Game #11 Preview: Talbot leads first place Oilers into MSG against hot Rangers


Cam Talbot returns to MSG where he’ll oppose Henrik Lundqvist for the first time. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Edmonton Oilers.

The Edmonton Oilers are a first place hockey team. Repeat. The Edmonton Oilers are a first place hockey team. At 7-2-1 through 10 games, they lead the Pacific Division with 15 points. Three better than the Sharks.

Connor McDavid and Cam Talbot are the biggest reasons why the Oilers are off to a great start. In his second year, the 19-year old captain is out quickly. His 12 points (5-7-12) in nine games made him the First Star of October. So far, the 2015 first overall pick is 21-39-60 in 55 career games. A dynamic scorer who might be the fastest player in the game, he has lightning quick hands and is everything advertised. If Edmonton can stick around, McDavid should challenge for the scoring title and Hart.

McDavid has great chemistry with Milan Lucic (4-3-7) and Leon Draisaitl (2-4-6) on the top line. They should be a handful for the Rangers to contain. Expect Ryan McDonagh to see a lot of McDavid. He’s back to an elite level dominating at both ends. McDonagh carries an eight-game point streak tallying nine assists over that time. He and partner Dan Girardi will certainly be mixed together with Alain Vigneault likely to give Nick Holden some time as well even though he shouldn’t be anywhere near the top pair. That match-up will be fascinating to watch.

Talbot finally gets to start versus his former club. Everyone knows how well he performed as Henrik Lundqvist’s back up. When Lundqvist went down in ’14-15, Talbot was heroic winning 21 games with a 2.21 goals-against-average, .926 save percentage and five shutouts in 36 games. Talbot became very popular with the Garden Faithful who chanted his name. He should get a warm welcome back.

“They gave me a chance to go somewhere and compete for a number-one job and progress my career a little bit,” Talbot said in a game preview that appeared on the Oilers website. “I loved my time in New York, but it was time to move on for both of us. Obviously, to come back, for me it’s just another game. I want this win as much as I want to win every night. I know a few more guys across the hall, but that’s about it.”

He enters playing extremely well. Talbot has started all 10 games for Edmonton leading the NHL with seven victories while posting a 2.14 goals-against-average and .932 save percentage. That includes two shutouts which tie him for second behind league leader Devan Dubnyk (3).

“We had a really good time together, a lot of good memories and we worked really hard together,” Lundqvist said of his former teammate. “I’m really happy for him. He’s established himself in a role in Edmonton now and he’s off to a good start.”

It didn’t come easy for Talbot in his first year with the Oilers. Initially, he struggled mightily losing the starting job to Anders Nilsson. Nilsson made both starts against the Rangers forcing Talbot to wait before facing them. He did regain the number one job in the second half finishing with 21 wins in 56 games with a 2.55 GAA, .917 save percentage and three shutouts.

That was a team in transition. Under veteran coach Todd McLellan, they went through some tough times. The defense struggled mightily leaving Talbot out to dry most nights. Something Lundqvist dealt with on a nightly basis last year. Edmonton sought to improve the back end by dealing former first overall pick Taylor Hall to the Devils for Adam Larsson. A trade that was laughed at by most observers.

While Hall is off to a nice start in New Jersey with five goals, Larsson has helped stabilize the Edmonton blue line. In 10 contests with his new team, he has two assists with a plus-four rating while averaging 20:20 of ice-time a night. One of four Oilers’ defensemen to get over 20 minutes. Oh btw. McDavid averages 21:29. Second behind veteran Andrej Sekera (21:35). Oscar Klefbom and veteran shot blocking specialist Kris Russell also receive over 20:00.

Second-year player Darnell Nurse could be their best. A good skating physical defenseman who should be a shutdown player for years, the 21-year old has the size (6-4, 213) and strength to anchor the D with Larsson. He’s off to a good start also contributing offensively with two goals and two assists which lead all Edmonton blue liners.

The Oilers block their share of shots against. As expected, Russell leads them with 29. Klefbom has 21 followed by Sekera (19) and Larsson (16). Larsson leads the back end with 28 hits but also is turnover prone with 12 giveaways. Nurse has 25 hits and Eric Gryba has 23 in seven games.

