DALLAS, TX - James Neal has watched this Oilers team triumph over injury troubles and find its extra gear.
Not just in the games he's missed due to injury, but from the onset of Oilers Training Camp.
The growth was on display in an 8-3 victory over the Nashville Predators on Monday that included five third-period goals and five-point nights from the club's offensive leaders in Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.
Goaltender Mike Smith's 27 saves on 30 shots improved the veteran netminder to 12-1-4 in his last 17 starts, and 22-year-old blueliner Caleb Jones played a season-high 21:48 of ice time with a +3 plus/minus with regular minutes muncher Oscar Klefbom nursing a shoulder injury.
Everywhere you look, the pieces for the Oilers seem to be fitting at the right time.
"I think it's a combination of things," spoke Neal during his pre-game hotel availability on Tuesday. "I think obviously when you go through a lot of injuries like we have, you have guys that get a bigger role and get the chance to play more. They've definitely taken advantage of that, but I think just right from Day 1 we've built to be in this position and be a playoff team."
The 32-year-old forward will make his return to the lineup tonight against the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center in the second of back-to-back games for the Oilers after a minor ankle injury he suffered on January 29 against the Calgary Flames evolved into a 16-game absence and a stint on the Injured Reserve.
"It was minor at first," he said. "When I thought I was coming back there in practice, I hurt it again. That really set me back a long time.
"With ankles and feet, they're a little bit nagging and it takes a while for them to heal. So I feel good now and I'm just excited to get back in there to help the team win. We have a good push for the playoffs going on right now."
With his ankle ailment being put into the past, Neal prepares to fit back into the mould and contribute for an Oilers team that's found its wings in the Pacific Division playoff race having gone 9-5-2 in the 33 days he was dormant due to injury.
"We knew we had it in our room. We just had to kind of sort things out and grow," he said. "We've done that, so I like the way we've learned how to play in tough games. I like the way we've battled adversity and we've just got better and better."
"We need to continue that and we've got guys stepping up every night. I'm excited to get back in there and pull my own weight."
THE REAL HEAL
Head Coach Dave Tippett has a problem developing.
But it's of the best variety possible.
Even though his limited lineup has prospered in recent weeks, a continuous influx of healthy bodies that began with the likes of Kailer Yamamoto in Monday's win over Nashville and continues tonight with Neal is leaving the bench boss with selection dilemmas.
Despite that being said, every reinforcement will be welcomed with the Oilers at the front end of a March fixture pileup.
"It's not the hard part of the job, because if you look at the big picture, you need it," Tippett said. "We're going into a stretch of games where we have lots of games in a short amount of time. We just saw what injuries can do, so the more depth we have the better it is.
"There's going to be some nights where players don't play or play as much as they'd like. But that's just part of being a deep team and a good team pushing for a playoff spot… We'll continue to push guys back into the lineup that have been out for a while to get them up to speed."
Tippett's side will be boosted on Tuesday by the return of a 19-goal scorer in Neal to the lineup after the Whitby, Ontario was trending towards a return on this three-game Oilers road trip. In 50 games this season, Neal has 19 goals and 10 assists.
"He's had a couple of really good skates now," Tippett said. "We want to get everyone back up and going as they come out of the injury ward here, so Neal will draw in tonight and we have a couple other injury situations we're just monitoring."
After a lengthy injury absence on the shelf watching the team he joined via trade in the off-season from the Calgary Flames succeed, Neal has been chomping at the bit to get back into the action and make his own impact on the developing playoff race for the Oilers.
"I'm just really excited to get going again, Neal said. "It felt like a really long time, and just with the way the team's playing you want to get in there. I'm proud of the way the guys have stepped up and played so far.
"The guys have stepped up and they're playing great. Just everybody pulling their weight and every game is so important every night. I'm proud of them and looking forward to helping them tonight."
JONES' TRUST FACTOR
The 'next man up' mentality of the Oilers has been beneficial for Jones, and the young defender is fully deserving of his plaudits.
"He has confidence. So when a player has confidence, he jumps in there and plays well and gives the coaching staff confidence," Tippett said. "He's a young player that continues to mature, and the more opportunity he's got the better he's played. He moves the puck very well, understands the game, and has quickness to defend well but also quickness to get up in the play."
Jones contributed for the Oilers against Nashville with a season-high 21:48 of ice time on a pairing with Adam Larsson as a result of extra ice time brought on by the omittance of Oscar Klefbom, who's travelled with the team but won't be in action tonight against Dallas.
