EDMONTON, AB - The Oilers were not pleased with their first game back following the NHL All-Star break, a 5-2 loss at home to Minnesota on January 31. Flash forward 11 days and Edmonton has to show they're up to the same type of challenge. Coming off a bye week, the Oilers host the 34-17-5 Chicago Blackhawks tonight.
"You know how good they are," said Oilers defenceman Brandon Davidson. "You know you can't take a night off with that team over there. I think it's a good challenge for us. At the end of the day, we feel eager to make sure we set ourselves up for success here. Playing a team like Chicago with the amount of skill and good players on that side, I think we'll be sharper than we were last time."
Is coming off a break more of a mental or physical challenge? Of course, players need to get their legs under them, but it has a lot more to do with being mentally prepared to play a full 60 minutes.
"Mentally, you have to be sharp," said Davidson. "It's easy to stray away from all the good things we've created. We definitely have to get the legs up to speed, but that's what practice was for yesterday. Here today, it's definitely going to be a challenge for us. We didn't like the way we came back after the All-Star break. We want to make sure that doesn't happen again. Big mental push through here, and something we'll have to adjust to."
The Oilers are in third place in the Pacific Division, two points back of the Anaheim Ducks. To stay afloat in a competitive Western Conference, the Oilers need to come out hot from this time away from the rink and build off a 1-0 win in Montreal before the break.
"We all know we have to be better in here," said Oilers winger Zack Kassian. "This break was a little longer of time for us to reflect on our season thus far and realize what happened last break. We don't want that to happen. We're sitting in a good spot right now but we want to keep improving and stay there. At the end of the day, this is where games really start to matter and where everybody needs to be at their best."
If Davidson isn't back to where he was with his play last season, he's at least closing in. The Oilers blueliner dealt with injury setbacks but has been finding his groove as of late.
While the team didn't perform up to their standards in their return from the All-Star break, Davidson was solid. That gives the orange and blue hope he's continuing his upward trajectory.
"His four games after the All-Star break were pretty strong," said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. "I think he's getting close. We have got to continue to run him a little bit here. He looks more comfortable, his skating is more comfortable, a little more confident, so I would say he's definitely trending towards that. Hopefully, this break didn't slow him down because I thought he started to look like himself by the time we were playing in Montreal."
Davidson logged a season-high 20:02 TOI in his second to last game before this recent break. Davidson is expected to be paired with Jordan Oesterle against Chicago tonight, and that's a duo very familiar with one another.
"We're good buddies, and we played our first year pro together in Oklahoma City and last year when I came up the first time I played with him." said Oesterle. "We have a good connection and seem to gel out there."
"He's a great skill player to play with," Davidson said of Oesterle. "He takes care of the puck well and we're going to have no problems here tonight."
Oesterle agrees with McLellan's assessment that Davidson's play is on the rise and knows what makes him a decent NHL defender.
"He's just hard to play against," said Oesterle. "He's always giving it 110% and he's always talking and always making the right play. He's very good defensively, which makes it easy for me."
Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot missed yesterday's practice due to travel delays coming back from the break. Talbot had one flight cancelled and tried what he could to return home in time but was unable to complete the trek. He's back now, and was the first netminder off the ice so he's slated to start against Chicago.
Although it was mostly out of his control, the late return ate enough at Talbot that he felt the need to apologize to his teammates this morning.
"That's the type of person he is," said McLellan. "There was nothing negligent about it. We don't control Mother Nature, we don't control pilots, we don't control schedules, and there was nothing he could do. In fact, he tried to solve the problem on his own by driving to another city to catch a flight and got delayed there to. There's nothing he could about it. He owned it, teammates are fine about it and it's time to move on."
"It's frustrating, especially when you're the only guy that doesn't make it back it looks bad, and especially when you're a leader on the team," said Talbot. "It's never a good feeling. I felt terrible about it yesterday and had to apologize to the guys today. Hopefully, they took it sincerely and I just want to get back to work now."
By the looks of things at morning skate, the forward lineup remains the same as it was for Edmonton in Montreal with the top line of Patrick Maroon, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl intact. Anton Lander is expected to remain in the lineup on the fourth line with Mark Letestu and Zack Kassian.
As for the defence, it's probable that Matt Benning makes his return to the ice after sitting out one game with an injury. Eric Gryba is likely the body to come out as Oesterle took rushes with Davidson.
-- Chris Wescott, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS (29-18-8) vs. BLACKHAWKS (34-17-5)
TV: 8:00 p.m. MST; Televised on Sportsnet & CBC
Tonight is the second of three meetings between the Oilers and Blackhawks this season and second and final game in Edmonton. These teams will meet again on February 18th in Chicago.
The last time these teams met was on November 21st in Edmonton, when the Oilers shut out the Blackhawks 5-0. Leon Draisaitl posted three points (2G, 1A) and Connor McDavid registered two assists, while Cam Talbot stopped all 31 shots he faced for the shutout.
Oilers team scope:
This is Edmonton's first game back after a five-day bye in the schedule where they didn't play or practice up until 5:00 p.m. yesterday.
The Oilers won their last time out, 1-0 in a shootout over Montreal. Prior to that, they had dropped three in a row and prior to that they put up points in eight straight (7-0-1).
Edmonton is third in the Pacific Division with 66 points, two points behind Anaheim for second and six points ahead of fourth-place Los Angeles.
Cam Talbot earned his fifth shutout of the season in Montreal on February 5th, stopping all 22 shots he faced and all three shooters in the shootout in the Oilers 1-0 shootout win.
Talbot continues to lead all NHL goaltenders in games played (49), minutes (2,922:35) shots (1,439) and saves (1,326). He has a 178 minute lead on his closest competitor Martin Jones (SJ) in minutes played, and a 40 save lead on Fredrik Andersen (TOR).
Talbot's career highs are 56 games, 3,223 minutes and 1,648 saves.
With 27 wins, he ranks fourth in the NHL, setting a new career-high. His previous career high was 21 wins, which he reached in both 2014-15 and 2015-16.
Blackhawks team scope:
Chicago is coming off a 5-2 win Friday night in Winnipeg, their fourth straight victory.
The 'Hawks are second in the Central Division, five points behind the first place Minnesota Wild. At 73 points, Chicago has the second-best record in the Western Conference and are tied with Columbus for the fourth-best record in the entire NHL.
Patrick Kane leads the Blackhawks with 55 points (18 goals) in 56 games this season. Second on the team is Artemi Panarin, who has 19 goals and 51 points in 56 contests.
Kane has 12 goals and 43 points in 32 games against the Oilers while Panarin has four goals and seven points in four career games versus Edmonton.
Defenceman Duncan Keith has 40 points in 56 games to rank third on the team in scoring. He also ranks fourth in the entire NHL among blueliners. Keith has eight goals and 28 points in 40 career games against Edmonton.
Jonathan Toews has 33 points in 32 career games versus the Oilers but is only sixth on the team in scoring with 33 points (11 goals) in 47 games this season.