Penguins aware Oilers aren’t just about McDavid anymore


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Leon Draisaitl practices Friday at PPG Paints Arena. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Any player with Connor McDavid's skills set is sure to create profound challenges for opposing teams.

Any player who can skate the way McDavid does is guaranteed to command a lot of attention from them, too.

And any player who can match McDavid's talents while displaying them at such high speeds is, well, Connor McDavid, because there is no one in the game quite like him.

It is the reason why, if he's not the finest player in the NHL, McDavid does no worse than share top billing with the likes of Sidney Crosby, which is pretty heady company for any 22-year-old to be keeping.

"The way he can attack while moving at speed on defensemen, it's very tough to defend," Brian Dumoulin said. "He makes one move, and he's by you. He's got great body control, too. So even if you think you've got him, he can still get around you. ... He's just a really slippery player."

Crosby offered a succinct response when asked what aspect of McDavid's game stands out to him -- "Everything" -- before elaborating on how McDavid's skating is the cornerstone of all he does.

"Speed is probably the biggest thing that stands out when you're watching him, but he's a great playmaker," Crosby said. "He can shoot the puck. He does everything well. But his speed really allows him to create all of those things."

McDavid has created enough during Edmonton's first 14 games to accumulate six goals and 17 assists, helping to hoist the Oilers -- chronic underachievers in recent seasons -- to the top of the Western Conference with a 9-4-1 record.

He's six points ahead of Crosby in the NHL scoring race, although it's not as if Crosby will require any statistical incentive when the Penguins and Oilers meet Saturday at 1:08 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.

"I get prepared, knowing that it's going to be a good challenge," Crosby said. "Knowing that you're playing against him, just knowing what he can do and the game that he plays. You have to be aware, and prepare accordingly."

Although Mike Sullivan downplayed the Crosby vs. McDavid aspect of the game -- "This is the Penguins against the Oilers," he said. "It's a team game." -- he acknowledged the appeal of seeing them share a slab of ice.

"They're generational talents," Sullivan said. "When they're on the ice together, from a pure hockey fan standpoint, it's a privilege to watch."

McDavid is, by almost-universal acclamation, the Oilers' finest player, but he isn't their most productive one. Not so far this season, anyway. That would be one of his linemates, Leon Draisaitl, who leads the NHL in scoring with 25 points -- 12 of them goals -- in 14 games.

And while Draisaitl might not get as many headlines as McDavid, he gets every bit as much respect from the opponents who have to contend with him.

"The guys who play against him every night, I think they appreciate and respect what he brings," Crosby said. "McDavid, deservingly so, gets the attention he gets, but I think everyone recognizes that Draisaitl is a great player in his own right."

A pretty large one, at that. Draisaitl is 6 foot 2, 208 pounds, and uses every inch and ounce of it to his advantage.

"Draisaitl is big and strong," Sullivan said. "He protects the puck extremely well."

There's much more to him than muscle, though. Draisaitl has good instincts and is willing to allow plays to develop before settling on a course of action.

"He's not just going to rush to give McDavid the puck," Dumoulin said. "He's very patient, cerebral with his passes. It always seems like he's making good decisions."

That's part of the reason he and McDavid are such a formidable tag-team, and why the Penguins will devote so much energy to damage-control against their line Saturday.

"(McDavid) and Draisaitl have a good thing going," Dumoulin said. "They're very dangerous out there every shift. They can create something out of nothing. They're up there with the best of the best."

Evgeni Malkin, who was injured in the second game of the season, skated between Alex Galchenyuk and Patric Horqnvist during practice, worked on the No. 1 power play unit and later was activated from injured reserve. Barring a late setback, he should be in the lineup Saturday. "I think his conditioning has improved with every day he's practiced with us," Sullivan said. "It looks really encouraging."

• Everyone on the Penguins' major-league roster participated in practice, a rarity this season.

James Neal, who formed a lethal partnership with Malkin during their time together with the Penguins, has revived his career during his first season with the Oilers, scoring 11 goals -- a league-best eight of them on the power play -- in October. "The way he shoots the puck, he's just a pure goal-scorer," Crosby said. "You combine him with some of the guys on their team who can make plays, and that's a pretty good combination. We saw first-hand here what he can do, and what a good scorer he is."

• The Penguins have won six games in a row against Edmonton and are 14-0-3 in their past 17 against the Oilers.

• Sullivan praised the performance of Teddy Blueger's line, which has Zach Aston-Reese and Brandon Tanev on the wings. "They're hard to play against," he said. "They're strong defensively. They're a momentum line for us. We put them in difficult circumstances. They get a lot of defensive-zone starts and they've responded. ... They're also a line that can generate offense, and they have."

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