EDMONTON, AB - Game 70 of the regular season for the Edmonton Oilers and a pivotal Pacific Division battle against the Vegas Golden Knights awaits.
Two of the most valuable points of the season for both sides are up for grabs on Monday night at Rogers Place.
A pair of matchups this month between the Oilers and Golden Knights are as pivotal as they come as both sides fight for first in the Pacific that's currently occupied by Vegas after a 5-3 win over the Calgary Flames in their first of back-to-back games last night.
Both of their meetings in Vegas this season have been split down the middle, and the Oilers will try to take advantage of having both their remaining matchups against the Golden Knights and nine of their final 13 games on home ice.
"They're obviously a pretty fast and heavy team," Oilers forward and the NHL's leading scorer Leon Draisaitl said pre-game. "We've had some good games against them this season. It'll be a good test for us for sure."
The Oilers know the product they iced on Saturday in a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets that was dominated by Mikko Koskinen's 45 saves won't cut it against Vegas, with the effort needed to cut down their divisional rivals having to be elevated.
"Our game hasn't been our best the last two or three games here, but good teams find a way to get points at this time of the year," forward Alex Chiasson said. "We've played these guys a few times this year and they've both been good games with good intensity. You have to expect the same tonight."
Despite their place in the playoff picture at this late point of the season, the Oilers know their best hockey has to be ahead of them.
"We've been getting wins, but we know we've got another level to reach to get our game to where we want it down this final stretch," defenceman Darnell Nurse said.
The Oilers have accomplished what they set out to do early in the year during Training Camp, and that's play meaningful hockey games in the month of March.
"I think (GM and Pres. of Hockey Ops) Ken Holland said it best - we want to get into March and play meaningful games," Head Coach Dave Tippett said. "I think we've got ourselves in that position now."
Back then, the names Tippett was given to work with in his first season as Oilers bench boss were just names on a whiteboard.
How they'd eventually fit together, and ultimately thrive together, would have to unfold naturally and fall to the efforts of the players.
"Back then I was still figuring out what we had," he said. "You know the top players, but you don't know where all the parts fit yet.
"I was trying to think about having a competitive team that'll earn the right to be a playoff team. That's where we are right now and I like the fact that we're in a game tonight where you're battling a team for top spot. Our guys should be excited about that."
The excitement of the Oilers being in a heated playoff push is real, along with the players and coaching staff feeling that this isn't even their final form. There's still marginal improvements in all aspects of their game that can be made.
"We're a very confident team and very excited. Obviously it's a great position to be in," Nurse added. "We didn't get here by accident, we got here through hard work and playing within our details."
"We know in order for us to take that next step, we have to continue to push ourselves and continue to get better. It's not a place where we're complacent with our game or complacent with the position we're in. We want to push for more.
A 'SPECIAL' SEASON
It's safe to say that special teams has contributed largely to the OIlers success in the standings.
The Oilers have spent an NHL-high 94 days this season ranking in the top-five for both power-play percentage (29.6%) and penalty kill percentage (84.8%), and their 29.6 PP% would be the highest in franchise history and the fourth highest all-time in the NHL if the season were to end today.
Summer additions in Riley Sheahan and Josh Archibald have played pivotal roles shorthanded in a system implemented by associate coach Jim Playfair.
"I think you look at some of the additions that Ken and the staff brought in over the course of the summer like (Archibald and Sheahan)," Nurse said. "They go out there at the beginning of each and every penalty kill, and they're guys you can rely on every time you're down a man.
"Our systems have changed a little bit, but Jimmy is preaching the details and where we need to be on the ice. Everything's very black and white. There's no grey areas and everyone's bought in."
The buy-in comes from the players, along with the execution on the ice that's led to the cub's sustained success this season both up a man and down a man.
"I think you have to have a structure and your players have to believe in it. Ultimately, it's the players that get the job done," Tippett said. "You can draw stuff on a whiteboard, but when you got a guy laying out to block a shot out there, those aren't whiteboard things. Those are things that need to get done. So the players are the ones who have to execute it.
"Our power play has been really good and there's some good structure in place, but ultimately you have good players that make good plays."
For those players, and to the coaching staff, that structure only goes so far before skill needs to take over - something the Oilers have in stockpiles.
"(Assistant coach Glen Gulutzan) has got a saying: 'We've got some structure, but let's play road hockey after that,'" Tippett said.
"We've got some pretty good road hockey players."
Captain Connor McDavid, who hasn't felt well for the past few days according to Tippett, is expected to play on his top line with Tyler Ennis and Zack Kassian on the wings.
Koskinen, following his 45 saves against Columbus on Saturday, will get the immediate opportunity to follow up that performance in goal tonight against the Golden Knights.
"He's played really well the last few games," Tippett said. "We talked about it and decided to go back with him tonight. He was a big reason why we got points the other night, so might as well keep going with him.
"Right now, we have the luxury of two guys playing well. When a guy plays like he did last game, he deserves another opportunity."
Oilers lines for tonight's game with the Golden Knights will be made apparent during warmups.
The Oilers and Golden Knights will meet for the third time this season and for the first of two meetings between the Pacific Division frontrunners at Rogers Place this month.
Connor McDavid scored twice and Leon Draisaitl tabbed three helpers against the Golden Knights in a 4-2 road win back in November before the Oilers were blanked 3-0 by Vegas last month.
Their final matchup goes March 31 in the second-last game of the regular season for the Oilers.
Oilers team scope:
Mikko Koskinen's 45 saves on Saturday in a 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets were vital to victory and the Oilers taking a valuable two points to tie Vegas for the Pacific Division lead. The Finnish netminder has stopped 97 of his last 99 shots faced.
The Oilers now trail the Golden Knights by two points with a game in hand after Vegas beat the Calgary Flames 5-3 in the first of back-to-back games last night.
With nine of their final 13 regular-season games this season coming at Rogers Place, the Oilers will try to take advantage of home ice in the playoff race to lock down first place in the Pacific.
Golden Knights team scope:
Shea Theodore scored the game-winning goal with 1:10 remaining in a 5-3 win for Vegas over Calgary on Sunday. The win for the Golden Knights took back sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division with 84 points.
The Golden Knights carry a 10-2-0 record over their last 12 games.
Robin Lehner is 3-0-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage since being acquired by the Golden Knights at the trade deadline, and Marc-Andre Fleury is the slated starter to take on the Oilers.
By the Numbers:
The Golden Knights have allowed 15 power-play goals over their last 15 games. ... Their 77.0 penalty kill percentage ranks 26th in the NHL. ... Vegas is 14-6-2 against Pacific Division teams this season (outscoring teams 81-54). ...
The Oilers are 9-4-2 in their last 15 games. ... They are 13-for-39 on the power play in that span. ... The Oilers have spent an NHL-high 94 days ranking in the top-five in both PP% and PK%. ...
The Oilers are 5-5-0 all-time versus the Golden Knights and 3-1-0 all-time against them at home. ...
OILERS - Joakim Nygard (hand) is on IR; Mike Green (MCL sprain) is out.
GOLDEN KNIGHTS - Alex Tuch (leg) is on IR; Mark Stone (lower body) is day-to-day.