Other key Oiler forwards include Jordan Eberle. Always a pest in front of the net, the speedy and gritty skilled forward is dangerous on breakaways and battles hard. He has three goals and three assists with his six points tying Draisaitl for third in team scoring. Second center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins enters play without a goal but does have five helpers. Another former Oilers first overall pick who’s crafty with good speed and playmaking abilities.

Benoit Pouliot returns to MSG. He’ll always be an integral part of the ’13-14 Rangers who reached the Stanley Cup Final. Playing on a cohesive third line with Mats Zuccarello and former Blueshirt Derick Brassard, they were instrumental in the team’s second round comeback from 3-1 down against the Penguins. Pouliot enters with three goals and a helper in a secondary role. He still takes bad penalties but is a solid offensive player.

The Oilers have gotten good contributions from Mark Letestu (2-3-5), Tyler Pitlick (3 goals) and comeback story Zack Kassian (2-2-4, 14 PIM). A former ’09 first round pick of the Sabres who has overcome alcohol and substance abuse. His struggles with the Canucks are well documented. Eventually, they released him. Edmonton gave him one more chance. So far, it’s worked out for the 25-year old from Windsor, Ontario. He’s a physical player with a mean streak that also has some deft touch.

The best part of tonight’s match is it pits Talbot against Lundqvist. Something I was hoping to see last year. Now, it finally will happen. Lundqvist gets his ninth start. Fresh off a 35-save shutout (60th career), he’ll look to follow it up against a dangerously skilled team featuring arguably the game’s best scorer. McDavid is that good already.

It promises to be exciting. It’s up to the defense to do the job. They’ve been disciplined so far. They haven’t taken many unnecessary penalties. Tied with four other teams for the second least amount of times shorthanded (27), they have also been a solid penalty killing unit allowing five power play goals. While that puts them in the middle of the pack at 81.5 percent, it’s a marked improvement from last year’s awful unit which ranks near the bottom.

That can be attributed to the additions of Michael Grabner and leading scorer J.T. Miller, who’s becoming their best overall forward. Kevin Hayes has also been a pleasant surprise when used. Along with mainstays Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Jesper Fast, Vigneault can confidently send out three different forward combinations who will pressure the puck with speed and create shorthanded opportunities.

With the forwards more active, it’s taken some pressure off the D allowing them to do their jobs more easily in front of the net. Marc Staal has been better along with Girardi while McDonagh has shined. Holden has been solid in this area too. Kevin Klein normally excels on the PK too. He needs to be more consistent five-on-five.

Brady Skjei has continued to improve. Now being given a chance on the point of one power play unit, he’s looked okay so far registering an assist on a power play goal in the Rangers’ 5-0 shutout of the Blues. The power play converted twice in six chances. Thus far, they’re 9-for-38 going 23.7 percent which ties them for ninth overall. They’ve done most of the damage at home scoring seven of the nine in 31 chances (22.6 percent). Of course, part of that is due to playing more home games early. This will be their eighth of 11.

With four balanced lines that have contributed to the league’s top offense, the Blueshirts have to feel good about how they’re playing. There’s a reason they’re 7-3-0 with 14 points which is a point behind division leader Pittsburgh. It’s not luck either. They’re improved depth and speed has led to even more transition which explains why they blew out quality opponents in the last two wins outscoring the Lightning and Blues 11-1. Ken Hitchcock paid some high compliments, noting how well they’re playing.

Jimmy Vesey looks to keep it going. Tied for the rookie lead with six goals and third in scoring with nine points trailing only Leafs’ pair William Nylander and 2016 first overall selection Auston Matthews, he’s found great chemistry with Stepan and Rick Nash. With Nash up to five goals and eight points, it’s clicking. Stepan has six assists but is still without a goal. He needs to get off the snide.

Balanced lines which feature Chris Kreider and Zuccarello with Mika Zibanejad and Miller with Hayes and Grabner have the Rangers looking tough. Kreider came back with two assists in his return after missing four games with neck spasms. That included a brilliant feed across for an easy Zuccarello tap in. The fourth line is one in name only with Brandon Pirri, Pavel Buchnevich and Jesper Fast capable of contributing. With Vigneault wisely still using Pirri and Buchnevich on power play units, he’s managing his personnel better.

There’s a lot to like about this team. We’ll see if they can keep it going tonight.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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