EDMONTON, AB - Games around the NHL are starting to come thick and fast in March as teams enter the bulk part of their schedules.
Luckily, for the Edmonton Oilers, they'll get most of their opportunities to earn important points in the playoff race on home ice.
The Oilers begin a four-game home stand and the first of 10 games at Rogers Place this month in a Hockey Night in Canada clash against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday.
Players and coaches in the Oilers dressing room are hoping they can make the most of their hot 5-0-0 road start at the beginning of the season by taking care of business at home down the stretch.
"You don't want to look too far ahead, but in the back of our minds, that was something we thought about," forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said pre-game. "We could put ourselves in a good spot and finish off with a couple of really good home stands.
"This is what we were pushing for all year. Obviously it's not over yet, but we have to keep going here and see what happens."
Nugent-Hopkins has been an offensive force on a line with Leon Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto, posting 14 goals and 39 points in his last 27 games with a +11 rating, but the Burnaby, B.C. product will move to the top line with Connor McDavid and Zack Kassian in a bid by Head Coach Dave Tippett to bring more stability to the top six.
"We're trying to find some balance," Tippett said. "As you go on, you're just trying to find the right mix.
"That line has been so good that I've been really hesitant to break them up, but where we're at right now I want to see if we can get better. We've got some other things that I want to see get better in our group, and we'll try little tweaks."
Defenceman Oscar Klefbom will rejoin the lineup from a shoulder injury that kept the Swede out for a nine-game stint that saw the Oilers go 4-3-2 without their minutes-eating blueliner.
"It feels like it's been two months," he said. "It was boring not being able to be on the ice and help the guys and play. So I'm really excited for tonight's game and hopefully I can go out there and help the guys have a good push here."
In his last game before his shoulder injury on February 16 against the Carolina Hurricanes, Klefbom had an assist and a whopping 30:57 of ice time.
The Swede still holds the fifth-best average time on ice in the NHL (25:36) and carries the ability to quarterback a power play, play on the penalty kill, and put up points from the blueline with five goals and 28 assists in 59 games this season.
But to Tippett, Klefbom's ability to munch minutes in key situations was the biggest absence as his return brings a sense of normality to the entire Oilers blueline.
"Without his minutes there, everyone else has to take more minutes and you get them into stages where they get exposed a little bit," the bench boss said. "When Oscar's minutes come in, Nurse's minutes come down a little bit. Your third pair comes down a little bit.
"When you add a player like that, it just brings everyone back and keeps everybody where they should be."
The void left behind by Klefbom was filled admirably by the remaining defenders, but any chance to get a big piece back in the lineup to reduce the workload is a welcomed one.
"It's big for everyone. He's a big part of the team and plays a lot of minutes," defenceman Adam Larsson, who'll join Klefbom on the top pairing tonight, said. "I thought the guys that stepped into his place have done a tremendous job, but we're excited to have him back.
"For me, I see him as one of the top guys in the league. He's shown that this year and probably doesn't get as much appreciation around the league as he should. He means a lot to this team playing in every aspect of the game."
It was tough for Klefbom to watch his counterparts continue the club's playoff push without him, but he hoped a spell on the sidelines now would provide him with the runway to perform down the stretch and into a potential run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It's a long season, and hopefully it's going to be even longer this year with a nice playoff," he said. "So I wanted to make sure we're good to go for a full playoff run, and the boys were doing a good job without me.
"I'm happy where we are right now and it's all in our hands now."
Even though he wanted to be back in the lineup, Klefbom felt the Oilers were in good hands defensively without him.
"They've been doing a good job," Klefbom said. "We've been playing some good teams lately for important points, and we've got them as well. So I'm really happy where we are right now. I'm happy to be a part of a really good d-core."
Still, even with Klefbom returning on the first pairing and taking his special teams' duties tonight, every warm body will be needed in the club's remaining 14 games in the push for the postseason.
"We're in a great spot right now and it's a lot of hard games, especially when it's this tight," he added. "Every game is going to go down to the buzzer, so we need every player to play their best and their hardest game every single night. That's why you see injuries come and go, and that's why it's so good to have a deep group like we have."
There was a time when the Oilers found themselves assembling new lines and pairings almost every game in the wake of multiple injuries. The next-man-up mentality had to take over at an important time of the season.
Even with the club not out of the woods yet when it comes to the injury list, including defenceman Mike Green and forward Joakim Nygard, it's a far cry from where they were a few weeks ago.
"We went through a stretch where we were begging for guys to get healthy," Tippett said. "We said it on the road trip that we feel like we have a more veteran group here right now, and we feel like we're starting with these players coming back that we have the depth to compete with some of the teams you'd consider deep teams.
