NHL Hockey

Oilers' defense on rise ahead of Devils' visit

As much as the Edmonton Oilers are headlined by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, there are two other key reasons they are on a 7-2-2 run heading into a Wednesday night matchup with the injury-depleted New Jersey Devils.

It's no coincidence the Oilers have cobbled together that record in the past 11 games since defenseman Andrej Sekera returned on Feb. 19 from a torn Achilles tendon sustained in the offseason.

Simply put, having both Sekera and Oscar Klefbom in the lineup provides the Oilers the kind of blue-liners who make it easier for the forwards to make their offensive contributions.

"Where we're better is that we spend less time in our own zone. That's the number-one area," Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock told Postmedia. "I'm not saying we're any better defending, but we spend way less time in our own zone than we have previously, and that's with the addition of Sekera and the addition of Klefbom. They transition the puck out of there.

"We are not in near as much trouble as we were before. We were in a lot of trouble before. We'd get hemmed in for extended periods of time, so you were seeing way more shots."

Edmonton goalie Mikko Koskinen added, "If you're missing your number-one defenseman, it's a big blow for any team in this league. How good Sekera has been since a pretty bad injury has been impressive."

The Oilers also just avoided a major scare injury involving Klefbom. He was hurt Monday during Edmonton's 3-2 overtime victory over the New York Rangers, taking a puck in a very sensitive mid-body area. His status for Wednesday is questionable.

"Oscar wasn't blocking a shot, but it came underneath," Hitchcock said. "When you see how bad it was, you get really worried. And that's how we were (Monday) night when he couldn't come back. There's a lot of gladiators on this team."

The Oilers also may see the return of winger Milan Lucic, who missed the past two games due to an undisclosed injury.

With 13 games remaining, Edmonton heads into play Wednesday sitting six points outside of the last Western Conference playoff position, currently held by the Arizona Coyotes. On the surface, that's a large hill to climb, but the West's wild-card spots are truly open.

"That's more than doable if we continue with this pace," Hitchcock said.

The Devils arrive in Edmonton after blowing a 4-3, third-period lead en route to a 9-4 road loss to the Calgary Flames on Tuesday night. New Jersey has lost seven straight games (0-6-1), but this one was a new low -- especially with how goalie Mackenzie Blackwood was lit up for six third-period goals in the blowout.

"We were absolutely garbage in front of him," captain Andy Greene told the team's website. "We completely left him out to dry."

Devils coach John Hynes echoed the sentiment and emphasized that he expects better in Edmonton.

"This is not about the goaltender. You could have (Cory) Schneider or Blackwood or whatever goalie you want. It's about how the rest of the guys played in front of him," Hynes said.

He then added, "It will be addressed."

--Field Level Media

Updated March 13, 2019

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