Nov 10, 2016; Raleigh, NC, USA; Anaheim Ducks defensemen Sami Vatanen (45) takes a third period slap shot against the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena. Anaheim Ducks defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 4-2.
James Guillory/James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
ANAHEIM, Calif. — The surprising Edmonton Oilers will face their first big divisional test when they play the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday night at the Honda Center.
The Oilers, who finished last in the Pacific Division last season, hold first place by two points over the third-place Ducks. Before this season, Edmonton finished last or next-to-last nine times in the past 10 seasons after reaching the 2006 Stanley Cup final.
Connor McDavid, the first overall selection in the 2015 draft, has become the Oilers’ centerpiece and captain at 19. After missing three months of his rookie season because of a broken clavicle, McDavid leads the NHL with 14 assists and ranks third with 19 points in just his second season.
"He’s a very mature young man. It’s surprising he’s only 19-years old, the way he carries himself," left winger Milan Lucic told Sportsnet.ca.
A former Oiler and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame went further in his praise of McDavid.
"I think he’s the best 19-year-old hockey player I’ve ever seen," Wayne Gretzky told todaysslapshot.com. "His teammates idolize him and believe he’s the guy who is going to lead them to the Promised Land."
But Edmonton brings a three-game losing streak into Anaheim. In each of those losses, the opposing team began the scoring within the first two minutes.
"I think that’s been a little bit of our problem lately, gripping the sticks a little too tight," Lucic told the Edmonton Journal after Sunday night’s 3-1 loss at home to the New York Rangers. "You know, that confidence and that swagger that we had in the first eight games seemed to get away from us. We haven’t had it in the last eight games."
Tuesday night’s game also will feature the home debut of Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm, who entered the season as a restricted free agent. The 22-year-old Swede signed a six-year contract worth $31.5 million on Oct. 27 but had to wait for a visa before rejoining the Ducks on Wednesday in Columbus for a 3-2 overtime loss. After three games, Lindholm owns a plus-1 rating but has yet to register a point or a penalty.
Meanwhile, goalie Jonathan Bernier is providing stiff competition for John Gibson, Anaheim’s undisputed starter as the season began. Acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in July for a conditional draft pick, Bernier ranks eighth among NHL goalies with a .934 save percentage and owns a 2.08 goals-against average despite playing just six games. The 28-year-old veteran also won both of his starts this season.
Gibson, however, allowed 13 goals in his past four starts, lost two of three decisions and watched Bernier relieve him in both defeats.
Despite Gibson’s recent slump, right winger Jakob Silfverberg believes the Ducks are lucky to have two interchangeable starting goalies, a pattern Anaheim followed last year with Gibson and Frederik Andersen.
"It just brings calmness to the team when he steps up and makes some big saves at key times," Silfverberg told the Orange County Register in referring to Bernier. "We’ve been very fortunate, in my opinion, to have two very good goalies. I think that’s exactly the same case this year."