EDMONTON, AB - Tonight, the Vancouver Canucks come to Rexall Place. Both the Oilers and their opponent are building a foundation for the future, out of the NHL playoff race. Despite the Canucks seeing more of a youth movement, their success still runs through the Sedin twins, says Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan.
“They’re in a similar boat to us where they’re trying to continue to lay their foundation down with a number of young players and those young players have produced lately, the second half of the year the Horvats and those type of players have been very good,” said McLellan. “But I still believe it runs through 22 and 33 and their ability to cycle and play on their backhands and create time and space for their teammates. That’s a huge challenge for our team. We’ve worked real hard all year to play better in our zone and they’re going to test it tonight for sure.”
The previous two meetings between the Oilers and Canucks this season resulted in tight 2-1 overtime finishes with the two teams splitting.
“It’s going to be the same kind of game as earlier, a very tight checking game,” said Oilers forward Iiro Pakarinen. “It’s going to be tough. They have a good team and good goaltending. They play a very tight game and a skilled game too in the offensive zone. We have to check our way to a win and play defence-first. I think that’s the thing tonight.”
Oilers winger Zack Kassian is very familiar with the Canucks organization. Originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, 13th overall in 2009, Kassian was traded to the Canucks in 2012. He spent parts of four years there and played a big role at times, periodically skating on a line with the Sedin twins.
“I’ve made a lot of friendships over there,” said Kassian. “I went for dinner with some guys last night, but once the puck drops it’s just another hockey game.”
Kassian is now 27 games into his stay with the Oilers, following a December 28 trade from Montreal. He’s scored three goals and four assists in that span. The pending RFA is more concerned with the team’s finish to the season than his own status or goals moving forward.
“I haven’t really thought about myself personally,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of meetings about the team and we want to be above .500. I think we’ve done that since we had our team meetings and we want to finish the year off strong. We’re a bottom team and we want to play with more consistency. I think we’ve played well, especially against St. Louis and got rewarded finally and it’s nice to see that. We’ve got to keep that going.”
McLellan and the coaches have liked his physical presence in the lineup, but just like Kassian they are searching for more consistency in his game. Kassian has moved up and down the lineup, currently playing a fourth-line role with Mark Letestu and Matt Hendricks.
“He’s skating better than he did earlier, which is natural,” said McLellan. “He has more games under his belt, his conditioning is better, he feels stronger, he’s more comfortable so his skating is better. There’s times where he’s very active around the puck in keeping plays alive and then there’s others where you’re looking for a little more from him. We’re looking for a little more consistency. He’s been physical, he’s stood up for his teammates, he’s been able to change momentum in the games, we’ve been able to work with him on the penalty kill a little bit. Trying to take pressure away from the scoring part for him.”
Kassian has enjoyed his stay in Edmonton and hopes to continue building toward future success with the club.
“It’s been awesome. Great group of guys. It’s exciting to watch,” he said. “There’s a lot of young guys with a lot of skill, so hopefully I can be a part of that moving forward and I’m excited to play the old team tonight.”
Kassian is not the only Oilers skater who has played up and down the lineup this season. Iiro Pakarinen started in the bottom six but is now playing a top-six role with Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl. A few games into this arrangement and Pakarinen has managed some point production, growing into his role.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good actually,” said Pakarinen, who’s riding a two-game point streak. “The first game with those guys was a little bit difficult with me, learning how they play and stuff like that but it’s been better and better every game. Last game I think was pretty good. We got one goal produced, but we had a couple chances too. We just have to keep going that way and I think it will be good.”
Judging by the way McLellan has liked to deploy his lines in recent weeks, following some size acquisition, it seems like the Oilers enjoy test-driving trios that blend skill with grit. Pakarinen’s play with those two skilled skaters serves as a good audition for him heading into the off-season.
“I have to kind of learn to play with those kind of guys,” said Pakarinen. “I’ve been up and down a couple of times and it’s not been successful earlier. I think I’m kind of learning the way to play with a couple skilled guys. It’s different than playing on the third or fourth line for sure.”
Cam Talbot is expected to start between the pipes for the Oilers tonight. The morning skate was optional, but based on the team’s game against St. Louis on Wednesday night, the lines and defensive pairings are projected as follows:
Season series: The Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers have split two games, with each winning 2-1 in overtime at Rogers Arena. Edmonton’s Lauri Korpikoski scored the winner at 1:46 on Oct. 18. Vancouver’s Jannik Hansen scored his second goal of the game with 59 seconds remaining in overtime on Dec. 26.
Canucks team scope: Goalie Jacob Markstrom will start after Ryan Miller made 31 saves in a 3-1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday. Hansen (ribs) did not practice Thursday and will miss the next two games. Defenseman Alex Biega will play after missing one game with an upper-body injury. Vancouver is 28th in the NHL with 163 goals and tied for 26th with 36 power-play goals. “We have to get our D involved more, I don’t think our D is involved as much as they were in the past,” coach Willie Desjardins told the Canucks website Thursday. “I think our power play has to be a little bit better. We got to get a few more off the power play. Plus, we have to get more power plays. We just don’t get enough power plays.”
Oilers team scope: Edmonton scored a season-high four power-play goals in a 6-4 win against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday. The Oilers were 1-for-32 with the man-advantage in their previous 14 games. “I thought last night we did a good job of getting to secondary pucks in and around the net,” coach Todd McLellan told the Oilers website Thursday. Rookie center Connor McDavid had two assists against St. Louis, his ninth multipoint game; Edmonton is 7-2-0 in those games. Defenseman Darnell Nurse played 18:07 in his return from a three-game suspension for being the aggressor in an altercation with San Jose Sharks defenseman Roman Polak on March 8. “I learned from that situation,” Nurse told the Edmonton Journal. “Obviously I went a little too far and you learn from that. But I’ve got to play hard. I’ve always been a physical guy. I can’t take that out of my game, right? That’s a big reason why I’m here. I’ve got to play on the edge and not go over it.”