Jets prepare for McDavid-led Oilers onslaught


The Winnipeg Jets have been desperately working to regain a scoring touch that’s eluded them the last few weeks. As they prepare to battle the Edmonton Oilers in a home-and-home series this weekend, the focus has shifted to stopping the world’s best player from filling the back of their net.

The Jets are about to get a healthy dose of Oilers superstar Connor McDavid, beginning tonight in Edmonton, followed by a rematch Saturday at Canada Life Centre. Shutting down McDavid is a tall task at the best of times, but lately it’s seeming like a near-impossible ask, as the Oilers captain has been making a mockery of the rest of the NHL with his on-ice dominance.

“It’s certainly remarkable; we’re watching arguably the greatest hockey player ever,” Jets centre Adam Lowry told the Free Press after Thursday’s practice. “Statistically, it’s probably going to be impossible to catch Wayne (Gretzky), but the way he’s been able to do it in today’s game is incredible. We go out there on the same ice and sometimes it feels like you’re not in the same league.”

Lowry isn’t alone in his admiration for McDavid and what he’s achieved so far this year. Ask any player in any locker room across the NHL and they’ll tell you what you’re seeing from the Richmond Hill, Ont., native is special.

McDavid leads the league in goals (52), assists (66) and points, with 118 in 62 games. What’s more, he’s been incredibly hot of late, with a pair of goals in each of his last five games — one game short of tying a 100-year-old NHL record currently held by Punch Broadbent (1921-22) and Joe Malone (1920-21).

“He’s going to get chances tomorrow night, there is no question, nobody can slow him up right now. You limit them as much as you can,” said Jets head coach Rick Bowness. “It takes a five-man unit, it takes someone getting in front of them. You have to understand, it’s managing the puck when they’re on the ice. Don’t give it to them. Make them earn it.”

By “them,” Bowness was referring to McDavid, as well as linemate Leon Draisaitl, who is also considered among the best players in the league and is just as lethal around the net. Draisaitl is currently riding a 10-game point streak, a stretch that’s seen the left winger score seven goals and register seven assists.

Zach Hyman, who signed with the Oilers as a free agent ahead of the 2021-22 season after six years in Toronto, rounds out the Oilers top line. Hyman has benefited greatly from playing with the two stars, having already eclipsed his season-high of 54 points from last year with 71 points (29G, 42A) in 61 games this season.

“Don’t be making poor percentage plays, or going in the offensive zone and throwing hopers to the slot,” added Bowness. “You’ll be chasing them all night.”

McDavid enters Friday having recorded at least a point in all but five games this season. Interestingly, one of those games came against the Jets, with McDavid being blanked on the scoresheet in a 2-1 Edmonton loss on New Year’s Eve.

That hasn’t been a trend over McDavid’s eight-year run in the NHL; in 27 career regular-season games against the Jets, the 26-year-old has 12 goals and 35 assists, while adding a goal and three assists in four playoff games.

Those four playoff games were over a Jets sweep in the first round of the 2021 NHL playoffs, with McDavid being held pointless in the first two. The Jets earned a lot of credit for limiting No. 97, with particular attention given to Jets defenceman Neal Pionk for keeping a close eye on McDavid.

“It’s the hardest challenge in the league. With him rolling right now it’s even scarier,” Pionk told the Free Press. “It’s about taking his speed away, that’s where he thrives off everything. It’s also the fact he’s got a plan A, plan B and plan C ready to go at any time. You just try to take one of them away and hope it works, that’s kind of the mindset when going against him.”

With the likes of McDavid and Draisaitl, it’s no surprise the Oilers rank first on the power play, clicking at an eye-popping 31.8 per cent success rate — more than six per cent better than the L.A. Kings in second. The Jets were able to survive five shorthanded situations in their last meeting with the Oilers, but that’s not a risk they want to take again.

The Oilers have a power-play goal in 13 of their previous 16 games, going 17-for-48 over that stretch. The Jets penalty kill, which ranks second in the NHL, at 84.5 per cent, allowed a goal on the man-advantage in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Kings on Tuesday, but were a perfect 14-for-14 in the previous five games.

“It’s always fun to see how you stack up against a group like that. For us, they’ll do some unique things that we’ll have to be ready for, but it’s just control what we can control,” Jets defenceman Dylan DeMelo said. “We’re really comfortable with our PK and if there’s a chance to get that puck out, get that puck out, be good on faceoffs, and just good detail. That will protect us when we need it.”

Injury update: The Jets have added forward Mason Appleton (upper-body) to injured reserve, resulting in an emergency recall of Axel Jonsson-Fjällby. Appleton has been ruled out for both games against Edmonton, but Bowness is hopeful he can return to play the San Jose Sharks on Monday.

Pierre-Luc Dubois (lower-body) missed a second straight practice on Thursday but skated earlier in the day. He’ll travel with the Jets but is doubtful to play Friday, with a possible return to the line-up on Saturday in the rematch against the Oilers.

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Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.