Oilers play well, still lose as Penguins’ Murray shuts the door

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When you’re a team that scores few goals, even a pretty good effort of a given night can be unraveled by a momentary lapse on the ice.

The Edmonton Oilers put in that pretty good effort on Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN but still came away with the loss, 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

And the reason for that was a roughly four-minute stretch in the second period where they stopped doing what had made them successful in the rest of the game. The Oilers owned possession in the first and second periods (53 percent in the first; 70 percent in the second) and came up with a 1-0 lead in the first when Connor McDavid slid a cross-ice pass to Leon Draisaitl.

That lead lasted until early in the second when the Oilers just stopped defending while on the power play. The laziness that ensued produced a short-handed goal for Bryan Rust, who shouldn’t have been allowed the time he had to tuck the puck past Mikko Koskinen.

The 2-1 goal came when no one picked up a streaking Teddy Blueger through the slot. A tough rebound off Koskinen produced a juicy rebound and just like that, the Oilers trailed.

Matt Murray produced another solid outing after he stopped a career-high 50 shots in a 4-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday.

Murray had to come up big again, stopping 38 shots, including a penalty shot from none other than McDavid (who is now 1-for-3 in those situations in his career).

Murray was on point again nearing the mid-way point of the third when he stretched out to stop McDavid once again.

This Matt Murray is the unbeatable Matt Murray that could lift the Penguins into the playoffs by himself down the stretch here if he keeps playing like this.

Speaking of playoffs and down the stretch run, the Penguins picked up two big points and are now three clear (67 points) of the Carolina Hurricanes (64 points) for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Pittsburgh came into the game 1-3-1 in their past five games and just four wins in their past 12. The Penguins were without Evgeni Malkin (serving his one-game suspension for attempted decapitation) and Olli Maatta (who is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury).

The Oilers, meanwhile, are beginning to fall behind in the turtle derby. They’ve lost eight of their past nine contests and sit six points back of the Minnesota Wild for the final wildcard spot in the west. And there’s the loggiest of logjams in front of them queueing up for what appears to be quite the race to the finish line.

Weird stat via the NHL: McDavid is 0-3-3 against the Penguins when Sidney Crosby is in the lineup.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

WATCH LIVE: Crosby’s Penguins vs. McDavid’s Oilers on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Never beating the Pittsburgh Penguins when Sidney Crosby‘s been in the lineup is the least of Connor McDavid‘s concerns, but it’s one of the many ways you can remind people that the Edmonton Oilers haven’t really put him in a position to succeed.

It’s almost too fitting that McDavid’s been fantastic in the five Oilers losses against the Penguins, generating nine points in those games, but not yet getting the win.

[Comparing McDavid’s early days to Lemieux’s troubles]

Both superstar players are hurting for a win, but not really because of an easily packaged rivalry.

Instead, their teams simply need it. The Oilers are a Dumpster fire right now, with things being so bad that Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman discussed rumblings about Ken Hitchcock straight-up wanting to walk away.

Things aren’t as dour for the Penguins, but they don’t have a large margin for error when it comes to making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, so they’ll be keyed-in. With injuries mounting for the Pens, they might ask Crosby to do even more than usual. McDavid can relate.

One benefit for McDavid is that Evgeni Malkin won’t suit up, as he’s serving a one-game suspension for his wild stick-swinging at Flyers forward Michael Raffl.

