News and notes from Oilers practice, including a valuable two points being up for grabs in the Battle of Alberta and defenceman Matt Benning priming himself for a return after missing nearly two months with a concussion.
EDMONTON, AB - Forged in fire. Stoked by sparks. Upheld by history.
The Calgary Flames. The Edmonton Oilers. The Battle of Alberta.
'The Battle' will write its latest chapter at Rogers Place on Wednesday, with plenty of players hoping to pen their own personal note towards the current undisputed leader in NHL rivalries.
After the smoke's been fanned long after its latest rendition back on January 11 and Calgary's fiery 4-3 win that still leaves plenty to be settled, Oilers and Flames players and coaches alike are keen to turn down the burner that's been left on max temperature.
"For me it's just another game, to be honest," Mike Smith, who will bet between the pipes for the first time against his former club, said. "I think a lot's been talked about, you guys (the media) have had your word for a long time now, but as players I think we're just in the thick of things and want to worry about what we can control.
"All the extra-curricular stuff will look after itself, I'm sure."
Beyond the emotions and the extended build-up through the All-Star Break for the third of five meetings between these provincial rivals, there are a valuable two points available for both sides in a tight Pacific Division race that sees second and fifth-place separated by a single point.
"It's a hockey game and it's a big two points," Oilers captain Connor McDavid said. "We're a point behind them in a very tight Pacific Division, so these points are absolutely huge. It's a tight division, these are two teams right in the middle of it."
"I understand that and it's good for the fans and it's something for the media to write about. It's all good stuff. It's going to be an exciting game, and it always is when these two teams face off."
Oilers Head Coach Dave Tippett took part in many heated contests as a member of the Hartford Whalers in the Adams Division, but tonight's contest and the buzz it's generating sums up the allure that brought the bench boss to Edmonton.
"All of it," Tippett said. "Just the atmosphere around game days. It's the fun part of it."
"The passion of not just our fan base, but Calgary's fan base, the passion of the media, everything. It adds to the excitement of the game for both players and coaches."
REACHING THE 'BREAKING' POINT
For the Oilers, the All-Star Break might've come at an inopportune time.
Any chance to rest and recuperate ahead of the final push in a packed Pacific picture is welcomed, but the Oilers entered the break 5-1-1 during the month of January after going 5-8-1 in December.
"I think we did a lot of good things before the break," Smith, who aims for his sixth-straight win tonight, said. "We changed some things within our game and our system and our group felt good with where we're at going into the break."
The Oilers followed up the holiday season with a 5-1 defeat to the Flames in the first BoA of the 2019-20 campaign, and an on-ice hangover from another extended break is something that's keen to be avoided in the dressing room.
"We want to come out of the All-Star break better than we did the Christmas break," Smith added. "We were a little sloppy in our game and there wasn't much emotion at all during that game. I think you'll see a different team from us tonight."
But a lengthy layoff from competitive action will require a rapid restart.
"It's important we jump right back into the fight, so I think we'll have a lot of energy tonight," Smith continued. "It's nice to start at home after the break and obviously there's no excuse not to get up for this one."
Forward James Neal, another ex-Flame looking to fire up his side tonight against a close rival, spoke to his new side's need to continue building and some of the positives that helped the Oilers build that platform for success before 11 days off between games.
"We built our game throughout the last 10-to-12 games, and I think the way we're trending is the right way," he said. "We have a long way to go come playoff time, and we need to continue to grow. I think it's all parts of our game: the forecheck, our ability to get on pucks, our ability to shoot pucks, and getting to the net and into areas that help us score goals.
"We talk about our 5-on-5 game, and it continues to get better."
RACE TO THE FINISH
The Pacific's final push to the playoffs is arriving a little bit earlier than other divisions around the NHL.
"We're a month ahead of what people would normally talk about as a playoff stretch," Tippett said. "You just look at the standings and every point is important."
Three points separate first to fifth. Even then, those on the outside of the Wild Card picture aren't far off the pack. All of which sets the stage for an exciting 30-game push to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"It's fun when you're playing for something," Smith said. "We're playing for keeps right now, everyone knows know tight the schedule and the standings are, and every point matters right now. That's what we're concerned about in here and our focus is on winning the game tonight."
Waking up every morning, both players and coaches are finding themselves checking the scoreboard from the previous night as so much can change in a single evening when the standings are as tight as they are.
"It's funny, you get up in the morning and you're looking at scores already that affect you. Our players understand the urgency of continuing to get points," Tippett said.
"We were playing well before the break, and our focus is jumping out of the break and continuing to play well and see if we can get back playing at the level we were before and build on that and become a playoff team."
Defenceman Matt Benning was activated off Injured Reserve this afternoon and will rejoin the lineup for the first time since sustaining a concussion back on December 1 against the Canucks.
During a recent conditioning stint with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, Benning suited up in three games and tallied an assist.
"Benning went down and played three really strong games in Bakersfield," Tippett said. "He has to jump back in and play well. You look at his games early in the season and that pair (with Kris Russell) was a good pair for us. You just have to jump back in and be a really solid guy for us. He gives us a right-hander on that side that I think will help us."
"He's a competitive kid. He really competes hard in all situations, and hopefully, that's a boost to our lineup.
-- Jamie Umbach, EdmontonOilers.com
OILERS (26-18-5) vs FLAMES (26-19-6)
TV: 8:08 p.m. MT; Televised on Sportsnet
Wednesday will be the third of five meetings between the Oilers and Flames in the Battle of Alberta this season and their final clash of '19-20 at Rogers Place.
Edmonton's provincial rivals ran away as 5-1 winners in their first meeting on December 27 before taking the two points in a heated 4-3 affair at the Scotiabank Saddledome on January 11. Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins both have a pair of goals for the Oilers against the Flames this season.
Both teams wage war again later this week in Calgary on Saturday before wrapping up the season series on April 4 in the final game of the regular season.
Oilers team scope:
Oil Country has waited almost 11 full days for action to resume following a lengthy All-Star break and bye week, but three full days of practice and a pair of reinforcements bolster the club ahead of a critical Battle of Alberta.
Forward Zack Kassian has completed his two-game suspension handed down by the NHL from the last meeting between these two Alberta foes, while defenceman Matt Benning is projected to make his return to the lineup from a concussion after nearly two months out and a three-game conditioning stint with the Bakersfield Condors.
The Oilers sit in a three-way tie for the final spot in the jam-packed Pacific Division with 57 points, a point back of the Flames with two games in hand.
Flames team scope:
Sean Monahan scored twice for the Flames as they secured a point in a 5-4 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday to move past the Oilers in the standings and take sole possession of second in the Pacific.
Calgary travels to Edmonton for the first game of a crucial home-and-home set with its provincial rivals, while the Oilers face the Blues on Friday before facing the Flames again on Saturday on the road in the second game of a back-to-back.
The Flames hold a 16-7-3 since starting the season 10-12-3, and are 2-4-0 in the second game of back-to-backs this season.
By the Numbers:
McDavid has 12 points (5G, 7A) during a six-game point streak and is two away from 450 for his career. ... Leon Draisaitl has 14 points (5G, 9A) during an eight-game point streak - the third time this season the German's recorded a streak of at least eight games. ...
Johnny Gaudreau's 10 career goals versus Edmonton are his most against any opponent, while McDavid's 13 goals against Calgary are his most versus any other team. ...
Edmonton is 6-1-1 since their 5-1 defeat to Calgary on December 27. ... The Flames are 9-3-1 in their last 13 road games, but have scored five goals in their last four away from the Scotiabank Centre. ...