DENVER, CO - The Oilers desperately want to close out their four-game road trip with a .500 record, but that will mean defeating a Colorado Avalanche squad cruising along on a four-game win streak.
Edmonton had its own win streak of six games snapped on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in a 4-2 loss to the Rangers, and followed that up with a 4-0 loss in Chicago on Thursday. The Oil (14-17-2) would like to put a couple more wins under their Christmas tree before the holiday break, with tonight’s road trip finale and Monday’s home tilt with Winnipeg.
“It’s very big,” veteran forward Matt Hendricks said. “We were playing very well before this road trip, and we’ve got to get back on our horses here. We’re still in an OK situation, but tonight is a must-win for us.”
The Avs have been winning with defence on their current streak, surrendering just four goals in victories over Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago and the Islanders, due in large part to the stellar play of goalie Semyon Varlamov, who will start tonight.
“Their team has played well, and he’s been a big part of it,” Edmonton’s bench boss Todd McLellan said. “They haven’t given up much five-on-five period against any team over the last few games. We’ve looked at a lot of the goals that have gone in against him, and they’ve been in-tight, around-the-net secondary chances.
“We’ve got to get our guys there, but it goes back to the first shot. You don’t get a rebound, you don’t get opportunities at second chances if the first one isn’t laying in that area. We still have to do a better job of getting the first one there to muck around on the second.”
The Oilers, meanwhile, have only scored twice in their back-to-back defeats combined, but they’ll get a big boost up front tonight.
Benoit Pouliot has yet to play a game in December after suffering an injury Nov. 30 in Toronto, but he’ll make his return to action tonight on a line with Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
The Oilers toyed with the notion of putting RNH with Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl, lining up that way during Friday’s practice, but Pouliot’s availability keeps Teddy Purcell with the top line.
“I feel good, I feel better than I did before,” Pouliot said of his much-anticipated return. “A few bumps along the road here and there, but I feel good today. Yesterday was a full team practice, I felt good in there, and then this morning I felt great.”
The 6-foot-3 left-winger scored five goals with seven assists in 24 games prior to his injury. Coach McLellan said he looks forward to seeing Pouliot’s forechecking and scoring ability back in the lineup.
“We want to see Benny get back in and have an impact,” he said. “If he can come in and contribute with his forecheck, his size, his ability to get pucks to the net, I think he can help Nuge and Jordan. That’s one of the reasons why we went back to our lines.”
The Pouliot-RNH-Eberle trio will look to rediscover the chemistry it enjoyed during the second half of last season. In the final 38 games of the 2014-15 campaign, Pouliot had 26 points, 16 of them goals, mostly playing with his current ‘mates. Eberle was the biggest benefactor, putting up 42 points from January on, while RNH accumulated 32 points during that span.
“It’s nice,” Pouliot said of the familiarity. “These guys have been playing very good hockey, so I’m going to jump in there and try to help keep them going. They’ll be there for me tonight. It’s going to be fun. I like playing with those guys.”
Tonight’s starting goalie Anders Nilsson has won five of his last six starts, looking to rebound from Tuesday’s loss in NYC, where he stopped 17 of 20 shots against.
As noted, the Winnipeg Jets visit Edmonton on Monday, leading into a four-day holiday break. The Oilers are right back on the road when action resumes, visiting their two Western Canadian rivals, the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday and the Calgary Flames on Sunday. The back-to-back weekend will be a pivotal one considering the tight Pacific Division standings.
-- Ryan Frankson, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS (14-17-2) at AVALANCHE (16-16-1)
TV: CBC, ALT
Season series: The Edmonton Oilers went 2-0-1 against the Colorado Avalanche in 2014-15. Forward Andrew Miller, who played in only two of the games, led Edmonton in scoring with five assists and forward Anton Lander contributed four assists. Taylor Hall had two goals for the Oilers. Ryan O'Reilly had two goals and two assists for Colorado.
Oilers team scope: Edmonton closes a four-game road trip having lost two in a row, following a six-game winning streak. "We want to finish this road trip off on a good note, go out and get the win and get back to .500 on the trip,'' forward Leon Draisaitl told the Oilers website. After being shut out 4-0 by the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, coach Todd McLellan juggled his top two lines at practice Friday. Draisaitl skated with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Hall, while Matt Hendricks skated with Jordan Eberle and Teddy Purcell. "[Thursday] night I didn't think we got very good performances out of some of our upper-end players," MacLellan said. "It's a starting point. It could change quickly." Forward Benoit Pouliot, who is on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, could be activated and return to the lineup. "I think he'd be ready to contribute,'' said McLellan, who wouldn't commit to Anders Nilsson in goal, but said Nilsson and Cam Talbot will likely split the next four games.
Avalanche team scope: Colorado has won four straight games, sweeping a three-game road trip before opening a four-game homestand Thursday with a 2-1 win against the New York Islanders. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov has won his past five starts, allowing five goals on 162 shots (.969 save percentage) "We're playing solid defensively," he said after the win against the Islanders. "Everything comes from defense. If we're playing solid defense, we're going to get success." Defenseman Francois Beauchemin, who scored twice in the win against the Islanders, has three goals and three assists in his past six games. The Avalanche have won nine of their past 13 games to get back to the .500 mark and play 10 of their next 12 games at home.