EDMONTON, AB - There's always an added aura of anticipation when Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins are slated to visit Rogers Place as opposition.
"Of course," Captain Connor McDavid affirmed. "Any time you get to play against a team like Pittsburgh, who've won cups and been so successful in this League, it's always a great challenge for our group."
The Penguins have had the Oilers number to the tune of a 15-0-4 record in their last 19 meetings, and six-straight victories in Edmonton dating back to February 4, 2015.
"It's exciting for our group to test ourselves against a team like Pittsburgh and a player like Sid and all their guys over there. Of course, it's exciting," McDavid added. "Pittsburgh is a team we haven't had a tonne of success with over the last number of years, and obviously it's a big one for us tonight. It's a chance to end that."
The Edmonton Oilers (15-5-0) look to claim their third-straight victory and improve on their second-place standing in the Pacific Division with a young blueline that is set to welcome Markus Niemelainen to the lineup for his NHL debut.
The Finnish rearguard's call-up from the Bakersfield Condors was necessitated with Cody Ceci's placement into COVID protocol on Tuesday. Niemelainen has been a major contributor for Bakersfield this season, taking on tough matchups and recording a goal and two assists in 14 AHL games.
"If you watch his game in Bakersfield, he's a really competitive guy who plays big minutes for them," Head Coach Dave Tippett said. "He's earned the right to be here."
A fixture regularly billed as a meeting between two Generational talents in McDavid and Crosby, Wednesday offers the two players and the two clubs their first opportunity to rekindle their cross-conference connection in nearly two full years. The Penguins skated away from Rogers Place with a 5-2 victory in their last meeting back on December 20, 2019.
"They're both incredible players," Head Coach Dave Tippett said. "They're both great for the game and incredible people, and it's too bad they don't play against each other more. We'll get to see it tonight."
"You're flying by the seat of your pants a little bit, to be honest with you," Tippett joked.
The Oilers projected defence for Wednesday's game against Pittsburgh has combined for 1,671 NHL games, but 96 per cent of those contests have been filled by two players - Kris Russell (944) and Tyson Barrie (660).
Edmonton's four other defencemen - Evan Bouchard, William Lagesson, Philip Broberg, and now Markus Niemelainen - have combined to play a grand total of 67 NHL games.
Regardless of their game count, they'll be called upon to play like NHL players in an important matchup against Pittsburgh in the absence of some big contributors and established veterans in Darnell Nurse, Duncan Keith, and Slater Koekkoek.
"It's an opportunity for guys to step up," Tippett said. "It's not what was expected, but we're in this situation and now you've got to get people in to do the job for you. Young Broberg's come in and played well for us. (Bouchard) from the start of the year has been a good player for us, and Niemelainen is probably the most physical of all of the players coming."
The addition of Niemelainen is warranted with the stress that's been placed on the Oilers blueline, but the Finn's call-up is justified in the eyes of Tippett and Oilers GM & Pres. of Hockey Ops Ken Holland from his terrific play down in Bakersfield with the Condors this season.
"Ken's philosophy is to bring up the best guy who's playing the best, and he was playing the best," Tippett said. "He's a big kid; he's always kind of smiling and enjoying the game. I think he enjoys the physical part of the game, so he's going to get thrown into a situation tonight against a good team. I think he's ready for it, and hopefully, he plays well."
The rookie d-men who've already suited up for the Oilers over the opening 20 games of their season have used their positive play and contributions as a substitute for games played. It's being noticed in the locker room.
"They're highly-skilled and highly-effective players," forward Colton Sceviour said. "For how young they are, they're above their years already, so that's obviously exciting. You can never have too much depth in an organization at any position. You can see it on the blueline with some of these kids, who look very calm and very mature for their age. It's exciting to see."
However, that won't prevent the Oilers forwards from being cognizant of the situation and putting an emphasis on helping chip in defensively.
"I think you have to make it simple for them as best as you can by having all three forwards come back, giving them options on breakouts and playing as a tight five-man unit," Sceviour said. "It'll make things easier and not put too much pressure on guys that don't have a lot of experience, like Neemo playing his first game."
They're meeting for only the eighth time ever in their careers, but McDavid and Crosby have been compared to one another for a long time before that with the 'Generational' tag they share in the NHL.
They're two of the best to ever lace them up in the NHL in their own rights, but there's still plenty for each to learn from the other.
"We don't talk a tonne about that kind of stuff," McDavid said. "Truthfully, just watching him from afar and seeing the way he handles himself, how he carries himself and his game, you can learn lots from that. I would say I've learned more from watching him from afar, and obviously getting to know him a bit over the last couple of years has been fun."
For every milestone McDavid has achieved this season, Crosby has been in close proximity.
McDavid became the fourth-fastest in NHL history to 400 assists on Nov. 24 in only his 428th game, just 20 better than Crosby, and the sixth-fastest in NHL history to 600 points on Nov. 14 in 421 games played - nine more than his Generational counterpart.
On Oct. 21, McDavid scored his 200th career goal in his 411th contest, but Crosby achieved the feat in 15 fewer games with a hat-trick performance against the Calgary Flames back in 2010.
"Both young Canadian players with great resumes coming up to get picked first overall," Tippett said. "I think the easiest thing for both players is to get on the ice to play, because that's what they do best. I think dealing with all the other stuff that comes along with being those Generational players is a real learning experience."
