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Photo Credit: Cody Glenn-USA TODAY Sports

GDB 54.0: Playoff Race (7:30pm MT, SNW)

The Edmonton Oilers are in a heated playoff race. Dave Tippett’s number one priority is to win games. He isn’t worried about anything more than tonight’s game. He has a proven track record of having success with different teams and he has a fantastic reputation of making players comfortable and putting them in positions to succeed.

The Oilers didn’t have much in the tank on Tuesday night in Arizona. After the game, Tippett didn’t make excuses for them, but he talked about how players came off the ice and looked at him suggesting they were trying, but didn’t have much. He was protective of them. He isn’t afraid to say when the team played poorly, but as a former player he could tell Tuesday night was a game where there simply wasn’t much gas in the tank.

But he expects there to be a lot tonight.

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“Outside of Koskinen, there wasn’t one player who, when we watched on film, we felt had a good game. Tonight we need a better effort,” he said this morning.

He said it directly, not in a chastising sort of way, but made it clear he knows the importance of tonight. The Oilers are in a playoff race. Winning is all that matters.

I was perplexed by how many Oilers fans took to social media complaining about Tyler Benson playing on a line with Gaetan Haas and Alex Chiasson. For years people complained the Oilers rushed their players, which they did, but those teams were terrible and usually not in playoff contention. The fact they don’t have to rush players should be viewed as a massive improvement.

Tippett was asked about Benson making his NHL debut.

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“He is excited obviously,” said Tippett. “He’s been around the team for a bit and we’ve wanted to get him in.”

He was asked which line he would play on and Tippett was quick to explain his reasoning.

“He is playing with Haas and Chiasson, they are skilled players,” said Tippett. “You want to put him right with McDavid? I believe a young guy should come in and get his feet wet and try to get going. That is what we did with Yamo (Yamamoto) for a game, and then he took off and we are going to do the same thing with Benson.

“It was different with Yamo also, he had played 20 some games, this is Benson’s first NHL game. You have to recognize this is not training camp. We are in the heat of a playoff race. You are putting a guy in, you are hoping he can do his job, but there is not much a track record here. We will ease him in, see how he does, and I think he will do real well, but we are just getting started with him.”

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Benson is slotted in exactly where he should be. He is a good prospect. He has played 115 games in the AHL and produced 24-77-101. Solid numbers, but the AHL is vastly different than the NHL, and putting him on the top line puts him in a much easier position to fail than succeed. It is why most teams don’t do it.

Joe Thornton, who scored his 1,500th point (14th all-time) on Tuesday, spent his entire rookie season on the fourth line in Boston. He averaged just over eight minutes a game. Many former Oilers, who became solid scorers, started on the fourth line — Ryan Smyth, Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Jarret Stoll to name a few.

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Benson isn’t a more highly touted prospect than any of them, so any expectation of him needing to start on the top line is misguided in my eyes. One of the best traits a coach can have, at any level, is putting his players in positions to succeed. Get them comfortable. Don’t ask too much of them. That is what he is doing with Benson. Benson will have a chance to play well, without much pressure, and if he does Tippett has shown he will reward players with more ice time.

But most importantly, Tippett is focused on winning. He doesn’t want a sub-par effort on Tuesday to spread to two games and he’s tweaked three lines.

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LINEUP…

Oilers

Archibald-McDavid-Gagner
RNH-Draisaitl-Yamamoto
Khaira-Sheahan-Kassian
Benson-Haas-Chiasson

Klefbom-Larsson
Nurse-Bear
Lagesson-Benning

Koskinen

Tippett explained moving Kassian down.

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“We are just tweaking a little bit. We want to get Kass up and going and working. We want to get him on a line where he can put some hard work in. We are just trying to find the right combination with Neal out, we are just looking for different matchups,” he said.

Look for Sheahan’s line to get defensive zone starts and play a checking role. So it makes sense for Kassian and Gagner to switch as Kassian is more suited for that role. Archibald has scored five goals and nine points in his last 12 games. Yamamoto has four goals and 10 points. Both have produced well so keeping them in the top-six for now makes sense.

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I don’t expect Archibald to remain there all year, but if he keeps producing he will. He is also a veteran and is sound defensively and Tippett trusts him against tough matchups.

On defence Tippett said this about inserting William Lagesson in and taking out Caleb Jones:

“Jones has played pretty well. Ken (Holland) was down in Bakersfield and he felt Lagesson and Benning were a good pair for three games, so we want to get Laggy up and playing and will give him a chance tonight,” said Tippett.

That move is more about getting Lagesson in a game than it is about Jones doing anything wrong.

Also, James Neal skated today. He said his legs felt pretty good actually. I’m told he has an ankle injury, so they will be cautious. Sprains, especially if it is a high ankle sprain, can be re-aggravated easily. And Tippett said Joakim Nygard had successful surgery and will be out at least six to eight weeks, possibly longer.

Sharks

Kane-Goodrow-Marleau
Meier-Thornton-Labanc
M. Karlsson-True-Noesen
Sorenson-Letunov-Gambrell

Dillon-Burns
Vlasic-E. Karlsson
Simek-Ferraro

Dell

Tomas Hertl had successful knee surgery today and the Sharks announced they expect him to be ready for training camp next season. Logan Couture is out at least another two weeks, so the Sharks have recalled some young centres in Alexander True and Maxim Letunov.

Aaron Dell has taken the starting job away from Martin Jones. Dell has been really good since December 1st, posting a .924Sv% in 15 starts.

TONIGHT…

Photoshop: Tom Kostiuk

GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Oilers have more jump than Tuesday and skate away with a 4-1 victory.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Oilers get more powerplays. The Sharks have been shorthanded the seventh most times (3.22 per game), and they are 28th in powerplays/game at 2.69. The Oilers are 17th in PP/game (3.00), and the 9th fewest PK/game at 2.81.

NOT-SO OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Alex Chiasson buries his seventh career goal against the Sharks, which is the most he has against any team in the NHL.

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