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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

GDB 24.0: Stay Within Striking Distance (8pm MT, SNW)

Home ice advantage might have even more of an advantage in May and June, if the Alberta government allows fans in the stands. And that storyline adds a bit more intrigue to tonight’s tilt between the first place Toronto Maple Leafs and second place Edmonton Oilers.

If the Oilers and Flames are allowed to have fans in the building during the playoffs, but teams in Ontario and Quebec are not, then home ice advantage becomes a much bigger deal for Edmonton. They trail Toronto by six points, and it is imperative they pick up at least two.

“It would be a huge lift,” said Connor McDavid. “Talking with some guys around the league who have gotten their fans back, even though it was in a limited capacity, they said it was a big lift with the energy they provide. If there was a way for it to be safe and work it out that would be great.”

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The main focus for the Oilers is to get back on the winning track, and continue to play well and stay near the top of the North with Toronto. But an added potential bonus would be the possibility of hosting playoff games with fans. Even if it was only 2,000 to 3,000 fans, the difference in the building would be immense. Right now there is little to no atmosphere.

It is quiet, and while the simulated crowd noise is loud, it isn’t the real thing. Every player I’ve talked to readily admits how much better the energy is with fans in the building. Even when you are on the road, and the fans are cheering against you, the noise and energy can give you a lift.

Who knows if having fans is realistic or not. But if there is even a sliver of hope, then a win tonight just adds another layer of importance. Even if the odds are slim.

Edmonton has rebounded nicely after losses this season. They are 6-2 in games after a loss, and with the Maple Leafs down to their third-string goalie tonight, this is a game the Oilers have to have.

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LINEUPS…

Oilers

RNH – McDavid – Puljujarvi
Kahun – Draisaitl – Yamamoto
Ennis – Khaira – Archibald
P. Russell – Haas – Chiasson

Nurse – Barrie
Jones – Larsson
Bouchard – Bear

Koskinen

Mikko Koskinen makes his 15th start of the season and first since February 20th. He is 2-0 in his last two starts and stopped 83 of 86 shots. He has looked much better with more practice time between games. He will need to be sharp against the league’s second highest scoring team.

Evan Bouchard will play left defence tonight with Ethan Bear. The big advantage of his playing his off-side is in the offensive zone as he will be able to one-time passes from Bear. The challenge will be defending on his off-side as it is quite different on the rush. I expect this pair to get a lot of offensive zone starts and play to their strength.

The Oilers claimed goaltender Alex Stalock on waivers today. He will need to quarantine for two weeks, and when he is available, I could see the Oilers carrying three goalies on the active roster. They have a lot of forwards they can move up and down from the taxi squad, and can keep eight D-men and three goalies. And on games where Bouchard isn’t playing he could go to the TS, as he doesn’t require waivers.

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Stalock would also qualify as goalie to be exposed in the expansion draft as he is under contract next season with a $785K cap hit. Although if they qualify Stuart Skinner, he too would qualify under the goalie exposure rules.

Maple Leafs

Thornton – Tavares – Marner
Babanov – Kerfoot  – Nylander
Hyman – Engvall – Mikheyev
Vesey – Spezza – Boyd

Rielly – Brodie
Muzzin – Holl
Dermott – Bogosian

Hutchinson

Auston Matthews took part in the optional skate this morning, but he never shot the puck with any velocity. His coach said he is a game time decision, but he stayed late after practice working. He won’t play. His hand is clearly bothering him, so why risk aggravating or doing more damage on March 1st while the team is in first place? I’d be cautious and give him a few more days.

Jack Campbell and Frederik Anderson stayed out late with the extra skaters, but Michael Hutchinson will start. Campbell has an undisclosed injury, while Andersen is still not 100% healthy.

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Hutchinson is 2-1 in three starts this season with an excellent .924sv%, so it won’t be easy to beat him, but when a team is playing their #3 goalie you have to beat them.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING…

From The Leafsnation:

Even without Auston Matthews, the Leafs played as complete a game as we have seen from them this season on Saturday, delivering both offensively and defensively. They also succeeded in keeping their foot on the gas even with a solid lead in the third period, something they have struggled with in the past. Campbell’s performance in his return was nothing less than stellar, and the mood of the entire team following the win was noticeably jubilant.

Meanwhile, despite their loss in that game, the Oilers have been dominant over the last couple weeks. Prior to Saturday’s loss, they were coming off a five game win streak, and they are currently sitting in the second spot in the division – comfortably in a playoff spot as of now. Goalies – and defenseman – can (and do) often attest to how tough it is playing against the 1-2 punch of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and though the Leafs have done a commendable job so far this season, they are not a duo any opponent wants to sleep on.

While the Leafs are still dealing with some injuries and game time decisions (Matthews, Andersen, and some questions remain after Campbell took the day off yesterday), this should be a fun one to watch!

TONIGHT…

Photoshop: Tom Kostiuk

GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers improve to 7-2 in games after a loss as they rebound with a 4-2 victory.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers get a powerplay opportunity and McDavid picks up two points after going pointless on Saturday.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Koskinen moves into a tie for the league-lead in assists as he picks up his second of the season.

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