EDMONTON, AB - You can feel the significance of the challenge.
The Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues are in town.
"Any time you play the defending champs, there's a little bit more of an aura around the game," Head Coach Dave Tippett said.
The Blues (10-3-3) sit atop the Western Conference, but the Oilers (10-4-2) aren't far behind them. Tonight's contest at Rogers Place will see the two top teams in the West wage war for supremacy, with the visitors riding the momentum of a five-game win streak after an overtime win over the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday.
The Oilers, who are coming off a 3-2 overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Monday, are focusing on their advantageous position of being on home ice with an extra day of rest rather than the pedigree of the reigning champs.
"They're coming off a back-to-back, we have to recognize our schedule sitting at home, and you want to be a hard team to play at home. We have a chance to jump on them early," forward James Neal said.
"They probably got in late last night and aren't as rested as we are, so we'll use that to our advantage."
Any chance to see how you stack up against the Stanley Cup champions is a good gauge for progress.
"This is a strong, heavily-built playoff team," Neal said. "For us, we'll definitely see where we stack up tonight."
Centre Ryan O'Reilly continues to operate with his demanding physical presence, along with his ability to chip in points at a rate of four goals and 12 assists this season to lead his team in scoring through 16 games.
"They're a well-rounded, mixed group of guys," Tippett commented. "They're physical, they're a hard and heavy team, but they have the skill to go with it. It's a good test for us. This is going to be a really strong team coming in here playing with confidence, and hopefully we get the best out of us."
On the blueline is a hulking established d-core capable of frustrating team's offence with their physicality, while competent and effective goaltending from Jordan Binnington and Jake Allen rounds out a complete team worthy of the Cup champs moniker.
"Their D is a deep D. That's a big part of their group and their big guys who play the right way," Tippett continued. "It's not just one or two of them - it's five or six of them."
"You look at their group right through their lineup and they look like they're playing with confidence. You have to go out and make sure that your work ethic is in place, the details of the game are in place, so it's a good challenge for us."
A poised start to the season for the Oilers, however, has the club confident they can skate with anyone in the League through their fightback, elite scoring through the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and secondary scoring that's beginning to find its legs with goals from Jujhar Khaira, Colby Cave, and Gaëtan Haas in their past three games.
"I like our desperation games and I like the way we've come back. I like how we feel how we're never out of a game no matter how we're playing. That's a good characteristic of a good team, but for us everyone's willing to do the work to get better," Neal said.
"It's a game you're going to get up for, there's going to be lots of energy in the building, and it's a game you want to win."
HAAS HEATING UP
Don't look now, but it's getting Haas in here.
The Swiss-born centre scored his first NHL goal at a crucial time on Monday to earn the Oilers a point against the Coyotes, and Tippett has seen the progress he's made since making the move overseas to join the Oilers this off-season for his first North American campaign.
"His attributes are speed, he can make plays, and he's a smart, smart player," Tippett said. "On video he's in the right positions a lot of the time. We've talked about it a bit with Persson - he's never played on this side and played with the intensity and strength of a league like this before, so it takes some time to get used to it. I give him credit, every day he's working at it."
Haas joined the Bakersfield Condors for two games in October for an opportunity at more ice time and adjustment to North American ice, earning an assist before injuries necessitated his quick return to the big club.
"It's learning how to deal with a more physical game," Tippett said. "Some of it is just the awareness that people are going to hit you over here. You've got bodies pushing a bit harder than they would over there, so that's part of the learning process for him."
"He's come back and every day he gets a little better. That's a good sign. We'll see where it goes with him, but it's good to see him get on the scoreboard the other night. That gives him a little bit of confidence.
As per Tuesday's morning skate, Sam Gagner is slated to join McDavid and Draisaitl on the top line against the Blues.
Riley Sheahan is not expected to suit up tonight, but Tippett iterated at this morning's optional skate that the centre is close to a return.
Forward Tomas Jurco is expected to join Haas and Alex Chiasson on the club's third line to provide another offensive spark to the club's bottom six.
"Glimpses is a good way to describe it," Tippett said of his evaluation of Jurco. "There's been times when we've liked him in there, and there's other times when there's not much happening. He'll get an opportunity tonight and he's been out a couple of games, so we'll see how it goes tonight."
Goaltender Mike Smith is slated to return to the crease tonight for the Oilers. The 37-year-old is 5-3-1 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .931 save percentage this season.
Tonight's expected lineup:
Draisaitl - McDavid- Gagner Neal - Nugent-Hopkins - Kassian Jurco - Haas - Chiasson Khaira - Cave - P. Russell
Tonight will be a clash between the top two clubs in the Western Conference.
It'll be first of three contests against one another this season on Wednesday before meeting again on December 18 in St. Louis and wrapping up the season series back at Rogers Place on January 31.
St. Louis were victorious twice in '18-19, with Edmonton's only win coming in a 3-2 victory that was put on ice in the shootout by McDavid. Jaden Schwartz had the outright lead in points last season with four goals and two assists in two games.
Oilers team scope:
Haas' first NHL goal helped earn the Oilers a point in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Monday that dropped their overall record to 10-4-2.
Draisaitl (13G, 14A) and McDavid (7G, 17A) combined for the opening goal and rank third and fourth in NHL scoring with 27 and 23 points, respectively, through 16 games.
Draisaitl earned the NHL's third star for the month of October and has three multi-point efforts and two multi-goal games in his last six, while goaltender Smith is fresh off being named the NHL's third star of the week.
Blues team scope:
The Blues needed overtime to defeat the Vancouver Canucks 2-1 in their first game of a back-to-back that ends tonight in Edmonton. Schwartz scored on a 3-on-0 with 1:32 left in overtime to earn St. Louis their fifth straight win to jump the Oilers for first place in the Western Conference.
O'Reilly leads the Blues in scoring with 16 points (4G, 12A), and defenceman Alex Pietrangelo is averaging the most ice time for the club with 23:47.
By the Numbers:
The Oilers are 7-0-1 this season when scoring first. ... When leading after the first period, the Blues are 7-1-0. ...
The Blues are fourth in face-off win percentage (52.7%) but they're first in both offensive-zone face-off (57.6%) and defensive-zone face-off win percentage (58.6%), leading to strong possession numbers. ...
Both the Blues and the Oilers get very few shots on net as they're ranked 28th and 29th respectively in shots per game. ...
OILERS - Riley Sheahan (upper body) is day-to-day; Adam Larsson (fibula) is on IR; Josh Archibald (foot fracture) is on IR; Joakim Nygard (ribs) is on IR.
BLUES - Erik Foley (concussion) is on IR; Vladimir Tarasenko (shoulder) is on IR.