December 29 2016 06:50PM
The Edmonton Oilers exit the Christmas break in second place in the Pacific Division and fifth spot in the Western Conference. They are hanging with the top teams, and as they continue their push towards the playoffs they will try to improve their divisional record.
The Oilers are 5-3-2 versus Pacific division foes, a massive improvement from previous seasons when they went 9-15-5 last year (4-21-4 in 2014/2015 and 8-17-3 three years ago), but they still need to improve within the division to make the playoffs.
They host the Kings tonight and the Canucks on Saturday, and both times their opponents will be playing on the second night of back-to-back games.
The Kings are without their starting goalie Jonathan Quick, and their second leading scorer Tyler Toffoli. Edmonton needs to take advantage or depleted team who lost 2-1 in Vancouver last night.
The Kings outshot the Canucks 18-4 in the third period last night. Drew Doughty played a whopping 29:23 and this veteran squad is 1-2-2 in their last five.
They are not the dominant team we've been accustomed to seeing, and as the Oilers continue their ascent up the standings, games like tonight are ones they need to win.
They Oilers have their own injury issues with Andrej Sekera sitting out. Todd McLellan said Sekera was not feeling well when he returned, and mentioned the flu. I won't be surprised if he also has a tender foot after blocking a shot late in the game versus San Jose last Friday.
Sekera is a big loss. He's been their best D-man, especially lately with 11 points in his last 13 games and he's played well defensively. Matt Benning will draw back in alongside Kris Russell, who will move to his natural left side.
Benning is excellent at moving the puck. He's played very well this season, and while he doesn't have Sekera's experience, his ability to see the ice and move the puck efficiently make him an excellent replacement.
Good teams have depth, and when they lose an important player they are able to absorb the loss. The Oilers blueline depth is infinitely better than in past years, and I expect Benning to play well. He will also help their already lethal #1 PP unit.
Benning gives them a second right-handed shot, and I'd much rather have two competent righties than just having one guy with a cannon of a shot. The Shea Weber, Alex Ovechkin's of the world are very rare, and the Oilers have proven you can have a deadly PP without needing a Brent Burns ripping shots. Of course, it would be great to have someone with his or Weber's velocity on the blueline, but it isn't a necessity.
The Oilers haven't played since last Friday, and they've only had one practice. They'll likely need a few shifts to get everyone up back feeling good, but before then they need to play smart, avoid the egregious error and chip off the rust.
Benning draws in for Sekera, while Jesse Puljujarvi is in for Taylor Beck. Puljujarvi will skate with Caggiula and Pouliot, and McLellan wants to get all four lines going. He said he won't worry about line matchups early in the game, when I asked him about having two rookies on the same line. He wants to give them an opportunity to play and not worry too much about line matchups early on.
The Kings did not skate this morning, but one Kings reporter told me he expects Zatkoff to start in goal. The Oilers have to be leery of Jeff Carter. Since joining the Kings, Carter has 14 goals, 24 points and 55 shots in 17 games vs. the Oilers.
The Kings did activate Brayden McNabb today, and he will be a game time decision. If he plays, it would be his first game since October 29th.
- This is far from an easy game for the Oilers. The Kings have owned them since March 30th, 2012 going 17-1-2. The Oilers only regulation win in the last 20 games occurred April 7th, 2015. The last 20 games have not been pretty for the Oilers. The Kings have outscored them 73-34, including 57-25 at even strength and out shot them 706-517 (almost ten shots more per game). Tonight they can end another opponent's lengthy period of domination.
- I asked McLellan about Eberle's lack of production with McDavid.
"Just a few more offensive results would be nice. Jordan has been streaky, and the streak is on the negative side right now, so he has has to find ways to be productive within our system. However, I do think his board work is getting a bit better. His backcheck, his attention to picking up the right guy coming into the zone and defending in the D-zone has been better.
As we improve in one area, we are giving back in the other and we have to be careful we don't get him in a cheating situation, so he is cheating to try and score. But we do need more production from him," said McLellan.
- Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl will remain together, and RNH said the transition to wing hasn't been very difficult, because he is often, still playing centre in the defensive zone. Whoever is back first plays low, even if it is Maroon, so RNH hasn't found himself exclusively on the wall in his own end. The bigger change for him has been in the offensive zone. He's been more of a puck distributor, but with Draisaitl's excellent passing abilities, RNH is trying to get in more shooting positions, because he knows Draisaitl can find him.
- Today I learned in Finland they celebrate Christmas on December 24th. Jesse Puljujarvi celebrated with Iiro Pakarinen and his family on the 24th, and then celebrated Canadian Christmas with Matt Benning and his family on the 25th. Puljujarvi and Benning are living together this year, and Puljujarvi enjoyed having celebrating both Christmases. He got a late Christmas present as his parents and younger sister arrived in Edmonton on Boxing day. He was very upbeat this morning, and tonight will be the first time his parents watch him live in the NHL. Like every kid or player, it is still a thrill to play in front of Mom and Dad.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING...
From LA Kings Insider
Hockey, perhaps to a degree as great as any major Canadian city, is such an integral part of the identity and focus of Edmonton, and I’m really jazzed to get a firsthand sense of how that transfers into the new arena amidst a cultivating air of optimism that had begun to form but hadn’t yet swept away the well deserved cynicism and dismissal that had hardened in Oilers fans during previous visits here.
We’ll have to wait another several hours to get a first look at Rogers Place because the team isn’t taking part in a morning skate and will instead hold meetings at the hotel, which is located much closer to the new arena than the old one. Waking up with the Kings will follow, as well as stories and reports as we get closer to game time. If you’re interested in a preview of tonight’s game, I’ll join Jason Gregor and Robin Brownlee on TSN 1260 at 2:25 PT this afternoon; click here to listen live.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Oilers end another ugly drought and pick up a 4-2 victory. Zatkoff lets in a softy and the Oilers take advantage.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers score a PP goal. They haven't had consecutive games without a PP goal since November 29th. Their PP stays hot in December. They are 13 of 43 (30.2%) in December. And Lucic scores against his former team.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Puljujarvi scores his first goal in 24 games and first since October 12th. He has a little extra pep in his step with his parents sitting in the crowd.
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