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MORNING SKATE REPORT: Oilers vs. Penguins

The Oilers begin back-to-back home games against Eastern Conference opposition on Friday with a visit from the Penguins

by Jamie Umbach / EdmontonOilers.com

The Oilers begin back-to-back home games at Rogers Place this weekend against Eastern Conference opposition with a visit from the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

You can watch the game on Sportsnet or listen on the Oilers Radio Network, including 630 CHED.

Video: OILERS TODAY | Pre-Game vs PIT 12.20.19

 

INSIDE THE OILERS

News and notes from Oilers practice, including Zack Kassian's reflections on his career before eclipsing the 500-game plateau on Wednesday against St. Louis.

>> READ MORE IN THE INSIDE THE OILERS BLOG

PRE-GAME REPORT

EDMONTON, AB - Home for the Holidays.

But Head Coach Dave Tippett, if given the choice, would rather play on the road during the Christmas season and leave the distractions at home.

"I love games around Christmas when you're on the road," laughed Tippett. "We were away all week, we had a day off yesterday, and you've got two games - seven o'clock and five o'clock - so there's not much time to do anything else."

After a day off on Thursday gave players an avenue for completing their Christmas shopping, the Oilers play the first of back-to-back weekend games tonight at Rogers Place against the Pittsburgh Penguins before the Montreal Canadiens fill the visitor's dressing room on Saturday.

"Yesterday they had a day off to get some stuff done, but today we're back into it and these two games are against good teams and we have to play well if we want a chance to win."

The Oilers occupy the third spot in the Pacific Division with a 19-14-4 record and 42 points - just two back of the first-place Arizona Coyotes and three up on the Minnesota Wild who lie just outside the Wild Card picture.

Even though the calendar has yet to turn to 2020, it's a playoff picture tighter than your belt after Christmas dinner.

"It's a log jam. I think it always is come this time," forward James Neal said. "You want to have a good feeling going into the Christmas break, so these are really important games for us at this time."

The Oilers ended a two-game road trip against the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues on both sides of 2-1 results. The club is 3-7-1 in their past 11 games heading into a matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who've won three straight games despite lacking the services of captain Sidney Crosby.

"You have to pick up points and we did a great job at the start of the year," Going through a little bit of a tough time right now, so we have to continue building our game to get to where we want to be.

"No matter what, your home games are important. So for us, to come back home after a tough road trip, you want to have a good showing. We have two hard games here, so I'm looking forward to tonight. Pittsburgh's a solid team and they're playing well."

STRENGTH AT EVEN STRENGTH

All Tippett wants for Christmas is a little bit more 5-on-5 production.

With the power play and penalty kill clicking at a regular pace, it's the offence at even strength that the Oilers bench boss sees as lacking.

"We had the three centres (playing on separate lines) going for the two games on the road trip," Tippett said. "We pushed them to find something in the third period against St. Louis and switched it up a little bit, but coming into these two games at home here we're just trying to find some more 5-on-5 production throughout our group and maximize every player as well as we can."

Video: PRE-GAME RAW | Coach Tippett 12.20.19

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will swap centre for wing alongside Connor McDavid and Zack Kassian on the top line as the immediate benefactor of Tippett's quest to squeeze more even-strength production out of his side.

The Burnaby, B.C. product has six goals and 12 assists through 31 games this season, with a goal and two assists in his last 10 appearances.

"5-on-5 we've got to find a way to produce more. Definitely myself included in that," Nugent-Hopkins said. "I've got to find a way to be able to produce. I feel like there have been lots of chances here and there, but none have gone in the net."

Complementing McDavid, from experience for Nugent-Hopkins, is a fine line between playing quick and being patient with the puck.

"I did get a chance to do that a little bit last year and the year before," Nugent-Hopkins said of sharing a line with McDavid. "I'll have to adjust maybe a little bit tonight, but it shouldn't be too big of an adjustment.

"I know how fast Connor is, so I have to expect that. It's a little bit different when you get the puck on the wing and he's taking off for sure, so I always have to have that in my mind but also not force too much."

Video: PRE-GAME RAW | Nugent-Hopkins 12.20.19

But providing more 5-on-5 scoring isn't a role placed solely on Nugent-Hopkins, as he'll be one of a long list of Oilers forwards who'll look to capitalize around the net off plenty of shots from the defence.

"I think you'll see the defence put a lot of pucks on net and we'll be going hard to get those second and third opportunities and work from there," he said. "We have to keep the power play rolling too, but 5-on-5 is a big focus tonight."

SMITH SEES THE CREASE

Mike Smith will make the start tonight against the same Penguins side he made 51 saves against on the road back on November 2.

"It doesn't hurt," joked Smith of returning between the pipes to play Pittsburgh. "But saying that, it's a new game and they're a good team. We want to get back on track here after a loss to St. Louis, so I think it's another good test here back at home."

Since winning his first three starts of the season, Smith has gone 4-8-2 in his last 15 games and has been honest in his play. The goals haven't all been soft ones, but you still want to be a netminder who can make the tough saves.

