The Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers both entered the All-Star break playing solid hockey and occupying playoff positions in their respective conferences.
Only one of them will be able to win their first game after the break, as the clubs meet for the first time in nearly two years Tuesday night in Edmonton.
The Sabres (24-18-5) and Oilers (24-19-3) both missed last postseason, but they now sport nearly identical winning records and would make the playoffs if the season ended now. Buffalo is seventh in the Eastern Conference with 53 points, while Edmonton's 51 points entering the break were good enough for sixth in the West.
The Oilers entered the break in particularly impressive fashion with three straight victories and five in six games. They now have a chance for their first four-game winning streak since opening the season by winning four in a row.
Ales Hemsky's return to the lineup has given Edmonton a lift. The right wing, whose 41 points lead the Oilers, has six in two games since missing 10 contests due to a concussion. He had two goals and two assists last Tuesday to send Edmonton into the break with a 4-3 home victory over Columbus.
"When you have four points or something like that you are always asked if it is the best game in your career," Hemsky said. "For me every game we win is what I feel good about. I just want to go out there and do my part. It felt great to win the game. It's a great feeling in this room right now."
Hemsky has only faced Buffalo three times in his career but has at least one point in each of those games, totaling two goals and two assists. He assisted on Edmonton's only goal the last time these teams met, as the Oilers fell 2-1 in overtime at Buffalo on Feb. 15, 2007.
Ryan Miller, who made 27 saves for the Sabres to earn that win, enjoyed a strong first half to 2008-09. The sixth-year netminder is 22-12-4 with a career-high .916 save percentage, and has already tied his career best with three shutouts.
Miller, though, suffered through one of his worst nights of the season in Buffalo's final game before the break. He allowed five goals on 26 shots as the Sabres fell 5-3 at Tampa Bay.
Derek Roy scored two goals in the defeat, giving him seven goals and 13 points in 10 games since the New Year.
Roy has surged into the team lead with 44 points, but left wing Thomas Vanek was Buffalo's lone All-Star representative thanks to his 28 goals - most on the team and tied for third in the league. Though he didn't register a point in the game, he told the Sabres' official Web site he enjoyed the experience.
"It's awesome," Vanek said. "A few of the other guys probably deserved to go, but I was fortunate enough to be picked and represent my teammates and the Buffalo organization."
This is the third of six straight road games for the Sabres, who have not played at home since Jan. 17 and won't do so again until a Feb. 4 matchup with Toronto.