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GDB Game Notes: Edmonton Oilers @ Pittsburgh Penguins

After a commanding 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Oilers finished the first month of the season with an impressive 9-4-1, good for top spot in the Pacific Division. They’ll kick off the month of November with a matinee game in Pittsburgh with the Penguins. Here are your game day notes.

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1. The Oilers are matching up with the Penguins right as they start to finally reach full health. Alex Galchenyuk and Brian Dumoulin were both activated from the Injured Reserve on Tuesday and the team promptly hammered the Philadelphia Flyers 7-1 that night. Yesterday, Evgeni Malkin was activated from the IR, and he’ll play his first game this afternoon since getting injured in Pittsburgh’s second game of the season.

2. You can credit Sidney Crosby with keeping the Penguins afloat while the team was decimated with key injuries. Despite missing one-third of their top-six and one of their top-four defensemen, the Penguins own a solid 8-5-0 record through October. Crosby put up five goals and 17 points through the team’s first 13 games, playing an average of 20:50 per game. Having Malkin and Galchenyuk back will take the pressure off Crosby as Pittsburgh is back to having a deep, lethal offence.

3. Crosby’s 1.31 points-per-game has him on pace to put up 107 points this season. That would be his highest total since he posted 109 points in 2009-10. It would also be the third-highest of his career, with his career-high coming in his 120-point, Hart Trophy-winning 2006-07 sophomore season. An amazing under-the-radar stat about Crosby is how he’s never been below a point-per-game player since entering the league, dating all the way back to his first-career game against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 5, 2005, when he recorded one assist.

4. While Crosby can keep the Penguins above water himself, the team needs Malkin to be elite in order to be a legitimate contender. Malkin had a down season by his standards last year, posting 72 points in an injury-riddled season. Though his 72 points in 68 games is still above a point-per-game, Malkin’s -25 rating last year was far and away the worst of his career. He clearly wasn’t playing at the same dominant level that he had been in the past and it played a key role in the Penguins getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs.

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5. It’ll be interesting to see how Malkin plays without Phil Kessel, who was his most common linemate over the past four seasons. Between 2015-16 and 2017-18, Kessel and Malkin played 1623:45 together at even strength and outscored opponents 82 to 60. Last year, the duo didn’t do so well, outscoring opponents just 30 to 28 over 637:57 minutes.

6. Apparently, there was a rift between Kessel and Malkin that ultimately reached a boiling point. Reports indicate that Kessel and head coach Mike Sullivan had a tumultuous relationship and Malkin often had to play the middle-man. After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, Kessel became content with his career and his effort on the ice reflected it. Malkin grew tired of the middle-man role and having to motivate his linemate and said he would request a trade if Kessel was brought back for another season.

7. The Penguins would end up sending Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk. Glechenyuk had a disappointing season in Arizona after being sent to the desert in a one-for-one deal for Max Domi. While Domi has become a star in Montreal, Glachenyuk posted just 41 points in 71 games with the Coyotes. Now that both him and Malkin are healthy, we’ll finally get a chance to see how Pittsburgh’s newest duo performs.

8. A key area that should improve now that the Penguins are healthy is the power play. Pittsburgh has just six goals on 37 opportunities (16.2 percent) with the man-advantage this season but getting Malkin back in the mix should bring that back to life. Edmonton’s penalty kill will have to be good in order to beat the Penguins. Good news on that front, as Riley Sheahan, who left the game in Columbus, will be good to go this afternoon.

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9. Though I said earlier that Crosby is the reason the Penguins stayed above water throughout these injuries, some credit should also be given to their defence and goaltenders. Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry have combined for a .927 save percentage through 13 games and the Penguins ranks seventh in the league in expected goals against (based on shot volume and quality).

10. For the sake comparison, the Oilers rank eighth in expected goals against, right behind the Penguins and right ahead of the Boston Bruins. For all the talk that Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are completely carrying the team on their backs, the Oilers’ defensive game deserves credit too. The team seems to be really buying into Dave Tippett’s structure, playing a hard and responsible game. Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom have both been excellent, as have rookies Ethan Bear and Joel Persson. This is definitely the strongest play we’ve seen from the Oilers defensively since the 2016-17 season.

11. What McDavid and Draisaitl did in the month of October was insane. Draisaitl sits in a tie for first in the league with 12 goals and he sits alone in the league lead in points with 25. McDavid is right behind him with 23 points, good for a tie for third in the league. As of right now, the duo is on pace to eclipse the 150-point plateau. We haven’t seen a season like that since Mario Lemieux in the mid-90s. I don’t know if it’ll end up happening, but I bet we see both players hit 130 points this year, which would be a first in the post-lockout era.