"Down the stretch here, we play a lot of games in a short amount of time."
Tyler Ennis, in his brief time so far with the Oilers, will have played on a line with both of the NHL's best players by the time tonight's contest with Columbus concludes.
The Edmonton, AB product swaps left-wing spots with Nugent-Hopkins on the second line and hopes to channel some early chemistry with his new linemates.
"It's pretty cool to have two of the best players on the planet, and two that are different from each other with different styles of play," Ennis said. "For me, with Leon and Kailer, finding that early chemistry is important."
Nugent-Hopkins has a track record of operating on a line with McDavid and Kassian from season's past, but will need to keep showing that killer instinct that's been on display over a productive 27-game stretch that's pushed him up to 59 points in 62 games on the year.
"We've played together before, so that definitely helps going into tonight," he said. "We started last year a little bit together and ended the year before. Obviously (McDavid's) dynamic, so I have to on my toes and ready to keep going here."
Tippett, who pushed the change through to separate Nugent-Hopkins from Draisaitl and Yamamoto, will have that in his back pocket if the change is needed.
"We know that line can be really good if we put them back together and it's an easy flip, but we'll see where (Nugent-Hopkins) can go with Connor," he said. "Connor's played with Nugent-Hopkins and Kassian before, so he's familiar with that. We'll see how it goes."
Mikko Koskinen makes his 33rd start of the season against the Blue Jackets tonight and is 17-13-2 with a 2.80 GAA and .914 SV%. When one night it's Mike Smith, the Oilers have zero doubts about whichever netminder gets the nod on any given night.
"The underlying factor is our players believe in both of them," Tippett said. "That's a good feeling with our team. Whoever goes in, our players believe they can get the job done."
This is the second and final meeting of the season between the Blue Jackets and Oilers.
Edmonton handed Columbus a 4-1 defeat back on Oct. 30, in a game that saw Leon Draisaitl tally two goals and one assist, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins chipped in with a pair of helpers.
Blue Jackets defender Zach Werenski scored the lone goal against Mike Smith in the game.
Oilers team scope:
The Oilers wrapped up a three-game Central Division road trip on Thursday, returning home to open a four-game circuit at Rogers Place beginning with the Blue Jackets.
Edmonton announced on Friday that Archibald signed a two-year contract extension with the club, making the winger an Oiler through the 2021-22 season.
Friday's optional skate also saw Oscar Klefbom, who's been sidelined with a shoulder injury since Feb. 19, speak to the media ahead of a possible return to the lineup. The Orange & Blue have gone 4-3-2 during Klefbom's absence.
Edmonton continues fighting for a playoff spot, residing second in the Pacific Division with 80 points and trailing the first-place Vegas Golden Knights by two.
Blue Jackets team scope:
The Blue Jackets squandered a 2-0 lead in their last outing, suffering a 3-2 OT defeat to the Calgary Flames on Wednesday.
After beginning the season 11-14-4 in their first 29 games, Columbus has gone 21-7-11 since. This despite being hampered by injuries as the Blue Jackets have Brandon Dubinsky, Josh Anderson, Cam Atkinson and Seth Jones all placed on Injured Reserve.
The visitors enter Rogers Place with a 12-9-11 road record and are 2-4-4 in their last 10.
By the Numbers:
Draisaitl's 110 points are 3rd most in a season by an Oilers player since 1989-90. ... Draisaitl has at least a single point in an NHL-high 56 games, 33 multi-point games (1st), 14 three-point games (T-1st) and five four-point outings (T-1st). ... The Oilers have the highest power play in the NHL at 29.8 percent, going 59-for-198. ... The team's 29.8 rate would be the highest in a season in franchise history and the fourth-highest in a season in NHL history. ...
The Blue Jackets are 7-5-0 in their last 12 games vs. the Oilers but have lost four of their last five. ... Blue Jackets defenceman Zach Werenski has four points (1 G, 3 A) and a minus-six rating in seven career games vs. the Oilers. ... Werenski's 58 career goals are third-most by a defenseman since 2016-17.
OILERS - Oscar Klefbom (shoulder) is questionable; Mike Green (sprained MCL) is out; Joakim Nygard (hand) is out.
BLUE JACKETS - Nathan Gerbe (groin) is day-to-day; Elvis Merzlikins (concussion) is day-to-day; Oliver Bjorkstrand (fractured ankle) is day-to-day; Jones (ankle) is on IR; Atkinson (ankle) is on IR; Dean Kukan (torn meniscus) is on IR; Alexandre Texier (lumbar stress fracture) is on IR; Josh Anderson (shoulder) is on IR; Dubinsky (wrist) is on IR.