EDMONTON, AB - The big man will leave big shoes to fill.
The Oilers begin a two-game homestand at Rogers Place before the bye week and two games without the services of Zack Kassian on Tuesday when they face off with the Nashville Predators for the first time this season.
Kassian was handed a two-game suspension by the NHL's Department of Player Safety on Monday for his actions as the aggressor in Saturday's Battle of Alberta, with his return to the Oilers lineup trajected to come after the bye week on January 29 against… the Calgary Flames.
"I'll take my two games, I'll get well-rested, have some good workouts, and I'll be ready to go when I come back," Kassian said to the media this morning.
"At the end of the day, we lost the hockey game. They talk about the two points, and they are a big two points, but at the end of the day they might've won the battle but there's still a war to be had."
The war raging in the Pacific Division seems to show no signs of respite with its top five teams separated by only two points in the standings.
The Predators are four points back of the Oilers with three games in hand for a Wildcard spot in the Western Conference, having won 14 of the last 15 meetings (14-1-0) between the two clubs.
"They're a solid group and we've given them a couple, especially in this building," McDavid said. "We have to find a way to get a win here."
For the players in the locker room, it can come from bringing their successful road game onto home ice after returning from a five-game jaunt with a 3-1-1 record.
Not putting themselves in a position to chase the game and scoring the first goal, to which the Oilers are 18-4-2 in when striking first, is the basis of that adjustment.
"I think it boils down to playing simple early," forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. "When we were playing our best on the road, it was a simple recipe - we got pucks up quick and we went to work down in the o-zone. We have to bring that here."
"Sometimes you get a bit comfortable at home and try to create a bit too much. You just have to simplify things and outwork these guys."
CHECK THE BOXES
With games this crucial in the season's second half, there's no time to release slack at this interval.
"These games are all so important now that if you play a loose game and lose, shame on you," Head Coach Dave Tippett said. "You have to show up, play the right way, and give yourself a chance to win."
Proper checking has always been the foundation of a solid performance from the Oilers bench boss' teams, and it's what he wants to see his side establish right out of the gate against Nashville.
"Our focus today is to play a better checking game than we've been playing," Tippett said. "Montreal game we were loose, in the Calgary game I thought we could've checked a lot better than we did, so you recognize your opponent and recognize who they have on the ice, but their depth at forward is pretty good. Especially at centre ice, it's very good."
"We have to play a strong checking game tonight and that's our mindset going into it."
It's a theme of success on the road for the Oilers, where they're 14-10-2 this season after picking up seven of a possible 10 points on their previous swing.
"It starts with recognizing how we played and how we got the success there," Tippett said. "It goes right to what we were talking about here - we have to play a tight-checking game.
"You go on the road you know you're in tough and have to play well to win. We should bring that same mindset home."
Zack Kassian's never been one to accept punishment.
"Since I've been in minor midget, I've stood up for myself and my teammates," he said after Tuesday's practice.
Two blindside hits from Matthew Tkachuk on Saturday, which sparked the incident that will force him to accept a two-game punishment for his actions, are no different.
"People don't do that to me or my teammates when I'm out there. To me, those are two dangerous hits. If they're clean, they're still predatorial," he said. "I'm a big boy and I love big boy hockey. But if you're going to play big boy hockey, you have to answer the bell every once and a while."
"He messed with the wrong guy, and I don't think he realizes we're in the same division. I have a great memory."
The Oilers are left with the task of replacing the work left behind by Kassian, who's operated on the top line as a sparkplug with 13 goals and 15 assists in 44 games this season.
"We have to find a way," Nugent-Hopkins said. "Obviously you can't just fill his shoes entirely, he's definitely a dynamic player and brings a different aspect to our game, but we have to find a way to create energy - whether it's hitting guys, get pucks on net and rebounds, and stuff like that. We just have to find a way to create energy right off the bat."
The emotional hangover of the suspension and the most charged Battle of Alberta seen in years is one that the Oilers want to avoid, especially after the Flames were shut out 2-0 by the Montreal Canadiens last night in their first taste of action after the weekend provincial clash.
"We had a good conversation about how our team needs to play better. There are some areas of our game that have to improve, so our emotion was inward and not outward," Tippett said.
"We lost a game and we should be jacked up to get two points from this game tonight. I don't worry about that emotion at all. We've had a couple of days to get through it, had a really good practice yesterday, so I think we'll come out and play well tonight."
The man to get the first crack at filling Kassian's skates on the top line will be Josh Archibald.
"Archibald will slide in there tonight," Tippett said. "Archie's played a couple of games there this year, and we're looking to play a really strong checking game tonight. Archie gives us that player and that mode right there."
Patrick Russell comes into the lineup for Kassian in the spot vacated due to Archibald's promotion alongside Riley Sheahan and Joakim Nygard.
Mike Smith makes his fifth start in the last six-game for the Oilers after going 3-0-1 on the Oilers previous five-game road trip.
Tuesday is set to be the first of three meetings between the Oilers and Predators this season. The two clubs link up again on February 8 at Rogers Place before the season series concludes in Nashville on March 2.
The Oilers were 1-1-1 against Nashville in 2018-19, with Leon Draisaitl registering a game-winning goal and four goals total over their three matchups.
Oilers team scope:
The Oilers will be without Zack Kassian for two games after the forward was handed a suspension by the NHL's Department of Player Safety on Monday for serving as the aggressor in an altercation with Matthew Tkachuk in Saturday's Battle of Alberta.
A 4-3 defeat to their provincial rivals knocked the Oilers into a Wildcard spot and ended their five-game road trip at 3-1-1 after having won two straight over Toronto and Montreal.
The Oilers are 10-8-3 on home ice this season and look to win against the Predators for only the second time in their last 16 tries.
Predators team scope:
Nashville are coming into tonight's game sitting four points behind the Oilers for the final Wildcard spot in the Western Conference with a 21-16-7 record.
The Predators are 3-1-1 in their last five games after shutting out the Winnipeg Jets, 1-0, on Sunday.
Their 116 points from defencemen this season rank fourth in the NHL thanks in large part to Roman Josi, who sits second among all d-men in the NHL for goals (14) and points (46).
By the Numbers:
Edmonton's 1-11-3 record against Nashville since the start of the 2014-15 season is their worst versus any opponent. ... The Oilers are 2-6-2 against Central Division opponents this season. ...
Roman Josi is six points away from becoming the second Predators defenceman to reach 400 points in franchise history. ... Connor McDavid needs 4 points to move into a tie for ninth-most points in franchise history with Shawn Horcoff (447). ...
Leon Draisaitl has nine points (3G, 6A) during a six-game point streak and leads all players with a point in 39 games this season. ...
OILERS - Matt Benning (concussion) is on IR.
PREDATORS - Colton Sissons (lower body) is on IR; Ryan Ellis (lower body) is on IR; Dante Fabbro (upper body) is day-to-day.