EDMONTON, AB - The Oilers begin a three-game home stand at Rogers Place tonight against the visiting Arizona Coyotes after returning to Edmonton winless from three games on the road in four nights against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, and New York Islanders this past week.
In their three previous defeats, the Oilers outshot the opposition 116-85 but couldn't capitalize on strong starts.
"We've either played well and won, or we've played poorly and lost. This is the first time we've played really well and lost, and I've always felt like that was the next step to winning a lot of hockey games," Oilers Head Coach Ken Hitchcock said. "I hope that it comes true because we've played really well in five of the last six games, haven't got points from them, but they're huge steps.
"We look like we're organized on the ice, there looks to be some continuity, and we want to continue to grow that. We're not where I want us to be offensively, and we're not where we want to be keeping pucks alive in the offensive zone, but we're getting better."
The Oilers have lost five straight games and their last five on home ice, where the Oilers are 2-11-0 in their past 13 games and tied with the Coyotes for the worst record at home this season with a .446 win percentage. Fittingly, in their two previous meetings this season, the road team has been victorious.
It's been 323 days since defenceman Andrej Sekera last suited up in the Blue and Orange of the Oilers, but tonight the Slovakian is poised to make his return to the lineup following an offseason Achilles injury that has kept him sidelined for the entirety of this season. A brief five-game conditioning stint in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors was the blueliner's final step on the road back from rehabilitation.
"It was good. I got my couple of games under my belt down there and got a couple wins," Sekera, who recorded two assists and was plus-6 in five games with the red-hot Condors this past week, said to the media Tuesday morning. "The guys down there are playing really hard, and they helped me a lot getting to the point where I am right now."
"You have to put yourself in a good position to be successful, no matter what you're doing. Good gaps, follow the rush, don't do anything crazy stupid, and keep it simple," he added of his game plan for his return tonight.
Sekera won't be the lone addition to the lineup tonight as forward Josh Currie gets his first opportunity in the big leagues as a 26-year-old after recording 24 goals and 13 assists in 49 games this season with the Condors.
"Just excitement for sure is definitely one word," Currie said. "This is a dream come true, so I'm just super thrilled and super excited to be here. It's been a long road, but I'm thankful for that. It's been good for me and I'm super excited and can't wait to get it going."
April 2, 2018, the final game of the 2017-18 NHL campaign, was the last time Andrej Sekera played a regular-season game for the Oilers.
The 32-year-old played 36 games in total during last year's injury-shortened season following knee surgery before being dealt another tough blow this past summer after sustaining a torn Achilles in preparation for the new campaign.
After numerous months of rehabilitation and a five-game stint with Bakersfield to work his way back up to speed, it's Sekera's time to make his long-awaited return to the Oilers lineup against the Coyotes.
"They played me a lot and those five games definitely helped me test myself out, and I just tried to bring the hard work back up here," he said. "It's another step. I'm really excited. It's been a long time for me and I'm really looking forward to it."
Sekera and the medical staff had January circled on their calendars earlier in the season, but more time was needed for the defenceman to be given a ticket to return.
"It was the way my leg felt," he said. "It wasn't as ready as I thought it would be at that time, but this process I've been through helped me a lot. So it feels pretty good and I'm ready to roll."
Sekera has been skating for well over a month with his teammates in practice, and his fellow defencemen know the role he can play on the back end and what his return can bring to the Oilers defensive core.
"He's probably the most experienced guy on the back end for us," defenceman Matt Benning said of the veteran. "He's always calm, a very simple player who will play in any situation, he can play power play and penalty kill, log minutes, so he's a good hybrid player and we're lucky to have him back."
In the locker room as a whole, his veteran leadership is unmatched.
"He commands the room," Hitchcock said. "That's important. Even when he was rehabbing and practicing with us, he commands the respect of the room. He's a pro's pro, so I think everybody in that room and every coach is hoping that he has a great start and he shows he can keep up and continue his career, because he has the ultimate respect of everyone in that room."
Follow the path of Josh Currie to the NHL and you might get lost.
But the 26-year-old, who will make his NHL debut tonight on a line with Ty Rattie and Kyle Brodziak, knew the route to take after beginning his professional career with the Gwinnett Gladiators in the ECHL in 2013.
"I definitely take a lot of pride in the way I got here," Currie said for the first time from the Oilers locker room. "Not too many people go the path I took, but I just kept telling myself to go work my hardest every day and good things would come."