"I think any time you get an opportunity like Klef going down, he's a huge piece," Jones said. "It was the next man up and the coaches said that they wanted to give me those extra minutes and give me an opportunity."
Rather than micromanage and overthink his own game, it was a great opportunity to place trust in himself the same way the coaching staff would entrust him with more ice time.
"I just decided I was just going to be myself and carry some confidence," Jones continued. "It's taken a little while here, but as you keep playing and keep getting comfortable with the guys in the room, you just start feeling comfortable with yourself and just play hockey.
"I think that's the biggest thing for me right now. I'm not thinking about what I'm doing much and just trusting my instincts and doing what I do best. It's paying off right now."
As a whole, both Jones and Larsson have evolved as a pair blending both shutdown defence in Larsson's corner and offence from Jones after the pairing went through growing pains last campaign together.
"We had a bit of a trial run last year that didn't go so well, but I think we compliment each other well," Jones said. "He's a really solid shutdown defenceman and I'm kind of a mobile puck mover. I think our skills really complement each other well and we've been very solid as of late.
"He's been talking to me and he kind of tells me in the offensive zone to just do my thing and trust myself, but in the defensive zone to make sure I play hard without the puck. He's been a good mentor for me."
Mikko Koskinen will start the back half of Edmonton's back-to-back in goal, having already had success this season at the American Airlines Center this season back in a 2-1 win on December 16 when he made 34 saves on 35 shots.
After defenceman Kris Russell blocked a shot in Monday's win and had his minutes managed the rest of the way, he'll be a game-time decision.
"We'll go right to warm-up with that one," Tippett said. "Rusty was feeling a little bit better this morning, but we'll see where it is game time."
Lines for the Oilers tonight will be made apparent during warm-ups. Puck drop is at 6:30 PM MT.
-- Jamie Umbach, EdmontonOilers.com
OILERS (35-23-8) at STARS (37-21-7)
TV: 6:30 p.m. MT; Televised on Sportsnet West
Tuesday's clash between the Oilers and Stars is the third and final game of the season series.
The road team has come out as the winner in both prior meetings, as Dallas defeated Edmonton 5-4 at Rogers Place on Nov. 16 and the Oilers repaid the favour at American Airlines Center a month later with a 2-1 W.
Connor McDavid has five assists in two games against DAL in '19-20, while Leon Draisaitl has two goals and one assist.
Tyler Seguin has two goals and two assists in the two games for the Stars.
Oilers team scope:
The Oilers popped off for five consecutive goals in the 3rd period of a tied game against the Nashville Predators on Monday, being propelled to a 8-3 victory thanks to five-point efforts by both Draisaitl (4G, 1A) and McDavid (1G, 4A).
Draisaitl's first four-goal performance helped him establish a new career-high in points with 107 on the season to lead the League while McDavid is second with 94 points.
The Oilers 78 points are two short of first in the Pacific Division as the Vegas Golden Knights idle in the top spot with 80.
Stars team scope:
The Stars were bounced by a 4-3 SO loss to the St. Louis Blues on Saturday but the club has played well recently, going 6-2-2 in their last 10 games.
Dallas plays some of their best hockey at American Airlines Center as the club has owned a 19-10-2 record when playing at home this season.
Denis Gurianov leads the Stars in goals with 20 and Seguin is the team's highest-scoring player with 33 assists and 50 points.
By the Numbers:
Draisaitl notched the fifth-fastest hat trick in Oilers franchise history vs. NSH on Monday, scoring it in 4:38. ... McDavid has two goals and 11 assists in five games since returning from his quad injury. ... Draisaitl has 16 goals and 16 assists in the 17 games since the NHL All-Star break. ... Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has six goals and 23 points since the All-Star break. ...
Dallas is ranked 5th in faceoff percentage, winning 51.7 percent of their draws. ... Ben Bishop is 21-14-4 with a 2.49 GAA and .921 S%, while Anton Khudobin is 16-7-3 with a 2.23 GAA and .930 S%.
OILERS - Oscar Klefbom (shoulder) is out; Joakim Nygard (hand) is on LTIR; Mike Green (sprained MCL) is out.
STARS - Stephen Johns (upper body) is day-to-day; Justin Dowling (lower body) is day-to-day; Martin Hanzal (back) is out.