Oilers shifting top line ahead of game vs. Lightning
Faced with the prospect of a third straight loss, the Edmonton Oilers are tinkering with their top line.
They’ll see if that strategy pays off immediately when the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning come to Rogers Place on Saturday night.
After giving up three power-play goals in a loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday, Edmonton (18-14-3) opened a five-game homestand with a 4-1 loss to the lowly St. Louis Blues on Tuesday.
Puljujarvi, a 6-foot-4 winger, has just three goals in 24 games this season. Selected fourth overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, Puljujarvi was taken before some players who have already made an impact in the league, including Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames and Alex DeBrincat of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Puljujarvi, who has 16 goals and 16 assists in 117 career games and spent time in former coach Todd McLellan’s doghouse, is getting a second chance under Hitchcock.
“If I can get him up another level tempo-wise, with the way his conscience is on the ice defensively, he’s going to make a good teammate,” Hitchcock said Thursday. “So why not play him with the fastest player on the team and maybe even in the league and see if he can keep up?”
Nugent-Hopkins said Friday that Puljujarvi is hard to stop once he gets moving and sees a key to the 20-year-old’s game returning.
“I see him getting (confidence) back now. It’s a huge part of the game and if you don’t have it, it can be tough out there sometimes,” said Nugent-Hopkins, one of four Oilers to reach double-digits in goals.
The change comes against the league hottest team.
With a 5-4 win in a seven-round shootout over the Flames on Thursday, Tampa Bay (27-7-2) has picked up points in 11 straight games. Coach Jon Cooper was impressed with the way the team responded after giving up three first-period goals.
“Especially early on (this season), we we’re falling behind in games. The guys are finding a way to come back,” he said. “It wasn’t the best recipe for success, but we’ve kind of found our game a little bit.”
The Oilers’ newly formed top line presents a problem for Cooper even before the Bolts hit the ice.
“It’s tough when you’re unfamiliar with teams. You can sit here and say ‘OK, this is the top point team in the West,’ but you don’t know until you’re out there and lines are playing against each other. You can only acquire so much on video,” he said after the win over Calgary.
The Lightning are going for a sweep of the season series after cruising to a 5-2 win on Nov. 6 in Florida. Nikita Kucherov had two goals and an assist, and leads the club with 37 helpers and 52 points.
“I think it’ll be a good test. It wasn’t our best game when we played in Tampa, by any means. We know we can be better,” Nugent-Hopkins said.
Edmonton is 6-1-0 in its last seven home games versus Tampa Bay.
The Oilers will be without winger Jujhar Khaira after he was given a two-game suspension for cross-checking Blues defenseman Vince Dunn earlier in the week. Khaira, who has three points his last four games, will also miss Thursday’s rematch with Vancouver.