While Washington started the season by facing eight straight playoff teams from last season, the Oilers faced only one playoff team from last season in their first eight games, and they've faced only two playoff teams from '18-19 in their first 10 games of the season.
Edmonton roared out of the gates with five straight wins, taking the last three of them on the road. The Oilers scored 21 goals in those first five games, but have managed just nine goals in five games since (2-2-1). Six of those nine goals came in a home ice win over the Philadelphia Flyers; Edmonton has been limited to one or no goals in four of its last five games.
"Definitely a challenge," says Caps coach Todd Reirden, of facing the Oilers. "Obviously the moves they made this summer - coaching and player moves - they're a lot stronger team than they've been in the past. They're very structured now in a lot of ways, so they're a difficult team to play against. Obviously the top line and the players that go along with them, so it's a difficult match-up for us, here on the road especially."
Edmonton is more structured, as Reirden notes, and that structure has been seen primarily in the team's defensive play in the early going. Last season's Oilers allowed 3.3 goals per game to rank 25th in the league in that department. This season, with veteran coach Dave Tippet now installed behind the bench, Edmonton has shaved an entire goal off that figure, paring it down to 2.3 goals per game, good for fifth in the circuit.
Offensively, the Oilers a top heavy team. The quartet of top liners Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid and Zack Kassian plus second-line winger James Neal has accounted for 23 of Edmonton's 30 goals this season. Oilers defensemen have also contributed five goals to the cause. Tonight's Edmonton lineup features a bottom six that has six skaters who are all still seeking their first points of the season, with a combined total of 41 man-games among them.
Still, the Caps know they must find a way to neutralize the Oilers' top unit, and to avoid getting burned by a potent Edmonton power play that is tied for the league lead with a 35.7 percent conversion rate.
"We would prefer not to be in the box, that's for sure," says Caps defenseman Radko Gudas. "That's the No. 1 thing for us, to help our team have a chance to win. We went over the PK; we know who the biggest threats are and what their signals are. I think we're just going to have to communicate on the ice - with the forwards, with the [defense] partner, and with the goalie - when we see some of it happening, and some of the trigger points that would make us adjust a little bit and read that situation when they play against us.
"It's absolutely a big challenge. They have some of the best players in the world on this team. We're looking forward to shutting them down."
This Must Be The Place - The Caps have had defenseman Michal Kempny back in the lineup for three games now, and he has averaged 17:48 in ice time in those three games, and has also picked up a point in each of the three contests. Getting Kempny back in the lineup enables Jonas Siegenthaler to slide in alongside Gudas to give the Caps a formidable third pairing, and one the coaching staff seems to trust to play a fair amount of minutes.
"We've seen it before with him, how he can change our team," says Caps goaltender Braden Holtby of Kempny. "Obviously he is a great skater and skillwise, but he brings a certain energy and competitiveness that's kind of infectious through everyone. A guy like that just boosts you at different times, because you know he is never going to take a shift off. And now we can start getting into the pairs that we want to get consistent with, and create consistency that way."
Right now, each of the six defensemen in the Washington lineup are averaging more than 17 minutes a night. That's over a small sample size obviously, and can and will fluctuate over the remainder of the season. But just so you have an idea of how rare that is, the last time the Caps had six defensemen (who played at least half the season, 41 games, with the team) average 17 minutes a night or more was in 2005-06, Alex Ovechkin's rookie year. Those six defensemen: Jamie Heward, Brendan Witt, Steve Eminger, Bryan Muir, Shoane Morrisonn and Ivan Majesky.
John Carlson leads the Caps with 25:37 per night this season, and Gudas is sixth at 17:09. At even strength, Carlson's 19:07 per night is just ahead of Dmitry Orlov's 19:04. Gudas is at the low end of that list at 14:12, but leads the Caps blueliners with 2:54 per game in shorthanded ice time.
"Everything is a little bit different," says Gudas, of coming into Washington and picking up the schemes and systems the Caps use. "Not necessarily big differences, but some differences. And as a team, I think we switched the system as well, so it was new for everyone, and easier for me. Everybody was kind of making the same mistakes, and that was helping to teach everybody else.
"That was good, but I think overall in training camp we did a lot of systems, and in the preseason we did a lot of systems as well. I think I picked it up, and I'm pretty comfortable in the situations I'm getting put in."
In The Nets - Holtby gets the net for the fourth straight game tonight in Edmonton, and he will be seeking his fourth straight victory and his fifth of the season. On Tuesday in Calgary, he made 32 stops in a 5-3 win over the Flames.
Lifetime against the Oilers, Holtby is 7-3-1 with two shutouts, a 1.89 GAA and a .936 save pct. in 11 appearances.
For Edmonton, we are expecting to see Mikko Koskinen in net tonight. Koskinen is undefeated in four starts this season, posting a 2.20 GAA and a .934 save pct. in the process. Tonight will be Koskinen's first career start against Washington.
All Lined Up - This is how we expect the Caps and the Oilers to look on Thursday night in Edmonton when they meet up at Rogers Place for the middle match of Washington's five-game road tour:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
62-Hagelin, 92-Kuznetsov, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 20-Eller, 21-Hathaway
28-Leipsic, 26-Dowd, 18-Stephenson
14-Panik (upper body)
29-Draisaitl, 97-McDavid, 44-Kassian
39-Chiasson, 93-Nugent-Hopkins, 18-Neal
52-P. Russell 60-Granlund, 89-Gagner
16-Khaira, 23-Sheahan, 15-Archibald
77-Klefbom, 4-K. Russell
6-Larsson (lower body)
10-Nygard (upper body)
36-Persson (upper body)