Video: PRE-GAME RAW | Smith 12.20.19

"I think my game's been average, to be honest," Smith said. "I think looking back over the tape and the goals, they're not necessarily terrible goals by any means, but to give you team a chance to win games you have to make saves that are difficult."

"As of late, I haven't made enough of the Grade-A saves. I need to make more of those in games, especially when your team's fighting for points. Every point counts."

With Mikko Koskinen holding a 12-6-2 record and making 76 stops on 79 shots in the Oilers last two games, Smith has been biding his time for his next opportunity with a level head in practice.

"I think the main thing is you get caught up sometimes when the team's not playing as well and you try to do too much out there," he said. "It's just about taking a little bit of a step back and worrying about the things you can control. The last few days in practice, that's what my mindset has been getting ready for this start tonight. Hopefully it'll be a good one."

Koskinen will get the nod in the second of back-to-back games for the Oilers on Saturday.

"Mikko played two really strong games on the road, we were late getting in on Thursday, and we're going to have to split them anyways. It's just a matter of which game each guy gets," Tippett said. "The last game Mike played very well was in Pittsburgh against them, so we'll put him in and Koskinen will go against Montreal tomorrow."

LINEUP NOTES

Lines at Friday's morning skate appeared as follows:

Nugent-Hopkins - McDavid - Kassian
Neal - Draisaitl - Gagner
Nygard - Haas - Chiasson 
Khaira - Sheahan - Archibald

Nurse - Bear
Klefbom - Larsson
Russell - Jones

Smith
Koskinen

-- Jamie Umbach, EdmontonOilers.com

PREVIEW

OILERS (19-14-4) vs PENGUINS (20-10-4)

TV: 7:06 p.m. MT; Televised on Sportsnet

Head-to-Head:

Friday's meeting with the Pittsburgh Penguins will be the second of two meetings between the Oilers and Penguins this season and the first of back-to-back weekend games for the Oilers.

Mike Smith stood on his head for the Oilers back on November 2 in a 2-1 overtime win that saw the netminder make 51 saves before Leon Draisaitl secured Edmonton the extra point in sudden death.

Despite the loss, the Penguins have earned at least on point in 18 consecutive games versus the Oilers. Their last regulation defeat to the Oilers came back on January 10, 2006 almost 14 years ago.

The Oilers are 8-1-0 against the Metropolitan Division this season, compared to Pittsburgh's 6-1-1 record versus the Pacific.

Oilers team scope:

The Oilers enter a back-to-back weekend set at Rogers Place against the Penguins and Montreal Canadiens after ending on opposite sides of 2-1 results with the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues.

A late surge from the Stars was absorbed on Monday before the Oilers nearly did to the Blues on Wednesday what Dallas couldn't -- erase a two-goal deficit in the final minutes with the netminder pulled to secure a point. Leon Draisaitl cracked the post and the Oilers push fell cold despite a 6-on-4 man advantage after St. Louis failed a coaches challenge for goaltender interference.

The constant throughout both contests was a stalwart Mikko Koskinen, who made 76 of 79 saves for a .962 save percentage over both games.

After their back-to-back, the Oilers close out their pre-Christmas schedule with a visit to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday.

Penguins team scope:

The Penguins are winners of three-straight after dousing the Calgary Flames 4-1 on Tuesday without the services of captain Sidney Crosby, forward Patric Hornqvist, and defenceman Justin Schultz.

In Crosby's absence, Jake Guentzel has a team-leading 36 points (17 G, 19 A) in 34 games this season, including 13 points in 14 road games. He has never recorded a point against the Oilers. Bryan Rust, on the right wing of the top line with Guentzel and Evgeni Malkin, has 24 points (13 G, 11 A) in 20 games this season and has scored at least one goal in his last three contests.

Goaltender Tristan Jarry makes his return to Edmonton after playing four seasons and winning a Memorial Cup with the Edmonton Oil Kings in 2013-14. The former Oil King has found his footing in the NHL as Penguin this season with a 13-10-5 record, winning the club's last three games, and recording three shutouts so far in the month of December.

By the Numbers:

Pittsburgh's 6-1-0 record since the start of December is the best in the NHL. ... The Penguins have earned shutouts in three of their last seven games. ... Pittsburgh is 13-3-1 against Western Conference opponents this season. ...

The Oilers are 3-7-1 in their last 11 games, averaging just 2.18 goals/game in that span. ... The Oilers lead the NHL in both power-play goals (34) and power-play percentage (30.4 percent). ... Connor McDavid has recorded an NHL-best 33 points (10 G, 23 A) in 17 home games this season and has 10 points (3 G, 7 A) in seven career games versus the Penguins.

Injury Report:

OILERS - Matt Benning (concussion) is on IR.

PENGUINS - Justin Almeida (shoulder) is on IR; Sidney Crosby (core muscle) is on IR; Nick Bjugstad (core muscle) is on IR; Brian Dumoulin (ankle) is on IR; Patric Hornqvist (lower body) is on IR; Justin Schultz (lower body) is day-to-day.

-- Jamie Umbach, EdmontonOilers.com

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