MORE THAN MCDAVID

Oil­ers’ hot start has seen sev­eral pos­i­tive sto­ry­lines de­vel­op­ing:

Edmonton Sun - - SPORTS - ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI rty­[email protected]­media.com @SUN_TYCHKOWSKI

NEW YORK — You don’t go 4-0 if your two rookie right-shot de­fence­men in the top two pair­ings can’t han­dle the job.

No mat­ter what else is go­ing right for the Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers, they prob­a­bly aren’t where they are right now if Ethan Bear and Joel Pers­son aren’t two of the most pleas­ant sur­prises on the team.

“You have some younger play­ers who are be­ing put out in po­si­tions they’re not used to and they’ve han­dled it very well,” said goalie Mike Smith. “They’re playing some big min­utes for our team right now and find­ing ways to get the job done.

“Your D are a huge part of your team, they get the puck into the hands of our best play­ers and they log some tough min­utes against some of the best play­ers in the league, too. It says a lot about the peo­ple we have in here.”

When Adam Lars­son broke his leg it looked like the Oil­ers were doomed, but, through three games on the top pair­ing with Dar­nell Nurse, Bear has done an ex­cel­lent job of stepping up and mak­ing a dif­fer­ence at both ends of the ice. Pers­son, 26, is look­ing right at home with Os­car Klef­bom.

“That’s what you need within a team. If some­one goes down you need other guys to pick up the slack,” said Nurse. “That’s what we’ve done so far. Any­time you lose a guy like Lars it’s a big hit, it’s hard to fill his shoes the way he de­fends and com­petes ev­ery night, but we’re try­ing to that as a com­mit­tee.”

Bear, just 22, played a ca­reer-high 23:52 on 28 shifts Thurs­day in New Jer­sey. It was his play be­hind the Oil­ers net, strip­ping the puck from a Devil and send­ing a quick pass to Con­nor Mcdavid, that set up Ed­mon­ton’s first goal of the game.

“He’s such a smart player, very con­fi­dent with the puck,” said Nurse. “With that con­fi­dence and his pa­tience, he’s stepped in and played great so far. It’s been fun. As we play more and more to­gether we get more com­fort­able as a pair. He’s done re­ally well so far.”

Bear never ex­pected to be counted on to hold up half of Ed­mon­ton’s top pair­ing, but it’s nice to know he’s far enough along in his de­vel­op­ment that they trust him with the job.

“I can’t be com­pla­cent or sat­is­fied, I still have to work on my game and help Doc (Nurse) out as much as I can,” he said, adding he isn’t sure what clicked for him on the ice. “I re­ally don’t know, hon­estly. Just stay­ing com­posed maybe, work­ing hard, stay­ing fo­cused, mak­ing sure I’m ready ev­ery prac­tice. That’s re­ally it.”

He doesn’t credit his time in the AHL (89 games of it over two years) for help­ing him grow into the player he is right now.

“Just the ex­pe­ri­ence,” he said. “There are good play­ers in the mi­nors, too. You get put in dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions and you ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fer­ent plays and from your mis­takes, you learn that you can’t make those mis­takes again, es­pe­cially up here. I think just playing games, hon­estly.”

CLEAN­ING IT UP

The Oil­ers have been cut­ting down on the penal­ties on this trip, tak­ing just four mi­nors through the first four games. It’s tak­ing a lot of stress off the penalty killers, leav­ing them fresher for five-on-five play. It also means they don’t have to win back the mo­men­tum af­ter spend­ing two min­utes on the kill.

While they’ve made a con­certed ef­fort to be more dis­ci­plined, that’s not the big­gest rea­son for the cleaner rap sheet.

“I think it’s just hav­ing the puck more and spend­ing less time in our D zone, less time de­fend­ing,” said Mcdavid. “When you have the puck, that’s when you draw penal­ties and we’ve been do­ing a good job of that.”

That also trans­lates into more power-play op­por­tu­ni­ties as op­po­nents strug­gle with Ed­mon­ton’s speed through the neu­tral zone or cy­cles in the of­fen­sive end. The Oil­ers have drawn 15 penal­ties this sea­son, the fifth-high­est to­tal in the league be­hind Toronto, Wash­ing­ton, San Jose and Pitts­burgh. The Leafs, Caps and Sharks have all played one more game. “That was a goal of ours com­ing in,” said head coach Dave Tip­pett. “It was the other way last year, we took more penal­ties than we had power plays. I still think we can do a bet­ter job of it. (Tomas) Jurco took a penalty at the of­fen­sive blue line the other night, so there are some penal­ties we can take out of our game. If you can come out on the plus in that ev­ery night, it’s not a bad po­si­tion to be in.”

Es­pe­cially when both spe­cial teams units are top five in the NHL.

“Spe­cial teams is so big in this league,” said Mcdavid. “Five-on-five, ev­ery­one is pretty close. Spe­cial teams usu­ally makes the dif­fer­ence. The penalty kill has been great, the power play has been able to find a cou­ple, which is good. We have to keep that go­ing.”

HE SAID IT

“He’s work­ing hard away from the puck, he’s try­ing to do the lit­tle things right. He’s ma­tur­ing into that two-way for­ward he can re­ally be­come. He’s a big body, he’s good in the cir­cle. He can be a real force on both sides of the puck.” — Mcdavid on Leon Drai­saitl.

KATHY WIL­LENS/AP

Oil­ers de­fence­man Ethan Bear bat­tles Devils cen­tre Jack Hughes dur­ing the sec­ond pe­riod of Thurs­day’s game in Ne­wark, N.J.

ED KAISER/POST­MEDIA

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