The Oilers’ perfect recipe vs. Predators: A record, new trio and aggressive mindset

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Andrew Brunette was preparing for just his fourth game as Predators coach, but he knew what was coming.

Asked in the morning about Edmonton Oilers superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl having their way with the Predators in recent years, Brunette began to laugh. He then praised the duo, comparing them to Hockey Hall of Famers and Oilers greats Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, before dropping a line that seemed more hopeful than realistic.

“You can’t stop them,” Brunette said. “You just try to contain them a bit.”

The Predators certainly didn’t do the former, proving their bench boss correct. They couldn’t even do the latter as the Oilers crushed them 6-1 to win their first game of the season.

Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft fittingly paired the dynamic duo together to start a game for the first time this season — the team’s ultimate break-glass-in-case-of-emergency solution. Evander Kane got the plum assignment next to them.

It proved to be the right formula to prevent Edmonton from going 0-3 and to secure a win in Mattias Ekholm’s return to Nashville.

McDavid and Draisaitl went off against the Predators, as per usual, using a combination of dazzling skill and power-play prowess. Draisaitl led the way on the scoresheet, which he almost always does when facing Nashville — while making history along the way.

Draisaitl had two goals and two assists to up his totals to 22 goals and 34 points in his last 12 games against the Preds.

Both goals were scored on the power play and the first one established a team record in that capacity. Draisaitl entered the game tied with Ryan Smyth and Glenn Anderson with 126 goals scored on the man advantage. He’s now all alone atop that list with 128.

“I had no idea, but obviously I’m very proud of it,” Draisaitl said of his record. “I’ll take it. But I’m very well aware of my four other guys on that unit look for me and put me into great spots.”

All McDavid did was net a goal and add an assist, scoring the prettiest goal of the night in the process.

He got knocked down in the neutral zone just outside the Predators blue line by defenceman Ryan McDonagh but spun in a circle, got up, grabbed the puck, walked in and beat goaltender Juuse Saros on the blocker side.

As amazing as McDavid and Draisaitl were, this was far more than a two-man show.

McDavid and Draisaitl skating together meant line juggling for the second and third lines, too. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins slid over to the middle to centre Zach Hyman and Warren Foegele. That was Edmonton’s best line in terms of five-on-five production and possession.

That trio drove play and each member scored a goal with both teams at full strength. Foegele had two points overall, Nugent-Hopkins recorded three and Hyman racked up four, fitting because his forechecking and second efforts on the puck made him the best skater on the ice.

Right winger Connor Brown was bumped down to the third line with Ryan McLeod and Dylan Holloway to accommodate the top-six overhaul.

“If I’m not working, I’m not playing my game,” Hyman said. “Some games you feel like your work is giving you more success and some games it’s not. But you just have to continue to put your nose to the grindstone. Eventually, the results are going to happen.”

Perhaps most important in the win was Jack Campbell’s excellent effort in the Edmonton net. He might have been Edmonton’s best player — he was, according to Draisaitl — which might sound odd in such a lopsided victory.

But Campbell turned aside 42 of 43 shots, looking composed most of the time and acrobatic when needed. Flashing his glove on Tommy Novak in the first period and a scorpion save on a chance in tight by Gustav Nyquist in the second were prime examples of Campbell’s athleticism.

“He played the way he expects to play. He played the way we expect him to play,” Woodcroft said. “He made numerous big saves, looked like he was confident and big out there.

“He allowed us to get into the game and find a way to win it.”

Campbell’s performance was vital for an expected Stanley Cup contender whose goaltending had already come under fire.

The numbers from Campbell and netminding partner Stuart Skinner were worse than their play between the pipes in the first two games, but it was hard to gloss over the matching .750 save percentages. In fairness to Campbell, his inefficiency occurred in just 27:30 as he allowed four goals on 16 shots before being pulled in the opener in Vancouver.

“It’s always tough when the result goes that way,” Campbell said. “But looking at it and understanding the difference between me last year and this year and over the course of my career, it was learning that there are great players in the league.

“I’ve always known that. But having the mindset I’m going to be perfect, and everything is going to go great every night is almost arrogant. Sometimes they’re going to make great plays and score on me. It’s not being OK with that, but it’s just understanding that sometimes you’re not going to have a great night and that’s what happened. I didn’t let it get me down.”

There were many times last season that Campbell did. He’d beat himself up over a poor outcome and let that snowball into another bad game and another and another. It all amounted to an .888 save percentage and losing his starting job to Skinner after being a high-profile free agent signing.

Campbell is in the early stages of turning the page on last season — he vaulted his 2023-24 save percentage to .915 thanks to Tuesday — and turning the page more seamlessly between appearances.

“That’s the recipe for the league, having a short memory,” Campbell said. “It’s certainly something I’ve worked hard on this summer — not necessarily in a results-focused way, but having the ability to process what happened and learn from it rather than dwell on it.”

McDavid and Draisaitl pumped in the offence. Hyman and his linemates dominated. Campbell shut the door by, as he said, being more aggressive in the crease.

Put it all together, and the Oilers defeated the Predators yet again.

It’s truly bizarre how this one-sided rivalry has flipped. The Predators beat the Oilers 12 straight times from 2014 to 2018. Since then, the Oilers have gone 10-0-2 in the head-to-head matchup.

Highlighting it all is Draisaitl’s unmatched dominance during that streak — which his record-breaking accomplishment put into greater focus on Tuesday.

“I was wrong. I guess past performance does say something,” said Woodcroft, who, unlike Brunette, brushed off the notion earlier in the day of Draisaitl’s success against the Predators being an indicator of future success.

“Obviously, he’s got some kind of feeling in this building and against this team. His game was outstanding.”

(Photo: Alan Poizner / USA Today)

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