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GDB 63.0: Push For The Playoffs (8 p.m. MT, SNW)

The final push to the playoffs starts tonight — for the Oilers, and the other seven teams competing for the top three seeds in the Pacific Division and two wildcard slots in the Western Conference.

Vegas 76 pts in 64 GP
Edmonton 73 pts in 62 GP
Vancouver 72 pts in 61 GP

Wildcard
Calgary 70 pts in 63 GP
Arizona 70 pts in 65 GP
Winnipeg 69 pts in 64 GP
Nashville 68 pts in 61 GP
Minnesota 65 pts in 61 GP

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The race is tight, but Vegas and Edmonton are in good positions to secure a playoff spot. Vancouver’s push for the playoffs becomes a bit more strenuous due to Jacob Markstrom’s knee injury. Their starting goalie will be out three to four weeks, so Thatcher Demko will either sink or swim.

The Oilers played six games without their best player, Connor McDavid, but Leon Draisaitl produced 12 points in six games. He actually produced more than what you’d expect from McDavid and the Oilers went 3-2-1. Can Demko even match Markstrom’s .918Sv%? Markstrom has been excellent for the Canucks this season, especially on high-quality chances. He is second in the NHL behind Tukka Rask via Clear Sight Analytics based on the net difference between the expected save percentage for all scoring chances actually faced by the goaltender and the goaltender’s actual save percentage on those scoring chances. Basically, he is making big saves on high-danger scoring chances.

I’m not sure Demko can match that, so the Canucks will need to play better team defence in front of their young goalie. When you lose one of your best players the entire team has to play better. The Oilers did that during McDavid’s absence and now he is back, along with new faces in Andreas Athanasiou, Mike Green, and Tyler Ennis, while Zack Kassian returns from suspension this Saturday and then Oscar Klefbom and James Neal should return in early March. The Oilers should only get stronger in March.

The Canucks lost their top goalie, while Vegas added Robin Lehner. He’s had a better season than their starter, Marc-Andre Fleury, and is a massive upgrade over Malcolm Subban, who was traded to Chicago, along with a second round pick, for Lehner. I gave Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon huge props for making that deal. Not only did he get a really good goalie, but McCrimmon is only paying 28% of Lehner’s total salary. He sent a fifth rounder to Toronto so the Maple Leafs are paying 22% of Lehner’s remaining salary, while Chicago retained 50%. Unreal. Lehner defeated the The Maple Leafs earlier this season, so now they essentially have two people in their “organization” who beat them in a game this season. Lehner and David Ayres. Tough year for the Leafs.

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HOLLAND FULFILLS HIS PROMISE

Oilers GM Ken Holland said last Friday he wanted to do something to help his team. “The players and coaches have done their job to put us in a playoff position. I want to do something. I feel I need to try and help them,” he said. He did exactly that acquiring Athanasiou, Green and Ennis and only subtracting Sam Gagner from the active roster. Now it is up to the players to make it work.

Holland was on my TSN 1260 radio show yesterday and shared his thoughts on the new players and some other tidbits.

On Mike Green:

“First off Mike can really skate. His ability to go back get the puck, pivot and make a play is good. He is an excellent passer. We hope he can help our transition. He makes us deeper. He can run a powerplay if needed. I wanted more depth on the blueline.”

Ennis and Athanasiou

“We need more scoring. Tyler Ennis has produced offence his entire career. He can play up or down the lineup. Athanasiou had 30 goals last year, but he is having a down season. It’s been a tough year for him. He is only 25 and is a restricted free agent. He can make plays with the puck at a high level. He gives us another dimension. James Neal will be out a couple of weeks, maybe longer, and Joakim Nygard is out another two or three more weeks. We added two lefts shots and once we get healthy we will have good depth. Green and Ennis are rentals, while Athanasiou we own his rights and I will worry about a contract in the summer.”

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On Mike Smith carry over bonuses and only carrying 12 healthy forwards.

“That is part of it (sending Benson down and have 12 forwards). We have space set aside for Kris Russell down the road, so we can get him back on the roster. We are in good shape that when we are healthy we will be able to have everyone on the roster.”

Was adding speed a main priority?

“I like speed, skill and compete, but you need a lot dimensions. Speed is one of them. We signed some guys in the summer who could skate, and what I’ve been really pleased about is the contributions of Ethan Bear, KAILER YAMAMOTO and Caleb Jones. It is encouraging and exciting that our young players are stepping in and contributing. They are only 21 and 22 and there is a lot of room for growth. It was nice to add some players with some giddy up and speed.

“But you have to be able to play different ways. If you are playing fast teams you need to match it. But if you are playing heavy teams, then you need guys like Kassian, Sheahan and Khaira and others. They will become more important. You have to be able to play different ways to win in a playoff series. Not everyone has to be fast to succeed.”

On Athanasiou adapting to Oilers

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“Part of his job in Detroit was he was a transporter. Certainly that is what Connor likes to do, and he (Athanasiou) will have to adjust. My hope is he can find some chemistry with some of our best players and will become a better team. If he doesn’t then he can play on our third line and he is able to transport the puck and do some of the things than centreicemen like to do and bring the puck into the zone. I’m hoping he can adjust, and it won’t happen right away as he has played that role for awhile, but I think he can.