After three seasons in the ECHL, Currie earned a consistent spot in the AHL for three more years with the Bakersfield Condors before signing his first NHL contract with the Oilers this past summer. Currie leads Bakersfield in goals this season with 24 in 49 contests, and earns his first crack at the NHL after earning 143 points (76G, 67A) in 237 AHL games.
"Maturity is a big thing. Every year I got more mature and a little more confidence in my mental game," he said. "Just knowing that even though you may be in the ECHL to start, just keep working and don't get down and doubt yourself. My mental game's definitely become a lot stronger with the road that I've taken, but staying positive was definitely a thing for me and trying to work on my game in all aspects."
As soon as he read the name of the Bakersfield bench boss on his phone the morning of his call-up, he had an inkling his opportunity was coming.
"We had a day off and I was actually sleeping," Currie said. "It was nine in the morning, getting a bit of a sleep in, and I saw my phone ringing and it was [Jay Woodcroft's] name. So I had a little bit of a feeling that this was what he was calling me for.
"It didn't take me long to wake up after that, that's for sure."
Hitchcock touted the forward's hot hand as of late and said the late bloomer will get every opportunity to show he can cut it at the top echelon of hockey in the coming games.
"Obviously he has a hot stick and is playing really well," Hitchcock said. "He's at that age where you want to know if you're a full-time or part-time NHL player. We want to give him every opportunity. We'll have him on the power-play here hopefully in the next few games, but we're hoping that what he did in the AHL rubs off."
Forward Tobias Rieder was moved up alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner to provide more speed to the second line, said Hitchcock. Mikko Koskinen was in the starter's net at Tuesday's morning skate, meaning the big Finn is likely to make his 30th start in goal for the Oilers this season.
Lines at practice appeared as follows, with final lineup decisions to be made apparent during warm-ups.
Draisaitl - McDavid - Kassian
Rieder - Nugent-Hopkins - Gagner
Lucic - Cave - Chiasson
Rattie - Brodziak - Currie
Klefbom - Larsson
Nurse - Russell
Gravel - Petrovic
Sekera - Benning
-- Jamie Umbach, EdmontonOilers.com
OILERS (24-29-5) vs. COYOTES (26-28-5)
TV: 7:00 p.m. MST; Televised on Sportsnet West
Tonight's game is the third of four meetings between the two teams this season. The Oilers won 3-1 in Arizona back in early January and a week later the Coyotes won 3-2 at Rogers Place.
Connor McDavid has three goals and four points in two games against Arizona this season while Leon Draisaitl has a goal and an assist. The only other Oiler with more than a single point is Zack Kassian, with two helpers.
Conor Garland has two goals for Arizona against the Oilers while Jordan Oesterle has a goal and an assist.
Oilers team scope:
The Oilers continue to sit seven points back of the Minnesota Wild for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a game in hand. There are eight teams within eight points of the Wild.
Edmonton is looking to get back on track with this three-game home stand with only one win in their last 11 games (1-8-2).
McDavid has 83 points in 57 games to rank third in the NHL in points, seven back of Patrick Kane and 16 behind Nikita Kucherov who have both been red hot as of late.
Coyotes team scope:
The Coyotes have 57 points, three back of the Minnesota Wild. They've also played one more game than the Oilers, who they're four points up on.
Clayton Keller leads the Coyotes with 38 points in 59 games. Alex Galchenyuk leads the Coyotes with 13 goals on the season. The Oilers have two players with more than double the number of goals as the Coyotes centre: McDavid (31) and Draisaitl (35).
Darcy Kuemper should get the start in goal tonight for the Coyotes. He has a record of 14-14-5 along with a 2.68 GAA and .913 SV%.
By the Numbers:
Let's go literally by the "numbers" today:
The last player to wear #43 as an Oiler, before Josh Currie, was defenceman Jason Strudwick; Currie is the third player all-time to wear #43 for the Oilers.
The last player to wear #32 as an Oiler, before goaltender Anthony Stolarz, was goaltender Richard Bachman from 2013-15; Stolarz is the 15th Oiler to wear #32 - and the fifth goaltender.
Sam Gagner went 1,773 days between games as an Oiler, wearing #89, from Apr. 10, 2014 to Feb. 16, 2019. Gagner is the second player to wear #89 for the Oilers, after Mike Comrie.
Andrej Sekera last played a game for the Oilers on Apr. 2, 2018 at Minnesota - 323 days ago.
OILERS - Matt Benning, Jujhar Khaira and Jesse Puljujarvi are all on IR.
COYOTES - Christian Dvorak, Jason Demers, Antti Raanta, and Nick Schmaltz are all on IR with lower-body injuries; Michael Grabner (eye) is on IR; Richard Panik (illness) is day-to-day.