Is it too greedy to hope that all of these circumstances will lead to another great duel between number 87 and number 97? Maybe, but let’s cross our fingers for that, anyway.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Edmonton Oilers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Where: PPG Paints Arena
When: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers-Penguins stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

OILERS

Leon Draisaitl — Connor McDavid — Zack Kassian

Jujhar KhairaRyan Nugent-HopkinsJesse Puljujarvi

Milan Lucic — Brad Malone — Alex Chiasson

Tobias RiederColby CaveTy Rattie

Oscar KlefbomAdam Larsson

Darnell NurseKris Russell

Alexander PetrovicKevin Gravel

Starting goalie: Mikko Koskinen

PENGUINS

Jake Guentzel — Sidney Crosby — Bryan Rust

Tanner PearsonNick BjugstadPhil Kessel

Teddy Blueger — Jared McCannPatric Hornqvist

Zach Aston-ReeseMatt CullenGarrett Wilson

Brian DumoulinKris Letang

Juuso RiikolaJack Johnson

Marcus PetterssonChad Ruhwedel

Starting goalie: Matt Murray

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie. Additionally, Kathryn Tappen will be providing reports and conducting interviews on-site in Pittsburgh.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Wednesday Night Hockey: McDavid’s Oilers mirroring Lemieux’s early days with Penguins

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Barring some kind of a miraculous late-season turnaround it is looking like the Edmonton Oilers are going to fall short of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third time in the first four years of Connor McDavid‘s NHL career. If that turnaround is going to happen, it is going to have to start quickly, and collecting two points against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that will be without Evgeni Malkin (suspension) and Olli Maatta (shoulder injury) on Wednesday Night Hockey would probably be a good place to start.

Given that the Oilers are entering the Wednesday having lost seven out of their past eight games, and have only won six of their previous 22 games overall, nothing is going to come easy for them.

If the Oilers do end up missing the playoffs again it is going to be an incredibly disappointing start to the McDavid era in Edmonton.

Over the past decade the only sustained success the Oilers have had was winning No. 1 overall picks in the draft lottery. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov all arrived in Edmonton with the hope and anticipation that a top pick can help rebound a franchise, but none of them came close to matching the McDavid hope. He was supposed to be the guy that would change the fortunes of the franchise and be the player that would lift them out of the doldrums of the league. Overall, he has probably been even better than anticipated and right now in year four is the most dominant, game-changing offensive player in the world. Offensively speaking, he is off to one of the best starts offensively in NHL history.

It is that development that makes the Oilers’ lack of success with him so shocking, and it remains an indictment of the organization around him that they haven’t been able to piece together a consistent winner.

The word “waste” has been thrown around a lot when it comes to McDavid’s early career and the Oilers. But I don’t think we truly grasp just how bad it has been.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

In the history of the league there have only been 16 players who have played at least 200 games and averaged at least 1.28 points per game through their first four NHL seasons. McDavid is one of those 16 players, while he is one of only three (Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin being the other two) who saw their careers begin after the 1995 season.

Take a look at the list and the number of playoff appearances and playoff games they had played in through their first four years (sorted by total playoff games).

Again, this is not an indictment on McDavid or his career personally. This is a statement about the Oilers’ inability to build a team around him. It is fair to point out that a number of these players began their careers in the 1980s when a far higher percentage of the league made the playoffs, so that might skew this a little bit. But even when you look at the more recent players (Crosby, Ovechkin, Forsberg, Lindros, Selanne) there is still a pretty sizable gap in terms of success.

Ovechkin’s Capitals, for example, missed the playoffs in his first two years. By year four, they had made consecutive appearances in the postseason, were in a Game 7 in the second-round following a 50-win regular season, and came back the next season to win 54 games and the Presidents’ Trophy on their way to being one of the most dominant teams in the league.

By year four, Crosby’s Penguins were playing in their second consecutive Stanley Cup Final … and winning it.

Does anyone think the Oilers are a year away from winning 54 games, the Presidents’ Trophy, or the Stanley Cup?

What’s even worse for the Oilers is that when the the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin joined their respective teams, they had far less impact talent around them than the Oilers did when McDavid joined them. They didn’t even really have anyone that was comparable to the young trio of recent top picks in Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle that was already in place in Edmonton (Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh until the year after Crosby; Nicklas Backstrom didn’t join the Capitals until the next year, while Mike Green only played in 20 games in Ovechkin’s rookie year). There should have been a solid foundation in place to build around.

