5 Takeaways From a Hard-Fought Oilers Victory Over the Penguins

A 5-2 win at home vs the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins moved the banged-up Edmonton Oilers into first place in NHL points percentage and a 16-5 record on the season. They are 9-1 at home and continue to overcome adversity as proof that their goaltenders and defence should have the team’s confidence.

We’re limited to two of these matchups a season, but the games are always exciting. The Penguins usually end up on top, despite that Connor McDavid has outscored Sidney Crosby.

McDavid Got the Best of Crosby & the Penguins This Time

This game was different. McDavid led the Oilers to their first regulation win against the Penguins since 2006. Before Wednesday’s victory, the Penguins had a 15-0-4 record against the Oilers, and head-to-head Crosby had won six games while McDavid had only won one.

Connor McDavid,Mikko Koskinen
Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid and Mikko Koskinen (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Five of the last nine matchups went past regulation. In the first seven head-to-head games, McDavid had outscored Crosby, and last night, McDavid added to that total with a goal and three assists while Crosby added an assist to his total vs the Oilers.

Before the game, Crosby mentioned that McDavid had taken his game to a whole new level. He was right. McDavid was one of the main reasons for the outcome. The two have always been compared to each other, as the best vs the best, only 10 years separated, but now Crosby is passing the torch and the only thing left is for the Oilers to win a championship.

Oilers & Penguins Penalty Kill Were on Point

The Oilers entered the game with the top power play in the league at 37.7 percent, while the Penguins had the top penalty-kill at a 90.9 percent efficiency. The special teams battle ended in the Penguins’ favour after they killed off all three penalties. The Oilers also went 3/3 killing penalties, which isn’t a shock since their penalty kill is ranked fourth, and the Penguins were still without Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust.

The Oilers’ shorthanded duo of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman again put in the work, not only killing the penalties but also creating offence. Hyman almost finished his hat trick early in the game on a shorthanded breakaway, and then again later when his goal was called back on an offside challenge. That shouldn’t take away from his effort, as his speed created space and time for the Oilers to create chances.

Oilers Defence Stepped Up

Head coach Dave Tippett set up his defence pairings based on experience, which made sense. By pairing the least experienced players together, they don’t have to receive much ice time, and it doesn’t mess up chemistry mid-game.

Instead of Kris Russell moving over to the right side and spreading out the talent, he lined up beside Tyson Barrie on the top pairing, and they logged well over 26 minutes each. Russell played the most with 26:53 and just shy of four minutes shorthanded. Barrie, on the other hand, played 4:50 on the power play and was pretty much the only defender on the ice while the Oilers were up a man.

Kris Russell Oilers
Kris Russell, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Russell and Barrie combined for seven blocks, a plus-5, and each notched an assist. Earlier in the season, Russell was often a healthy scratch, and Barrie was demoted to third-line duties. Their effort went a long way in helping them individually and the team.

The next most experienced defenders available for the Oilers were William Lagesson and Evan Bouchard, who made up the second pairing. Bouchard was also relied on pretty heavily all over the ice. He scored a goal and added an assist while playing over three minutes on the penalty kill.

Related: Oilers Young & Inexperienced Defence Will be Tested

Lagesson was impressive, getting into the play and getting shots from in close. He earned his playing time, and the Oilers shouldn’t be afraid to go back to him again in their next game.

The bottom pairing consisted of Markus Niemalainen, who played in his first NHL game and Philip Broberg, who has been a useful piece and deserving of a longer look in the NHL. I would have liked to see Broberg play a little more, especially since he led the Oilers in ice time in the team’s last game against a tough opponent, the Vegas Golden Knights.

I know it was Niemalainen’s first game, but in the limited time he played, he was solid. It was mentioned that the Oilers don’t have a player who compares to how he plays the game. Like Lagesson, he got deep in the offensive zone, but Niemalainen played with calm, especially impressive for his first NHL game. He played a physical game, resulting in five hits.

Koskinen Kept the Oilers in the Game

Mikko Koskinen again stepped up big for the Oilers. The goals weren’t necessarily his fault, and his saves were timely and came often, as the Penguins heavily outshot the Oilers. The game probably shouldn’t have been close after the Oilers only had seven shots through the first half of the game.

With a 12-2 record and a .914 save percentage (SV%), Koskinen has held his own in net and has played like the No. 1 for most of this season. Most goalies will go through a stretch where they could be playing better, and I think Koskinen has already gone through that after his incredible start. After five consecutive games of posting below a .900 SV%, he has gone back-to-back with a .941-plus SV% and taken back the crease as the Oilers’ starter.

Oilers Line Shuffling Pays Off

Tippett knew he had to do something to get his team going offensively. Sure, they had scored two, but one was the first shot of the game, and the Oilers only had seven shots midway through the second. The Penguins doubled them in shots after two periods, but most of the Oilers’ shots were high-danger chances, and Tristan Jarry did what he could to keep them at bay.

Heading into the third period, the top three lines were shuffled again. Tippett started with McDavid centring Hyman and Zack Kassian, the normal second line of Nugent-Hopkins, Leon Draisaitl, and Kailer Yamamoto, while Puljujarvi was still on the third line after playing well with Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele.

Kailer Yamamoto Oilers
Kailer Yamamoto, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

You could see Yamamoto’s confidence all night, controlling the puck, getting a ton of touches and shots. It helped that he got his shot alongside McDavid in the third, and their speed on that line was deadly, scoring 2:53 into the third to take the lead. The success of that line should allow Tippett to go back to that combination in the future, especially since they had immediate chemistry and he isn’t afraid to switch up his lines throughout a game.

The Oilers will look to continue their dominance at home with a six-game homestand coming up after they visit the Seattle Kraken on Friday. The blue line will also try to get healthy, but it was a good showing for the youngsters.

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