Gameday: Golden Knights host surging Oilers in Pacific Division showdown

Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and company come to town with the division lead in hand.

The Vegas Golden Knights maintained a point streak against the San Jose Sharks on Thursday, although they likely wish that was, instead, a win streak. Still, staying hot, especially in an inter-division game, is important right now for Vegas. That’s part of the reason this match up with the Edmonton Oilers, the first time Vegas will see them this season, is so critical.

The Golden Knights have continued to struggle in matchups with backup goaltenders, most recently losing to Aaron Dell, and that will be tested against the Oilers as both of their goaltenders could be considered their backup. They’ve both played in the same number of games (13) but Mikko Koskinen, who has two fewer starts, has the better stats (.921 save percentage to .910).

With the Oilers on top of the Pacific division so far this season, this will be a major test of where the Golden Knights currently are. A bounce back victory after a poor showing against San Jose could be just what the doctor ordered.

Unfortunately, there’s some obstacles in the form of two of the league’s best players standing in the way, as well as revamped Oilers’ defense under first-year head coach Dave Tippett. Here’s what to watch for in this matchup.

Who’s gonna stop the McDraisaitl duo?

The best offensive duo in the NHL will be facing the Golden Knights in this game, and that puts a lot of pressure on the defense to shut them down. But who’s been best at stopping Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl? Especially when the two both have 16 goals and 44 points so far this season in just 24 games, how do you bring them back down to earth?

Well, the Golden Knights have a number of players adept at shutting them down. It’s a shame the traditional first line has been separated, because William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault were the three best forwards at denying chances to McDavid and Draisaitl. With the old first line on ice, those two both had sub-40 percent Corsis, expected goal shares and high-danger shares. They improved dramatically while facing other lines. Expect to see Smith, Karlsson and their new linemate Max Pacioretty on ice.

In terms of defense, Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb have traditionally done a good job of shutting the line down as well. But nobody does a better job than Shea Theodore, who allowed just a 12.35 percent expected goal share to Draisaitl and 6.84 percent to McDavid. While it would not be unexpected to see Schmidt and McNabb get assigned the heaviest duty, getting Theodore and his new partner Nic Hague on ice a few times against that line may not be a bad idea.

Oh, hello James Neal

Last season, his first against the Golden Knights after being a member of the inaugural season and a key component to the Golden Knights’ first ever regular season, James Neal failed to record a point against his former team with the Calgary Flames. That despite playing more than 15 minutes in both games, as he recorded 15:30 in his first game against Vegas and 15:56 four days later.

Well, let’s just say Neal is playing much better hockey now in Edmonton than he was in Calgary. Through the first 24 games of the season, Neal has 13-3—16. While his rate of goal scoring has substantially declined — Neal has just one goal in the last six games and two in the last 10 for the Oilers — Neal remains a threat, especially while paired with a solid two-way playmaker like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

With Schmidt and McNabb, or Theodore and Hague, assigned to almost exclusive McDraisaitl duty, expect the other to focus in on denying Neal’s high-danger chances at the doorstep and on making sure the second line is on their heels. Neal should be gunning for a revenge game here, and it’s in Vegas’s best interest to prevent that.

Score from the designated areas

A pattern that has emerged over the Golden Knights’ first 24 games of the season is high-danger goals being a predictor of team success. When the Golden Knights win the high-danger goal battle at even strength — not the chance, battle, mind, but the actual goals — they are undefeated, with a 6-0-0 mark. When they are tied, they are 3-3-1 and when they lose the high-danger goal battle they are 2-6-3.

In fact, during the Golden Knights recent two-game winning streak, they won both high-danger goal battles 2-0. To kick off the season, they won over the Sharks in their first two games a combined 4-1.

This team is clearly better when they’re able to get where they need to go and score from the home-plate area in the crease and near the faceoff dots. Against an improved Edmonton team, those areas will continue to be crucial to score from, and if the Golden Knights can get there and put good shots on net, they should be able to beat Edmonton.

That will be up to the opposing goaltender yet again, however. Koskinen is fourth in even strength high-danger save percentage, but Smith is 27th.

Golden Knights projected lineup

Max Pacioretty — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith

Jonathan Marchessault — Cody Eakin — Mark Stone

Alex Tuch — Paul Stastny — Cody Glass

William Carrier — Tomas Nosek — Ryan Reaves

Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt

Nicolas Hague — Shea Theodore

Jon Merrill — Deryk Engelland

Marc-Andre Fleury

Malcolm Subban

Oilers projected lineup

Leon Draisaitl — Connor McDavid — Zack Kassian

Jujhar Khaira — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — James Neal

Joakim Nygard — Riley Sheahan — Josh Archibald

Markus Granlund — Gaetan Haas — Alex Chiasson

Darnell Nurse — Ethan Bear

Oscar Klefbom — Caleb Jones

Kris Russell — Adam Larsson

Mike Smith

Mikko Koskinen

How to watch

Time: 7 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet, NHL.TV

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM