and likely giving rookie Joey Daccord only his second NHL start in goal — putting No. 97 and 29 together might give you all the offence you need from one line. As a backup, it’s fair to expect the Oilers' other three lines to win their matchups against an Ottawa team that has given up the most goals per game (3.89) in the NHL this season.
"It’s fun to watch for us (players) too, watching them out there together. They elevate each other,” said Ennis of the Oilers' two top players. “For us, it’s important that we contribute. We’re going to have to — they can’t play the whole game. Our depth becomes even more important.”
Here’s a look at the lineups tonight, after an optional morning skate for the Oilers and nothing for Ottawa, which won 4-3 in a shootout in Calgary Sunday night.
Dominik Kahun is out of this lineup, Mikko Koskinen gets the start, and after a decent outing against Calgary, Tippett is going back to a D-pairing of Ethen Bear and Caleb Jones. He’s trying to help them both find their games — neither player has been as good this season as they were last.
“If they can get their game together it just makes us a lot better back there,” Tippett said.
Draisaitl, McDavid, Yamamoto
Ennis, Nugent-Hopkins, Puljujarvi
Shore, Khaira, Turris
Neal, Haas, Chiasson
As for the Sens, they’re looking for a way to beat an Oilers team that defeated them four times in a 10-day span from Jan. 31 to Feb. 9. After two more decisive wins in Edmonton (8-5, 4-2), the teams played two competitive games in Ottawa, where the Oilers prevailed 3-1 and 3-2.
Matt Murray played Sunday in Calgary, so we expect Daccord to go tonight. It is believed that Christian Wolanin could be in for Erik Brannstrom on defence.
Tkachuk, Tierney, C. Brown
Paul, White, Dadonov
Stützle, Norris, Batherson
Dzingel, Anisimov, Watson
Centre of Attention
With Nugent-Hopkins moving back to centre, one of the issues Edmonton could have on its second lines is faceoffs. This season, the trio of Nugent-Hopkins (37.5%), Ennis (75% on just four draws) and Puljujarvi (0-for-2 all season) has had little success or experience in the circle.
Nugent-Hopkins has evolved into a nice second-line centre or left-winger, but his career 44.3% faceoff percentage has been an issue through 10 NHL seasons. He’s taking the line swap in stride, a chilled veteran who can play wherever the coach asks him to.
“I don’t think we’ve thought about it as much as you (media) guys,” he said after the fourth question on the new lines. “Nobody is going to be gripping their sticks too tight, or thinking ‘We have to score now because (McDavid and Draisaitl) are playing together.’
“We want to have secondary scoring, no matter who’s playing with who. The good teams in the league, they get scoring from every line.”
Tippett built the unit with the right components to provide some offence, he figures.
While Nugent-Hopkins and Ennis are both adept at making “good plays in tight places,” Tippett said, “Puljujarvi is probably our best forward at creating loose pucks and getting to the front of the net. (He is) a big guy whose work ethic has been very good for us.
“When you put a line together you’re looking for some chemistry, some symmetry between the three. On paper it looks like it should be effective, but you’ve got to get in games to see where it goes.”
The game begins a run of 12 contests in 21 days for Edmonton. Put another way, that's three straight four-game weeks.