To Crosby, watching McDavid develop new ways to dismantle NHL defences - exemplified in his incredible 1-on-4 goal against the New York Rangers - and reach a new level offensively is the most incredible part of McDavid's rise.
"Obviously you don't want to be on the other side of that if you're on the ice, but I think you have a certain level of appreciation, and that's fun to see," Crosby said following Penguins practice on Tuesday. "It's great for the game, and it's great to see someone at that level doing what he's doing."
"I think when somebody's playing at the level he's at, it's hard to think that they can again find another level, and I think he's done that."
McDavid reciprocated the praise, pointing out how Crosby developed even more ways to dominate over his career. In turn, that's driven McDavid to seek perfection in every facet of the game.
"I think Sid has changed his game since he's been in the League," he said. "I think he came in as the pass-first guy and wanted to get better at faceoffs, and now look at him. He's a great face-off guy. He wanted to score more goals, and he's a 50-goal scorer and a Rocket Richard winner. So he's changed his game as he's gone along, and that's so impressive in itself. And obviously, he's won everything that there is to win, so he's one of the best to ever do it in our sport and it's always a good challenge."
Newcomer Niemelainen was paired with Broberg at Wednesday's morning skate, with Bouchard joining Lagesson on the second pairing and Kris Russell and Tyson Barrie taking top-pairing responsibilities.
Connecting Niemelainen and Broberg for tonight's game against the Penguins came down more to a decision by Tippett not to disturb the chemistry between the other two pairs, but different in-game situations could drive the bench boss to shake things up.
"Laggy and Bouch were pretty steady," he said. "We've got Russell and Barrie, who've played quite a bit together, so you're trying to build a little bit of stability there. We'll see how that goes. That could change during the game, and there's some special-teams stuff where you'll see Broberg with Bouchard a little bit. We'll see how it goes."
McDavid was joined by Zack Kassian and Zach Hyman on the top line - a pair of players the captain feels comfortable competing alongside.
"We all skate well. We all work," he said. "Kass and Jesse (Puljujarvi) are pretty similar players in the sense that they work hard, they forecheck well, they're big bodies and can get pucks stopped in the o-zone. They're not too much different for me. I've played a lot with Kass before and know his game pretty well."
WATCH: 8:00 PM MT; televised on Sportsnet, SN360 & SN1
Oilers Team Scope
The Edmonton Oilers did not hold a team practice on Tuesday for precautionary reasons, announcing the placement of defenceman Cody Ceci into COVID-19 Protocol, Duncan Keith to Injured Reserve and calling up Bakersfield Condors defender Markus Niemelainen.
In the club's last action, they defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 at T-Mobile Arena to complete a three-game tour with a 2-1-0 record. The Orange & Blue are on a two-game winning streak and are 4-1-0 in their last five games, despite competing without core rearguards Darnell Nurse, Duncan Keith and Slater Koekkoek.
With a 15-5-0 showing through 20 contests, the Oilers trail the Calgary Flames and Minnesota Wild by one point for the top spot in the Western Conference and are tied with the Florida Panthers for first in NHL points percentage with a .750 average.
Leon Draisaitl leads the National Hockey League in goals and points with 20 and 40, respectively, while Connor McDavid ranks first in assists with 22 and is third in scoring with 36 points. Between the pipes, Mikko Koskinen is 11-2-0 alongside a .912 save percentage and Stuart Skinner is 2-3-0 with a .928 SV%.
Penguins Team Scope
The Penguins arrive in Oil Country for their second stop of a three-game Pacific Division jaunt, falling to the Calgary Flames 2-1 in the shootout on Monday. The visitors are 3-1-1 in their last five and have points in six of their last 10 outings, sitting fourth in the Metropolitan Division with a 10-7-5 record and 25 points.
Pittsburgh forward Jake Guentzel is the highest producer on the team with nine goals and 19 points, Evan Rodrigues follows behind with 15 points of his own and netminder Tristan Jarry has backstopped the group by going 10-4-4 with a 1.85 goals-against average, .938 SV% and three shutouts.
By The Numbers
EDM is 8-1-0 at Rogers Place this season, outscoring the opposition 38-26 at home while possessing a 37.9 percent power play (1st) and 86.2 percent penalty kill (11th). ... The Oilers are T-2nd in third-period goals with 29 and have a plus-eight goal differential in the final frame. ... Draisaitl has eight goals, 13 helpers and 21 points at home this year, and has gone 107-for-175 in the dot for a 61 percent faceoff average on home ice. ...
Penguins centre Jeff Carter has 22 goals and 36 points in 35 career matches against the Oilers. ... PIT is 5-2-3 on the road in '21-22, containing a 16 percent man advantage (22nd) and 87.5 percent PK (3rd). ... Overall, the Penguins have the League's best penalty kill with a 90.9 percentage. ... Jarry is 5-1-2 with a 1.47 GAA and .948 SV% on the road this season.
OILERS - Cody Ceci (COVID-19 Protocol) is day-to-day; Duncan Keith (upper body) is on IR; Darnell Nurse (finger) is on IR; Slater Koekkoek (lower body) is on IR; Devin Shore (lower body) is on IR; Mike Smith (lower body) is on LTIR;
PENGUINS - Dominik Simon (upper body) is day-to-day; Brian Boyle (upper body) is day-to-day; Bryan Rust (upper body) is on IR; Evgeni Malkin (knee) is on IR.