Edmonton (46-27-6) at Pittsburgh (45-24-11)
With a win tonight the Oilers can clinch home ice in the first round, a result that is all but guaranteed at this point. With but 2 more games in the regular season the Oilers are peaking at the right time, especially if Nurse can return in the near future, which seems to be the case.
At the very least there is an aura of spectacle when these two teams meet, thanks to the number of Hart trophy winners that will be on the ice tonight. Seeing Crosby v McDavid is always special, and not to get overly philosophical but it does underscore the temporary and fleeting nature of our existence. When it comes to smelling the roses, this is among the best it gets, from a regular season NHL game.
Both teams are not overly desperate for a win tonight, but both are looking to reach and maintain their highest levels of play in the near future, so there should be a semblance of intention from the cross-conference opponents.
We are expecting to see Smith and DeSmith get the starts for their teams tonight.
Kane — McDavid —Yamamoto
McLeod — Draisaitl — Hyman
Foegele — Nugent-Hopkins — Ryan
Brassard — Shore — Kassian
Russell — Ceci
Keith — Bouchard
Kulak — Barrie
Guentzel — Crosby — Rakell
Zucker — Malkin — Rust
Heinen — Carter — Rodrigues
Boyle — Blueger — McGinn
Dumoulin — Letang
Pettersson — Marino
Matheson — Ruhwedel
PLAYERS TO WATCH
With Puljujarvi out again it will be Yamamoto jumping up onto the line with Kane and McDavid. Both pending RFAs have had productive and positive seasons and certainly have been contributors to the team’s overall success. Despite both sporting relatively modest point totals they both bring more to the game than offensive production.
McLeod gets another look on Draisaitl’s wing, a spot he’s shown promise in before as he’s been able to leverage his playmaking skills beside one of the game’s top goal scorers. From a bigger picture, McLeod’s rising level of play and positional flexibility likely provides some options in deploying Nugent-Hopkins. It’s reasonable to see how the two might be interchangeable, with one centring the 3rd line and the other kicking up to a top 6 wing role.
Foegele and Ryan have shown great chemistry as a set of wingers, and routinely find ways to stay ahead when it comes to controlling play.
There is likely a reckoning on the horizon when it comes to Kassian’s contract, but for now, while the Oilers are compliant, the roster freeze in effect, and the playoffs around the corner there’s no reason not to root for him to find a way to be effective. It’s true, the per-dollar value isn’t great, but for now we should be hoping to see equal parts focus and intensity from the veteran.
With the forwards out of the way, the elephant in the room should be addressed. With Nurse out the entire balance of the blueline is thrown askew. Thankfully it seems as though the Oilers most important defender will be back sooner than later, at least.
Under Woodcroft we’ve seen the top pair get huge minutes while the other 2 pairs split fairly evenly, closer to 3rd pair usage. That won’t be an option tonight, but it’s reasonable to expect the spirit of splitting time evenly will be in full effect. Clearly Ceci is the most trusted and should lead the group in icetime. He and Russell will handle the top defensive assignments.
The other pairs remain intact. We’ve seen Bouchard has a lot more to give, and we should expect to see him grow into a bigger role through the years. Perhaps, with some extra responsibilities we see him respond positively.
It’s not likely we see the Kulak-Barrie pairing get separated, as they fit perfectly together as a pair. It is possible they can have success with a few more minutes than normal, at least in spurts.
The Pens success over the years has granted them the luxury of stability, but GM Hextall has done well in infusing the core with some new wrinkles over the past season or two. A perfect example, the top line. Crosby and Guentzel have long been anchoring this unit. Rakell has blended in exquisitely, giving Crosby what might be his best set of wingers in a Pens uniform, at least of late. Over the years a certain profile of winger has worked best with Crosby, and Rakell shares some traits with a thoughtful, responsible, and honest approach to the game, of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s also a smart passer and a former 30 goal scorer.
Malkin has still got it, and Oilers fans can certainly empathize with how an MVP can be overshadowed on his own team. Rust and Zucker both have a certain intensity and physicality, but certainly have enough skill for Malkin to work with. Rust has done so for several seasons now.
The lower half of this lineup did great work early in the season, stepping up in the absence of Crosby and Malkin to keep the Pens afloat. Carter has been pretty successful taking on a checking role, at least more so than he’s been in the past. He’s still a power forward and a goal scorer. Rodrigues is a smart and versatile forward who has impressed since his college days as Eichel’s linemate. Although they were never reunited in Buffalo, the Penguins were rewarded with impressive production from Rodrigues early in the season. The scoring has subsided with the minutes and role, but Rodrigues proved he can move up and down a lineup.
Heinen has posted nice flow-of-play stats and has some visible talent, if not an intriguing physique. There’s some who think he can still develop his game, peaking a bit later than others, but perhaps not too dissimilar from his teammate Rust. Kapanen, not dressed today, is likely to reclaim his spot on Carter’s wing when he returns, but the Pens have enough to make it work.
Blueger routinely posts strong defensive impacts, mostly thanks to his smart positional play. It’s always nice to see Boyle, another veteran who is still contributing in this lineup.
Speaking of glorious veterans, Letang remains a force on the back end. I suppose, like Crosby, there was a time where it looked like injuries might derail a star’s career, but like Crosby Letang weathered some of life’s storms. Dumoulin is perhaps an interesting archetype of the modern shutdown defender with some size and length, but more importantly with range, the speed to manipulate gaps all around the surface.
Perhaps a bit unheralded, but Pettersson and Marino fly under the radar for being a second pair on a contending team. The duo is certainly more substance than style, as their strengths come from their positioning and hockey sense more than any flashes of skill, speed, or strength in particular.
Matheson is a fantastic skater with a powerful stride. Ruhwedel spent seasons bouncing between the Penguins and their AHL affiliate, but has held down this spot beside Matheson all season.
Injury updates are not easy to understand at the best of times, but all eyes are on the Pens starter Jarry and his availability for the playoffs. Domingue and DeSmith are established backups, if that. Goaltending is a strange art, and anything could happen with strong defensive play, but one would think the Pens need Jarry back to have a chance at making a deep run.