Really, the only comparable to what McDavid and the Oilers have experienced so far is what happened with the Penguins and their franchise-saving player, Mario Lemieux, in the mid-1980s.

The early Lemieux era Penguins were so poorly constructed that even with a player that was on a Gretzky-ian level, and in a league where 16 of the 21 teams (76 percent) made the playoffs, they were unable to get there even once in his first four season. It wasn’t until year five that Lemieux made his first ever playoff appearance.

They were so hapless in the early stages of Lemieux’s career that this situation (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) unfolded at the tail end of year four with the team trying to get No. 66 what would have been his first-ever playoff appearance.

The Oilers haven’t been quite that bad, but the fact that team is the situation they are most comparable to in the early stages of a generational talent’s career is problematic.

A lack of playoff games is also probably not the early career comparison to Lemieux that McDavid wants.

If you’re an Oilers fan reading this and looking for positives it’s that the Penguins eventually got their act together and over the next few years assembled an arsenal of Hall of Famers around Lemieux, won two Stanley Cups, and were one of the league’s elite teams for more than a decade. But given how much work there seems to be needed around McDavid, the Oilers seem like they are several years away from getting there.

Even this year, in a season where McDavid is playing the best hockey of his career and on pace for 123 points, and in a year where the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff field is as mediocre as it has ever been, the playoffs are still falling out of reach. Of the 20 players who have topped 123 points since 1990, only two of them played on teams that missed the playoffs.

One player alone can not make a team in the NHL because they only impact a third of the game.

But history still shows it is awfully hard to squander an offensive player this dominant.

John Forslund (play-by-play), U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Eddie Olczyk (analyst), and Emmy Award-winner Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Pa. Pre-game coverage starts at 7 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh alongside Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Bob McKenzie. Additionally, Kathryn Tappen will be providing reports and conducting interviews on-site in Pittsburgh.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Road ahead for Blackhawks’ playoff push

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blackhawks are hoping to extend their impressive, surprising winning streak to eight games when they face the Bruins on Tuesday.

While a four-point lead in the standings is larger than it might seem thanks to teams being in Chicago’s way and how many games go to overtime, it’s also understandable that Blackhawks fans are dreaming bigger with each consecutive victory.

Of course, the last-place Ducks and Kings are the same four points behind the Blackhawks. That thought brings up a lot of observations (especially if you need to back up claims about the West’s lower ranks being putrid), but this post focuses on the road ahead for Chicago.

Some schedule notes

The Blackhawks play five of their next seven games at the United Center, and Tuesday’s upcoming game against the Bruins also comes with Chicago being lucky that David Pastrnak won’t be available for the Bruins.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Feb. 12: @ Boston
Feb. 14: vs. New Jersey
Feb. 16: vs. Columbus
Feb. 18: vs.Ottawa
Feb. 20: @ Detroit
Feb. 22: vs.Colorado
Feb. 24: vs.Dallas

So far, the Blackhawks have played 28 games apiece at home versus away, so they have 13 of each remaining this season. They’ll likely hope that the Avalanche don’t figure things out anytime soon, as they face Colorado three more times in 2018-19.

So you’re saying there’s a chance …?

It’s interesting to see where the Blackhawks fall according to various models, but optimism is limited even where it’s most abundant.

Money Puck gives them a 15.65-percent chance of making the postseason. Dom Luszczyszyn’s model (sub required) might be the friendliest to Chicago, giving them a 21-percent shot.

Chicago has a shot, but would beat some odds. It’s also easy to forget that the Blackhawks lost seven of eight games before going on this seven-game winning streak.

Potential stumbling blocks

Even by the standards of a seven-game winning streak, Chicago’s on fire.

With 81 points in just 55 games, Patrick Kane already has more points than he had last season (76 in 82 games), and he’s undoubtedly boosted Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome along the way. Strome’s close to a point-per-game since joining Chicago, with 30 points in 32 games.

