GLENDALE, AZ - The term "must-win game" gets tossed around quite frequently in the world of sports, but it couldn't be more applicable for the Oilers tonight as they open their three-game road trip with a mammoth matchup against the Arizona Coyotes.
Edmonton sits eight points back of Arizona for the Western Conference's final wildcard spot with a game in hand and could cut that deficit to six with a win tonight. A defeat would put the Oil 10 points out of the post-season picture with just 11 games remaining.
"We all know how important this game is," said the team's leading goal-scorer Leon Draisaitl, whose 42 tallies have him just four back of Alex Ovechkin for top spot in the NHL. "We all know what's at stake and we're going to make sure we're ready for it. This is probably the biggest game of the year for us."
The Oilers had an opportunity to gain further ground on Wednesday when they wrapped up their homestand against the New Jersey Devils, but they weren't able to seize the day and dropped a 6-3 decision. They'll look to return to the form that allowed them to compile a 7-2-1 record in the 10 games prior to the setback.
"Tonight's not just two points, it's a four-point swing," said defenceman Matt Benning. "It's the biggest game of the season for us… It's getting back to what we know and rebounding. Good teams don't lose two in a row."
Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said the biggest key to the team's success prior to the disappointing showing against New Jersey was their commitment to defending - a focus they'll look to regain against a Coyotes club that has gone 8-2-0 in their last 10 games including back-to-back wins heading into tonight.
"We weren't out-played, but we were careless defensively and we haven't been like that for a long time," said the bench boss. "We've got a good team we're playing against… They're obviously feeling it and have had a lot of things go right the last month. We're going to have to play our best game and hopefully that's good enough. The players recognize (New Jersey) was a one-off and hopefully we'll be back on task today."
This is the second trip to Arizona for the Oilers this season as they defeated the Coyotes 3-1 in their first action of 2019 back on Jan. 2. The desert dogs rebounded by winning both games in Edmonton by 3-2 margins (one in a shootout), setting up tonight's season series finale.
JOE BACK IN THE SHOW
The Oilers recalled forward Joe Gambardella from the AHL's Bakersfield Condors on Friday and will deploy him immediately tonight in Arizona on left wing along with Colby Cave at centre and Josh Currie on the right side.
"I'm really excited to be back up here," said the 25-year-old, who met the team in Glendale from Bakersfield. "It's always a dream come true when you get the call back up. I'm excited to be part of this group and part of the playoff push they have going on here. It's all really exciting."
The native of Staten Island, NY and NCAA product of UMass Lowell has lit the lamp 27 times in 48 games with the Condors this season, in addition to contributing 18 assists. Gambardella played four games with the Oilers in his first NHL call-up between Dec. 31 and Jan. 10, including the team's 3-1 win in Arizona to start 2019.
He wasn't able to find the scoresheet during the four-game stretch, which is something he strives to change in his second shot with the big club.
"My first call-up taught me that it's still hockey and I've still got to put the puck in the net at the end of the day," he said. "You're up here for a reason and have to do everything you can to help the team have an opportunity to succeed on any given night. I just have to play the game that I've played my whole life… I'm just going to try to do everything I can to be the hardest worker out there."
Coach Hitchcock said he hopes Gambardella can inject some fresh energy into the team's bottom-six forward contingent.
"He's a competitive offensive player and we need that right now," said the bench boss. "He's a guy that's willing to do anything he can to try to score a goal. He's really good on the boards and he's really competitive."
Coach Hitchcock didn't provide any other lineup notes following morning skate, but he had Lucic-McDavid-Kassian, Rieder-Draisaitl-Chiasson and Khaira-RNH-Gagner as the other three forward lines during Friday's pre-flight practice.
Mikko Koskinen, who boasts a .954 save percentage in two starts against the Coyotes this season, gets the nod between the pipes.
TV: 8:00 p.m. MDT; Televised on CBC, City TV, Sportsnet and Sportsnet One
Tonight's game is the fourth and final meeting between the two teams this season. The Oilers won the first meeting, 3-1 in Arizona but the Coyotes have won the last two at Rogers Place by 3-2 scores with one in regulation and one in a shootout.
Oilers team scope:
The Oilers dropped a 6-3 decision to New Jersey at home on Wednesday night and are now eight points behind the Coyotes for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
In their last 11 games, the Oilers have a 7-3-1 record, keeping pace with other hot teams in the now spirited race for the playoffs in the West.
Sam Gagner set up Alex Chiasson to open the scoring for Edmonton in their 3-2 W vs. VAN on Mar. 7, reaching 300 points (104G, 196) as an Oiler. He is the 20th player to reach 300 points as an Oiler, and is four assists away from reaching 200 assists as an Oiler. Gagner has four goals and two assists for six points in 13 games since returning to the Oilers.
Coyotes team scope:
The Coyotes have been outstanding since the calendar flipped over to 2019. Specifically, since January 6, 2019 they have a record of 19-9-3 which has seen them surge to the second wild card spot despite the second most man-games lost due to injury in the entire NHL with over 300.
Arizona's leading scorer is Clayton Keller, with 45 points (13G, 32A) in 71 games. Second on the team is Oliver Ekman-Larsson who has 11 goals and 38 points in 70 contests.
Darcy Kuemper has emerged as a key member of the Coyotes between the pipes, filling in for the injured Antti Raanta, who's been out since November. Kuemper has a record of 24-16-5 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.
By the Numbers:
Connor McDavid has multiple point games in six straight games (Mar. 2-13), posting 13 points (1G, 12A). This season's record is seven consecutive games with multiple points (set by Auston Matthews and Nikita Kucherov). ... McDavid also has points in 10 straight games (3G, 15A, 18PTS) from February 16 through March 13, though not recognized by the League as he missed a pair of games due to suspension during the streak.
Leon Draisaitl is one of only 12 Oilers to score more than 40 goals in a season and one of only six Oilers to post 40 goals in 65 games or less (Gretzky-7X, Kurri-4X, Messier-2X, Anderson-3X, Carson-1X). Draisaitl currently has 42 goals, which ranks second in the NHL behind Alex Ovechkin's 46. He's also sixth in the NHL in scoring with 89 points.
OILERS -Jesse Puljujarvi (hip) is out
COYOTES - Antti Raanta (lower body) is out; Nick Schmaltz (lower body) is out; Kyle Capobianco (lower body) is out; Derek Stepan (lower body) is day-to-day