LOS ANGELES, CA - In what continues to be a rollercoaster race in the West, the Oilers are hearing louder and quicker footsteps all around them.
What they hope will help stifle the sound of the others hot on their trail is the return of the captain.
After a six-game absence due to a quad injury, Connor McDavid is set to play on Sunday night as the Oilers begin a pivotal three-game trip against all divisional opponents.
First stop? The City of Angels.
While the Los Angeles Kings aren't one of the squads mired in a battle for Pacific supremacy, they nonetheless pose a threat to an Oilers team who very much is. Despite Edmonton taking two of three in the season series so far, both victories came in hard-fought, one-goal affairs on home ice.
After a slate of Saturday games saw Vegas, Arizona and Vancouver pick up wins, the shuffling in the Pacific has the Golden Knights sitting atop the bunch, currently three points ahead of the Oilers, albeit with two more games played. Vancouver possesses second and maintains just a single-point edge over Edmonton with the same amount of games remaining for each club.
Given the state of things as the race heats up, the Oilers are eager to replicate some of the recent success they've found on the road.
The group's last three-game tour saw them bag four of a possible six points during tough tasks vs. both Florida teams and a pesky Carolina squad with the lone loss coming at the hands of the Lightning who currently sit second in the League.
All this without number 97 in the lineup. The Oilers wound up going 3-2-1 in McDavid's absence with the captain liking what he saw from the sidelines.
"They've been solid," McDavid said pre-game. "They haven't been giving up too much. Our games have been really solid and it's a credit to (Coach Tippett). With lots of guys out, he's put in that structure and it's a credit to the guys for buying in. It's been good to watch."
Head Coach Dave Tippett knew being without one of the best players in the game would be a test- one he felt the group handled admirably.
"That's adversity you don't hope for but when you get that adversity, you see how your team acts," Tippett said. "We played (really sound hockey) on the last trip and coming in here that's the talk. We have to get to that today."
It's that sound, simple and effective brand of road hockey that the Oilers hope will continue to serve them starting Sunday in LA before wrapping up the trip with a back-to-back in Anaheim and Vegas on Tuesday and Wednesday.
POWER PLAY OPTIONS
Despite getting a cornerstone piece back on the power play with McDavid's return, the absence of Oscar Klefbom for at least another week means the group will continue to work out their man-advantage identity without their usual quarterback. Based on recent practices and pre-game chatter, it appears that rookie defenceman Ethan Bear will get his looks on the first unit come Sunday night in LA.
"Bear has come along as a young player and had a really good season so far so we're going to look at him in a little bit of those situations and how he handles those. Both (Bear and Darnell Nurse) will be available for us," Tippett said.
With his history of running power plays at all other stages of his career, Bear is eager to take advantage of any time he gets.
"In junior I've done it a lot and Bakersfield too," Bear said. "I've watched our power play a lot and they're probably the best. I'm just going to go out there with confidence. I know the plays they want… Every player wants to play on the power play. It's such a fun part of the game. It's an opportunity for me to embrace it."
The return of McDavid will see some juggling of the forward lines with Tippett noting that the captain will be centering Alex Chiasson and Sam Gagner to start on Sunday.
With no morning skate taking place, the full lineup including the starting goaltender will be made apparent come pre-game warmup at Staples Center.
OILERS (32-22-7) vs KINGS (22-34-6)
TV: 8:06 p.m. MT; Televised on Sportsnet West
Sunday's match is the fourth and final clash between the Kings and Oilers this season. Edmonton defeated Los Angeles by a score of 6-5 in October and 2-1 in December, suffering a 5-1 road loss to the Kings back in November.
McDavid, whose status for Sunday remains unconfirmed, has six points (2G, 4A) and Leon Draisaitl has four (1G, 3A) in three games against LAK this campaign.
Kings defenceman Drew Doughty has five points (1G, 4A) while Michael Amadio (3G, 1A) and Anze Kopitar (2G, 2A) have four points each.
Oilers team scope:
The Oilers are winless in their last two outings after dropping a 2-1 OT setback to the Boston Bruins then a 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild.
The club remains hampered by injuries and suspensions with the absence of James Neal, Zack Kassian, Joakim Nygard and Oscar Klefbom but reassignments to Colby Cave and Evan Bouchard could telegraph some lineup shuffling for Sunday, including the re-entrance of McDavid.
"He's anxious to play," Head Coach Dave Tippett said of no. 97 following Saturday's practice.
"A little boost like that would be good for us right now. When you can add a player like that to your lineup, it just gives another whole dimension to our team.
"Hopefully he's good to go."
Draisaitl leads the NHL in scoring with 35 goals and 97 points on the season. McDavid is fifth with 81 points in 55 games.
Kings team scope:
Los Angeles dropped a 2-1 SO decision to the Colorado Avalanche at Staples Center on Saturday and host the Oilers on the second game of a back-to-back.
The Kings continue navigating a rebuilding season in 2019-20 and have since become sellers prior to Monday's NHL Trade Deadline.
The club traded Tyler Toffoli to the Vancouver Canucks on Monday in exchange for Tim Schaller, forward prospect Tyler Madden, a 2020 second-round draft pick as well as a 2022 conditional fourth-round selection.
LA also sent defenceman Alec Martinez to the Vegas Golden Knights for a 2020 second-round pick and 2021 second-rounder on Wednesday.
At this point, Los Angeles owns 11 draft picks in the 2020 NHL Draft and nine in 2021.
By the Numbers:
The Oilers are 3-2-1 in their last six games without McDavid and 18-21-8 since 2015-16 when the Oilers Captain is out of the lineup. ... The Orange & Blue are averaging 3.80 goals per game since Dec. 31, which is the highest average in the NHL during that time. ... Edmonton also owns the second-best shooting percentage during that span at 12.3 percent. ... The Oilers 28.7 power-play percentage is the best in the NHL and is the eighth-best average in the NHL all-time. ... Edmonton is 1-14-1 in their last 16 road games vs. LAK. ...
The Kings have the third-worst record in the NHL since the 2018-19 season, going 53-76-14. ... LA has spent 41.3 percent of total game time trailing this season. ... The Kings are 30th in shooting percentage, scoring on 7.4 percent of their shots. ... The Kings have been outscored 69-38 in the 2nd period this season.
OILERS - Connor McDavid (quad) is day-to-day; Oscar Klefbom (shoulder) is on IR; Joakim Nygard (hand) is on IR; Kris Russell (concussion) is on IR; James Neal (ankle) is on IR.