Tonight’s clash between the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins will feature, in my opinion, the three most elite centres in the NHL over the past few seasons. That could change as more young guns will push to challenge Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the top-three, but for my money those two, along with Connor McDavid, have been the three best centres the past few seasons.
Neither the Oilers nor Penguins take a lot of penalties or get many powerplays, so we should see a lot of 5×5 play tonight, and I’m curious to see which matchups the coaches will look for, and who will be tasked with trying to contain these three superstars.
You will see these players a lot at even strength.
McDavid leads all NHL forwards with 19:33/game of EV TOI. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is second at 17:43, Crosby is sixth at 17:07, Jake Guentzel is ninth with 16:34, Leon Draisaitl is 24th at 15:44 and Malkin is 45th at 15:17.
It is interesting to note the Oilers’ top-two centres play more minutes than the Penguins’ do, probably due to them being a decade younger, but also because the Penguins depth is more productive.
I dug into the Penguins icetime and matchups, as well as the Oilers, to get an idea of which matchups we might see tonight.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has played Malkin, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin together all season. Kessel and Hagelin have been on for 80 of Malkin’s 87 5×5 minutes. Jack Johnson has been the most consistent defenceman with 41 minutes with Malkin followed by Olli Maatta at 27.
Crosby has played 95 5×5 minutes and Guentzel has been with him regularly (88 min), but the other wing has been a rotation of three players: Derick Brassard (37min), Patrik Hornqvist (31 min) and Bryan Rust (22 min).
Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, the Penguins top pair, have played 58 minutes with Crosby and I’d expect Crosby’s line and the Letang/Dumoulin pair to matchup against the McDavid line.
“Sid is more of a workhorse, who protects the puck very well,” said Leon Draisaitl when describing the differences between Crosby and Malkin. “Whereas Malkin is more of a fluid player, and he loves to find one-on-one matchups. Both are great players, obviously, and it will be fun to play them,” said Draisaitl.
Draisaitl’s line will get the Malkin matchup. Draisaitl knows he needs to be better defensively. He has been turning his feet up ice when engaging in battles down low, which has caused him to lose the battle and then the puck stays deep. He needs to engage the battle focusing solely on getting the puck first, then he can worry about heading up ice.
The challenge for Draisaitl’s line will be how Jesse Puljujarvi responds. He is still very young, and he will need to be alert and on his toes defensively, and then when he has the puck he needs to make good decisions with it. Malkin and Kessel thrive on turnovers and Draisaitl and his linemates will need to not only work hard, but be very smart or Malkin’s line could burn them. Malkin has 12 points in six games this season. He’s on fire.
Which Oilers D pair will matchup against the Pens top two lines?
Todd McLellan wouldn’t answer it, but did offer this: “One of our top-two pairs will be playing better, just like one of their top centres will start better, and we have to watch for that early and ensure we match accordingly,” said McLellan.
Here is how other teams have ran their blueline pairs against Crosby and Malkin’s lines this season.
Montreal: Jeff Petry and Victor Mete played 13 minutes against Malkin over two games. Noah Juulsen and Mike Reilly Juulsen played 19 minutes against Crosby. The latter was the matchup they wanted the most.
Vancouver had Erik Gudbranson and Ben Hutton out against Malkin and Alex Edler/Chris Tanev against Crosby.
Toronto ran Auston Matthews’ line against Crosby and John Tavares’ line against Malkin. The Jake Gardiner/Nikita Zaitsev played 8:30 against Malkin and seven minutes against Crosby. Mike Babcock focused more on having the forward line matchup, but wanted Gardiner/Zaitsev out against both lines as much as they could. Ron Hainsey and Morgan Reilly played six minutes v. Crosby and four v. Malkin.
Vegas didn’t work hard for any specific matchup. All six of their D-men played between four-six minutes against both lines.
Washington ran Dmitri Orlov/Matt Niskanen against Crosby and John Carlsson/Per Djoos against Malkin.
Based on what we’ve seen this year I suspect Oscar Klefbom/Adam Larsson will start with McDavid, while Darnell Nurse/Kris Russell will start with Draisaitl. Larsson loves the physical battles and matchups against Crosby, while Nurse and Russell’s speed is a better fit against Malkin/Kessel, in my eyes.
It will be fun to see how they do. McLellan went out of his way to mention Draisaitl often today in his presser when discussing the centres. I see that as a subtle challenge from the coach to his player to get him going. Players are competitive and they want to face the best, so let’s see how Draisaitl handles Malkin. He can’t stop him alone, of course, but he is big and strong enough to go head-to-head. And it is fair to point out Draisaitl doesn’t have the luxury of having Kessel on his wing like Malkin does.
Cooper Marody will make his NHL debut alongside Lucic and Strome. Those two have done everything but score at 5×5. Their possession numbers are good, their forecheck has been strong and defensively they aren’t giving up much. If they continue to play like that eventually they will be rewarded on the scoresheet.
Crosby has no goals and five assists in six games. His two career goals v. the Oilers is his lowest goal total against any NHL team (excluding Vegas). Is he due tonight?
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING…
It’s not often you get centre talent like this in a game, so it should be interesting to see how McLellan deploys his top 2 pivots in McDavid and Draisaitl against the fabled duo of Malkin and Crosby. That’s not to say that all four of these guys have been lighting the world on fire, though. In fact, Crosby and Draisaitl have struggled, relatively speaking; 87 has put up 5 assists and no goals through 6 games, where Draisaitl has tallied 6 points in as many games (2G+4A).
The Oilers’ former MVP
HallMcDavid has 11 points on the year (4G+7A), but has been bested by Malkin’s 12 (3G+9A). Malkin recorded his third three-point game of the season in the shutout of the Leafs, including a power play marker that opened the scoring and proved enough to be the game-winner.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Nine of the last 11 meetings have been decided by one goal, and the other two were two-goal victories. The Oilers have lost four straight to the Pens, and haven’t won at home since January 10th, 2014 when they won 4-3 in OT. All the numbers say they shouldn’t win…I will go George Costanza and pick the opposite. Oilers win 5-4 in an exciting affair.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Malkin, Crosby and McDavid all pick up points.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Marody picks up his first NHL point, an assist, on a Lucic goal. Lucic scores at 5×5 for the first time in 22 games.
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Source: NHL, Official Game Page, 10/23/2018 – 12:30 pm MT