On team chemistry 

“I hope it is a smooth transition and they are making beautiful music tomorrow night, but it isn’t always that easy. We are going into a big game against Anaheim. We can’t hold tryouts if we aren’t having success quick enough. Dave (Tippett) might have to revert back to what was working. Certainly the risk is when you bring in three players there are players here who helped us have success who will now have their roles change.

“I’m hoping and believing the moves we made will pan out and make us a better team, but I know I am running a risk of upsetting the chemistry a little bit. Dave Tippett will have to find out in a hurry who will find chemistry with who. Will Mike Green play right away, or because the top six played well in LA, will Green have to wait until he draws in? Dave makes the final decisions on who plays and where they play. I think we have more options now as Ennis and Athanasiou can play up and down the lineup. But the reality is we can’t lose the next four or five games trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work.

“These two points against the Ducks are critical, then we go into Vegas and then we host Winnipeg and they are fighting for their playoff lives. When you are fighting for the playoffs you can’t stick with something too long if it doesn’t work fairly quickly.”

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LINEUP…

Oilers

Athanasiou – McDavid – Ennis
RNH – Draisaitl – Archibald
Granlund– Sheahan – Chiasson
Khaira – Haas – P. Russell

Nurse – Bear
Jones – Larsson
Lagesson – Green

Smith

KAILER YAMAMOTO is out with an ankle injury. He is out week-to-week, and it didn’t look good when he went down on Sunday.

He finished the game, but like with most ankle sprains the swelling and lack of mobility can occur over night and the next day. Tough break for Yamamoto, who was playing very well since being recalled. He’d scored 9-12-21 in 21 games and fit in very well with Draisaitl and RNH. Archibald plays a similar style, although not as good at creating turnovers, but his tenacity will fit in well on that line. Ennis and Athanasiou must be thrilled as they start with McDavid.

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I’m interested to see how Athanasiou plays with McDavid. Instant chemistry is hard to find, and it might take some time, but McDavid creates chances regardless of who he plays with. But Athanasiou is the best combination of shooting skill and speed, outside of Leon Draisaitl, McDavid has played with. Athanasiou should ask the video coach to send him as much video as he can on McDavid so he can see his tendencies and where he likes to go.

Athanasiou has an opportunity of a lifetime: Become a regular winger with McDavid. We know he will get a lot of chances. According to Clear Sight Analytics McDavid leads the NHL with 56 passes that led to high percentage scoring chances. However, only 14 of those passes resulted in goals. Athanasiou has a good shot, and if he can bury the great chances he will inevitably get, he will lock himself onto McDavid’s left wing for the foreseeable future. Not surprisingly, Draisaitl leads the NHL with 20 assists on passes which led to high percentage chances. And he is well above his expected assist total. He is the best passer in the NHL in my eyes, and 54% of those elite passes (20 of 37) led directly to goals.

It illustrates how great of a passer Draisaitl is, and how if McDavid gets a finisher on his line the results could be stupendous for the Oilers. Right now only 25% of McDavid’s passes on high % scoring chances result in goals. Bump that up to 35-40% and that is between five and seven more goals.

If Draisaitl picks up two points tonight he will reach the 100-point mark in his 63rd game. The quickest McDavid reached 100 points was last season in 66 games (the Oilers 70th, as he missed four games). Nikita Kucherov had 100 points in his 62nd game last year.

Draisaitl will reach 100 points either tonight or tomorrow most likely, and when he does he will become only the 43rd player in NHL history to score 100-points in consecutive seasons. He’ll join active players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov and Joe Thornton. Alex Ovechkin and McDavid reached 100 in three consecutive seasons.

Ducks

Milano-Getzlaf-Rakell
Heinen-Henrique-Sherwood
Jones-Steel-Silfverberg
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Lindholm-Manson
Larsson-Del Zotto
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Gibson

The Ducks will have five new faces in the lineup tonight with Danton Heinen, Andrew Agozzino, Sonny Milano, Christian Djoos and Matt Irwin making their Ducks debut.

TONIGHT…

GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Oilers show their appreciation to Holland for his work to augment the roster and defeat the Ducks 5-2.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Athanasiou scores on a nice feed from McDavid. Some will get caught up in the emotion and claim AA will score 50 goals next season. Dustin Nielson stays up all night working on an Athanasiou goal song, but doesn’t get it down in time for tomorrow’s show. Not sure what frustrates him or TSN 1260 listeners more: No new AA song or he won’t get to play Yamamoto’s goal song for at least three to four weeks

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Nation road trip is in Vegas preparing for tomorrow’s game. They all get together for an Oilers/Ducks watch party tonight. The Squire ends up having to take Baggedmilk to his room early after he chugs two beers after Athanasiou scores. The Squire uses this as an excuse to go to bed early and is heckled mercilessly tomorrow. And rightfully so.

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