For years, the Edmonton Oilers were in the cellar of the standings, raking in high draft picks like fall leaves. Last offseason, the Oilers rebuilt their rebuild, trading away number one selections Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov while signing Milan Lucic to a seven-year contract. Connor McDavid, a generational talent with just 45 games of NHL experience, was given the C.
With the new captain, the youngest in NHL history, and a half billion dollar new arena, the Oilers have now won five of their first six games in the 2016-17 season, holding the top spot in the Western Conference and placing second in the NHL.
“It’ll interesting to see how they do this year because I think they have all the talent to be a much better team than they have been recently, with McDavid leading the way especially,” Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said Tuesday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “It’ll be for sure a different Oilers team than it’s been the last couple years.”
On Wednesday, the Caps will face McDavid for just the second time, a year and three days after their first meeting. When Washington faced McDavid the first time in Edmonton, the then 18-year-old notched two points, including a power play goal. The center fractured his clavicle soon after, missing much of last season.
Now, however, he’s back in top form, skating on a line with Jordan Eberle and Lucic. In just six games, the trio has registered 19 points.
“Got a combination of skills on that line,” Niskanen said. “You got two really skilled guys and then Lucic is that up and down winger. I think he probably creates space for them by driving to the net and being around the net.”
McDavid has four goals and five assists, tying him for the league lead in points with nine.
“With the extra gear he has he can change speeds, he can move laterally, and he can handle the puck at high speeds in tight spaces,” said Niskanen. “That makes him really dangerous. Young kids nowadays, they got the guts to try things. Try a one-on-one and try to make the play in tight spaces. It hasn’t been coached out of him yet. They’re a little unpredictable and that makes it challenging.”
Forward TJ Oshie echoed Niskanen’s assessment of the league’s young talent, particularly McDavid.
“I feel like a lot of the young guys come still got all or nothing mentality that can get beat out of you a little bit,” Oshie said. “He’s a guy that you have to let play his game. He’s doing some special things out there.”
Andre Burakovsky, who was a linemate of McDavid when they played junior hockey with the Erie Otters, says his team must be glued to McDavid at all costs.
“From the beginning, he did just incredible things on the ice,” Burakovsky added of his former teammate. “It’s always tough to know what he’s going to do. He so fast, he likes to skate around you with the puck. … Even when he was so young, he had no fear. He did what he what with the puck. He wasn’t afraid to make a mistake or anything. He believed in himself and just trusted himself in what he could do.”
While the Oilers are burning hot, the Capitals have struggled with consistency and special teams. The Capitals are ranked 21st in the league on power play percentage while their penalty kill is the fourth-worst in the NHL. Washington is also 25th in the league in goals, which led Trotz to shake up the lineup. The Caps spent half of Tuesday’s practice focused on the PP and PK before the team headed to Dulles for a 1:30 pm flight, kicking off team’s four game road trip through western Canada.
“Eight points is what we’re trying to accomplish,” Oshie said. “At times we’re playing really great hockey and other times mentally we just kind of take a step back or try to do a little too much. As long as we put our foot on the gas, play a more consistent game, a faster game, I think we’ll be do pretty good.”
Eight points starts with a win in Edmonton. Despite the Oilers being a multidimensional team, the Capitals know they must follow Burakovsky’s advice and key on McDavid, much like opposing teams who shadow Alex Ovechkin.
“He’s able to do things with the puck at a very high speed that a lot of guys can’t do,” Oshie said of McDavid. “You have to limit his time and space, hopefully feel like he’s a little crowded out there. He’s a great player. You know he’s going to make a couple plays. That’s why we got Holts and a great set of D.”
Nevertheless, Capitals coach Barry Trotz knows that is easier said than done.
“Even if you don’t give him the time and space, he’s still going to make some plays,” the coach said. “We just have to try and control him and keep him in front as much as we can.”
After years of traveling to Edmonton banking on two easy points, the Capitals are now in for one of the toughest matchups in hockey.
“They’re a top team in the league right now,” said Trotz.
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