There will be a few new faces on both benches.
The Knights made a few late moves ahead of Monday’s trade deadline, including acquiring goaltender Robin Lehner and forward Nick Cousins. The club also announced a two-year extension for defenseman Nick Holden.
Now that the trade deadline has come and gone, though, it’s more important than ever for the Knights to focus on maintaining their position at the top of the Pacific Division standings.
Tonight’s game will be a big test, and the two points up for grabs are significant. That’s because Edmonton trails Vegas by just two points, and the Oilers have a game in hand. Games like tonight’s are, in reality, four-point contests at this point of the season, so the Knights can ill afford to come out flat.
The Oilers will be without several top-six pieces, however. Zack Kassian is serving the final game of a seven-game suspension for kicking another player, while Kailer Yamamoto and former Knight James Neal are out of the lineup with injuries.
But Edmonton’s trade-deadline moves paid instant dividends last night as both Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis scored a goal and an assist in Anaheim; in fact, the top line finished the night with a combined seven points, with each player grabbing at least two. It wasn’t enough to get the win, as the Oilers fell 4-3 in overtime; however, it’s clear that both wingers, known for their speed, will not have trouble keeping up with the most explosive skater in the NHL.
Speaking of which, McDavid remains a threat every time he’s on the ice, even when he doesn’t have the puck. He recently missed six games with a quad injury but has been stellar since returning, scoring three points in each of his last two games.
He also tends to be very productive when facing the Knights. He scored two goals in a game against Vegas in November and has seven goals and 15 points in nine career games against the Knights.
But that’s not to say that Leon Draisaitl isn’t still a massive threat. After all, he does lead the league in scoring by 11 points and is just one point shy of 100 on the season. While many viewed his breakout performance last season as a fluke, he is proving without a doubt that he is the real deal, and he’s actually on pace to shatter his season-high 105 points from last year. In fact, he’s managed to maintain a 1.57 points-per-game pace this season; he and McDavid (1.53) are first and second in the league in that category.
Draisaitl gets more ice time per game (22:43) than any other forward in the league, with McDavid trailing the second-place skater (Jack Eichel) by just one second.
The two Oilers are also first and second in power-play production with a combined 79 points.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Oilers have the best power play in the league, operating at a whopping 29 percent success rate. But the Oilers’ penalty kill also has been fantastic this season and ranks second overall with an 84.4 percent effectiveness rate. The team’s road kill is even better (88.4 percent).
Needless to say, special teams will be key in tonight’s matchup.
That, in turn, means that discipline will be essential. That’s especially true since the Knights’ penalty kill has not been trending in the right direction.
In fact, since Pete DeBoer took over, the Knights’ penalty kill has gone from 19th overall (78.8 percent) to 29th overall (73.9 percent) and 30th in February (70.6 percent).
That is not going to cut it against this high-powered man advantage.
Another key to the game will be scoring first. Though this is always the ideal way to play a hockey game, it’s particularly important against an Oilers team that struggles when giving up the first goal. When doing so, the Oilers have the second-lowest win percentage among all teams currently in playoff positioning (.267), and they rank eighth in win percentage when scoring first (.758).
Vegas’ numbers aren’t that far off, but giving up the first goal to a team that boasts two of the best special teams units in the league is not a good idea, particularly when said team has players of McDavid’s and Draisaitl’s caliber.
For the Knights, Cousins was not at yesterday’s practice due to visa issues, but he will play tonight and likely will draw in on the third line. The Stephenson-Cousins duo is going to be fun to watch.
Here are the projected lines for both clubs (subject to change):
Jonathan Marchessault — Paul Stastny — Reilly Smith
Max Pacioretty — William Karlsson — Mark Stone
Cousins — Chandler Stephenson — Nicolas Roy
William Carrier — Tomas Nosek — Ryan Reaves
Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt
Alec Martinez — Shea Theodore
Holden — Zach Whitecloud
Ennis — McDavid — Athanasiou
Nugent-Hopkins — Draisaitl — Alex Chiasson
Jujhar Khaira — Riley Sheahan — Josh Archibald
Markus Granlund — Gaetan Haas — Patrick Russell
Darnell Nurse — Ethan Bear
Caleb Jones — Adam Larsson
William Lagesson — Mike Green
How to watch
Time: 7:30 p.m.
TV: AT&T SportsNet, NHL.TV
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM