EDMONTON, AB - Until the Oilers have fully established themselves among the top teams in the League, their opponents will be considered measuring sticks for them.
The St. Louis Blues were a tough task last week, and Edmonton handed them a 3-1 loss. That was a continuation of their bounce back from a 6-2 loss to Buffalo on October 16, their first and only loss of the season so far.
The Oilers continued their success by shutting out the Winnipeg Jets 3-0 outdoors in the 2016 Heritage Classic on Sunday. Handling success has been a theme for the Oilers players and coaches, after starting the season 5-1-0. In that Winnipeg game, the Oilers could have folded under the pressure of a strong Jets first period and the uniqueness of playing outside.
"The way we responded last game. Outdoor game, in Winnipeg. They had a good first period and we responded really well to that, got up a goal and kinda smelled blood there for a little bit and went right at them," said Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. "We've just got to keep rolling with it and stay positive. It's easy to be positive and excited when things are going well so just want to keep that going."
When it comes to keeping the success rolling this season, that Buffalo game has been the one major speed bump. Washington is expected to pose their own challenges to Edmonton's hot streak tonight.
"I think it's just coming in every day and working hard and not getting complacent," said Oilers winger Zack Kassian. "We were 2-0 when Buffalo came to town and we had a setback. It's learning from those mistakes. It's a long year and there's going to be learning curves, but as a team we need to learn from our mistakes and not make the same mistakes twice. This is an important game for us. This is a team that can score a lot of goals if we're not tight defensively so it's a good test."
Alex Ovechkin is, without argument, one of the best players in the game. He's already off to a hot start in Washington with three goals in five games, which leads the Capitals. Ovechkin always provides a unique challenge to his opponents and their defencemen.
"Like with all the top scorers, you have to be close to him," said Oilers blueliner Adam Larsson. "You have to have a good stick. He's probably (one of) the best in the League and it's going to be a great challenge for all of the d-men tonight. I think everybody is pretty excited to play against not even just him. They have a lot of weapons there. It's going to be a great challenge for us."
The forwards need to be active against Ovechkin and company as well.
"You really don't want to give him a chance to shoot," said Nugent-Hopkins. "If you can try to take away time and space from him as quick as possible, that's obviously the key. I've played against him now a few times. He always finds the kind of quiet area so sometimes he can get lost in the offensive zone. All of a sudden, they find him. He plays with guys who can definitely move the puck to him. You've just got to be aware of him at all times. At the same time, there's a lot of talented guys over there so a lot of guys to watch."
It's not just Ovechkin the Oilers are preparing for tonight. Head Coach Todd McLellan believes Washington is one of the best teams in the League. For Edmonton, they have been able to use them as a measuring stick for a few years now and hope it goes better this time around. The Oilers are 4-6-0 in their last 10 games against the Caps, including two losses last season.
"You want to test yourself against the best and he's obviously one of the best players in the world, has been for many years and their team, I consider one of the top five or six teams in the League," said McLellan. "We always seem to get the early in the year here at home and can measure ourselves a little against them. Then we get down the road in Washington and see how much we've improved. Last year we took it on the chin pretty hard here. They scored a number of goals, and then we tightened things up in Washington somewhat but hopefully we can take another step and be competitive against them."
Mark Letestu scored the eventual game-winning shorthanded goal against the Jets at the Heritage Classic, helping the Oilers secure a 3-0 victory. Letestu has two goals and two assists in six games, and has contributed not only on the penalty kill but in the faceoff dot as well.
"He's been very reliable," said McLellan. "He's been heady, he understands positioning, has been very good in the circle and good on the penalty kill, contributing big goals. He fits his role a little bit, his power play time from last year has been cut back a little bit. When we need that righty faceoff guy he seems to step up to the plate so we're comfortable with him."
The Oilers lineup is expected to be the same as it was in Winnipeg. That means Jesse Puljujarvi should remain on Leon Draisaitl's wing, while the NHL's First Star of the Week, Cam Talbot, was first off the ice this morning.
-- Chris Wescott, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS (5-1-0) vs. CAPITALS (3-1-1)
TV: 7:30 p.m. MT; Televised on Sportsnet West, Sportsnet Ontario, Sportsnet 360 & Sportsnet One
Season Series: Tonight marks the first of two meetings this season between the Capitals and Oilers. The next time these teams will meet is on February 24th in Washington. ... The last time the Oilers and Capitals met was on November 23rd in Washington, where the Oilers were shutout by the Capitals 1-0. Dmitry Orlov scored the Capitals lone goal in the win.
Oilers team scope: The Oilers currently sit second in the NHL and are off to their best start to the season since the 1985-86 season, when they also started with a 5-1-0 record. ... Oilers continue their scoring ways and rank second in the NHL with 23 goals, and are tied with Montreal for first in the NHL in goals for/games played (3.83). ... The Oilers are getting scoring throughout their current lineup, where both the third and fourth lines have each scored five goals this season. Currently 19 of the Oilers players have at least a point in Edmonton's first six games.
Capitals team scope: The Capitals started the year 3-0-1 before dropping their first regulation game last time out in a 4-2 decision against the Rangers this past Saturday. … Washington has scored first in all five games this season. … Despite the strong start to the season, Washington's power play and penalty kill have both struggled. The power play is 12.5% (tied for 23rd in the NHL) and the penalty kill is 27th at 71.4%. … No surprise that Alex Ovechkin leads the way for the Caps in goals so far this season with three in five games and is tied with Marcus Johansson in points with four.