PITTSBURGH, PA - It's a matchup the hockey world has been waiting for.
Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, two highly-touted NHL stars, will play each other for the first time. It's a moment not lost on McDavid, who has followed Crosby's career since "Sid the Kid" came into the NHL as the first-overall pick in 2005. Ten years later, McDavid went first overall to the Oilers.
Now they meet on the ice.
"Tonight is going to be cool for me to play against Crosby, against someone I grew up idolizing and someone I have followed along his career," said McDavid. "I'm definitely excited about that."
Almost lost in all of the media build-up to this meeting is the team matchup itself. Edmonton comes in 9-3-1, tied for first in the Western Conference with 19 points. Pittsburgh, the defending Stanley Cup champions, are third in the East at 8-2-2.
So when it comes to the two players and the two teams on the benches, it's not about individuals tonight.
"I'm quite confident both organizations and coaches aren't going to make it about the individuals," said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. "Our approach is going to be a team game. I'm sure theirs will as well.
"Obviously, it's two of the superstars in this League that are fun to watch and are great human beings. They create an ambassadorship for the League. So there's a lot of reasons to have interest in the game. When we get on the plane tonight, we won't evaluate Connor versus Sid or vice versa. We'll evaluate the Oilers versus Pittsburgh."
There's something on the line tonight for Edmonton. A win in Pittsburgh would be the exclamation point on what has been a decent road trip for the orange and blue. After an overtime loss in Toronto and a defeat in New York to a good Rangers team, in which Edmonton had a lead in the third, the Oilers have rattled off two straight wins. Another victory will give Edmonton their 10th win of the season, something they didn't have until December 4, last season.
"We get up for every game," said Oilers winger Patrick Maroon. "This is huge for us. This will determine a great trip for us. If we go out there and get the win, it's going to be a great trip for us. I think guys in here are going to be ready and focused. We know what we have to do in here."
The game is also another one of those "measuring stick" nights for Edmonton. They've faired well in them so far, beating St. Louis and Washington.
"It's another great challenge tonight for us to see where we're at against the Stanley Cup champions," said Maroon. "They're a really good team over there. They're fast, they kind of play like the Rangers. They're up and down, they have really good pace to their game. I think it will be a good test for us tonight."
WINNING WHILE WOUNDED
There's something to be said for finding a way to win while dealing with injuries. They're never an excuse, as they are a part of the game, but Edmonton has done well to overcome the adversity of absences in their lineup.
On this road trip, the Oilers have had to deal with the losses of defenceman Kris Russell and forwards Zack Kassian and Jesse Puljujarvi. All three missed the game in Detroit, after Russell missed the game in Brooklyn against the Islanders, and Kassian and Puljujarvi had to exit that night.
The Oilers were able to persevere with a depleted lineup in Brooklyn, rebounding from a tough start to win in a shootout. Then they went into Detroit, a place they hadn't won since 2009, and they beat the Red Wings 2-1.
"I think last year, in the same situation in New York, against the Islanders or in Detroit, I don't know if we would have came out with two points," said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who netted the power-play game-winner in Motown.
"Against the Islanders, it was not a good start for us. But the way we battled back, we didn't give up after that. We got a little bit desperate and things start going your way. Those one-goal games are huge. They make or break seasons. We've got to keep winning those."
The Detroit win was one the Oilers can really look to as a shining example of how to pull together to grind out a victory in a tough situation.
"Against Detroit, it was all in all, a good, team-effort win," said Maroon. "We didn't need just our big guns. Some other guys chipped in. Every line played the right way and chipped in. Even if it's just getting pucks out, making the right play at the right time, blocking the right shot at the right time, getting pucks in, no turnovers at their blueline or having a good transition game. I think Detroit was a good team effort. With the injuries, everyone who comes in does a really good job."
Nugent-Hopkins went out with former Oilers teammate Justin Schultz for dinner last night. The Penguins defenceman was traded to Pittsburgh by Edmonton in February. He was a part of a Penguins team that went on to hoist the Cup.
Nugent-Hopkins and Schultz both say it was fun to connect, and that it will be odd playing against each other.
"We just caught up. I haven't seen him since the summer," said Nugent-Hopkins. "It was definitely good to catch up with him and see him last night. It's definitely different seeing him on a different team. Seeing him go through the Cup run was pretty exciting and pretty fun to watch. It was a great experience for him. This will be our first time playing against each other so it will be a little different out there to see him in a different uniform."
Schultz has played 12 games this season for Pittsburgh, chipping in with three assists.
-- Chris Wescott, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS (9-3-1) at PENGUINS (8-2-2)
TV: 5:00 p.m. MT; Televised on Sportsnet West
Tonight is the first of two meetings this season between the Penguins and Oilers. The next time these teams will meet is on March 10th in Edmonton.
The last time the Oilers and Penguins met was on November 28th in Pittsburgh, where the Oilers defeated the Penguins 3-2 in a shootout. Jordan Eberle and Matt Hendricks scored for the Oilers in the shootout.
Oilers team scope:
Through November 7, the Oilers have the best road record in the NHL (5-1-1), for 11 out of a possible 14 points. The Oilers have been especially effective with their special teams away from home. The Oilers rank first on the road with a power play running at a 33.3% clip (6 PPG/ 18 PP) and also rank first a road penalty kill at 94.7% (1 PPGA/ 19 OPP). The Oilers are tied for third overall in the NHL with a 9-3-1 record, good for 19 points.
Forward Jordan Eberle has five points (2G, 3A) in eight career games against Pittsburgh. ... Defenceman Oscar Klefbom has two points (1G, 1A) in four career games against Pittsburgh
Forwards Anton Lander and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made their NHL debuts against Pittsburgh on October 9, 2011, as the Oilers defeated the Penguins 2-1 at Rexall Place in Edmonton. Nugent-Hopkins registered his first goal in the victory.
Defenceman Adam Larsson has faced Pittsburgh 19 times in his career, the most he has faced any NHL opponent so far in his NHL career. Larsson has two points (1G, 1A) against the Penguins. ... Forward Milan Lucic has 18 career points (7G, 11A) in 27 games against Pittsburgh. ... Forward Benoit Pouliot has 11 career points (6G, 5A) in 16 games against Pittsburgh.
Penguins team scope:
Pittsburgh comes into tonight's game on a roll, having picked up at least a point in six straight games (5-0-1). The lone blemish was a 3-2 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings on November 3. Most recently, the Pens defeated the San Jose Sharks 5-0 back on November 5.
The usual suspects are among the Penguins scoring leaders this season. Atop the leaderboard is Evgeni Malkin, who has six goals and 12 points in 12 games. Sidney Crosby has only played six games (Pens are 5-0-1 with him in the lineup this season) and he has eight goals and 10 points in those six contests. Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel each also have 10 points on the season.
Kessel has 18 points in 14 career games against the Oilers. Crosby has 15 points in 10 games against the Oilers, but only two goals. Malkin has 11 points and four goals in nine career games against Edmonton.