Kane’s tied for second in scoring with Connor McDavid, so it’s fair to bring up some Hart chatter, but what if he gets hurt or merely cools off? Chicago might not have the scoring support to keep this surge going.

There are pretty obvious scenarios where the Blackhawks’ brief goaltending surge topples over.

Extending Collin Delia was reasonable enough, but he still only has 14 games of NHL experience, so that streak could wear off. Cam Ward currently has a .939 save percentage in three February games after failing to reach .900 in any months this season, and often being a disaster over the last — decade? While Corey Crawford getting what seems to be a clean bill of health is fantastic news, there’s no timetable for his return, and no guarantee he’ll be sharp when he can come back.

***

With a friendly upcoming schedule, the magic might last — at least for a while. There are pretty obvious signs that it may eventually wear off, but either way, Blackhawks fans should enjoy the ride.

MORE: Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford feeling ‘back to normal’

John Walton (play-by-play) and A.J. Mleczko (‘Inside-the-Glass’) will have the call from TD Garden in Boston, Mass. Pre-game coverage starts at 6 p.m. ET with NHL Live, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside Jeremy Roenick and Mike Johnson.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Oilers’ Hitchcock left dumbfounded after latest loss

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If we’re talking about National Hockey League coaches that have seen it all, Ken Hitchcock is in that upper echelon.

He’s orchestrated five different teams in his 22 years as a bench boss — some 1,571 regular-season games. And in those 1,571 games, he’s won 53 percent of them — 838 wins under his belt, third-most all-time.

He’s fifth in total games coached (third among active coaches) and has a Stanley Cup ring to back up those credentials.

And yet when it comes to the Edmonton Oilers, the man who could pen a coaching encyclopedia has been reduced to dumbfoundedness in Northern Alberta.

“At this time of year the coaches can’t want it more than the players,” Hitchcock said after another lackluster performance in a 5-2 loss against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be decided whether we want to play the right way because it’s successful or whether we just want to do our thing. To me, today was a day we just wanted to do our thing and we paid dearly for it.

The only reason the Oilers can even sniff the playoffs this year is Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and a log jam of teams who appear to unwilling to want to separate themselves from each other.

But even a guy like Draisaitl seemed uninterested on Saturday.

In Hitchcock’s post-game presser, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector asked Hitch about the play, when Evander Kane, who eventually scored the 2-0, skated past Draisaitl, who was basically standing still.

“That’s a good question,” Hitchcock responded. “I think it’s a symptom of something much bigger. It’s priorities and what’s important. It just can’t be acceptable.”

The goal in question is here:

The Oilers sit four points back of the St. Louis Blues for the second and final wild card in the Western Conference. They’ve benefitted from the turtle derby (great phrase) around them, so even though they’ve only won three of their past 10, they’re still somehow relevant.

Of course, that won’t be the case for much longer. With 27 games to go, a couple teams around them are starting to figure it out. The Blues, for instance, have won five in a row. The Chicago Blackhawks have strung together six victories on the trot. And with efforts like Saturday’s — the status quo, it seems — their chances, despite their close proximity to a postseason spot, appear to be fading quickly.

“We can’t do the things we are doing and expect to be a playoff team,” Hitchcock said. “When you put skill ahead of work, you get burnt. And there’s too much of it going on.”

Hitchcock’s job is akin to Mission Impossible. But there’s no movie script here or no inevitable save-the-day-moment. There’s no Tom Cruise, either. It’s just a man who figured he might be able to make a difference on a doomed team but has begun to realize he most likely can’t.

And it’s no fault of his own.

He inherited a tire fire with seemingly unlimited rubber to burn. He took charge of a team that has been crippled by bad trades and handcuffed by horrible contracts. Reinforcements aren’t coming.

The table of contents in Hitchcock’s nearly 1,600-game coaching career doesn’t list a section for this.

There’s no manual. No Coaching the Edmonton Oilers for Dummies.

The problems run much deeper and God only knows when they’ll be solved.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck