EDMONTON, AB - As it stands, tonight's game is about as big of a game the Oilers could have in January, especially given past seasons' results. It's not even close to "season's over" with a loss, but a win would mean a lot to a team looking to make the post-season for the first time since 2006.
Edmonton - third in the Pacific Division with 49 points - hosts the first-place San Jose Sharks, who sit just one point ahead. In a tight division, this swing game is big. Anaheim, tied for first, also plays Dallas tonight, but two points could possibly be enough to make the Oilers the top dog by night's end.
How do the Oilers find the right focus for this game, realize its importance but not build it up too much to do-or-die proportions?
"We're past the halfway mark, we're into January now and this is uncharted waters for our team," said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. "We're going to hear this question numerous times, playing against our divisional opponents and our conference opponents. We'll start to hear the four-point game thing, and it's new for us. We're not going to make a big deal of it."
The last time these two teams met, Edmonton dropped a 3-2 overtime decision in San Jose. McLellan says the Oilers will have to be more focused on their own play this time around if they want the two points.
"We're not going to make a mountain out of it, but we do know the performance level has to be there night in and night out now," McLellan said. "You can't go to sleep for a game or two and just let it slip away on you and then come back and play another game. They all count now for us, and in the past they haven't."
When playing the California teams, expect things to get chippy. The Oilers are now built to play that physical, rough-and-tumble Western Conference style, and it's to be expected going into the game tonight.
As the Oilers work their way into the picture as a playoff-calibre team, these matchups and rivalries should grow and evolve into even more physicality and take on playoff atmospheres all their own.
We saw glimpses of this in San Jose back on December 23.
"I hope the rivalry grows because that means that we're improving as a team and we're in the mix," said McLellan. "You have to have that for a rivalry. You don't get a non-playoff team and a consistent playoff team really creating that. If it's evolving that way, it's a good thing for our team. I know that San Jose team well. You're not going to intimidate them. They're mature enough and are not going to push them out. You have to play hard against them like every team attempts to but you have to be disciplined. I don't think we were in San Jose prior to Christmas."
"They're big, physical and really smart," said Oilers winger Patrick Maroon. "It's a big two points and everyone knows this is for two points tonight. We've got to just keep climbing in the standings. We know what they're capable of. They've got some really good players over there that are really talented.
"For us, we've got to play the way we're capable of playing which is getting pucks deep, grinding teams down low, playing smart, not overthinking it and winning the board battles. Tonight is going to be one of those heavy games where you've got to win pucks along the boards and get pucks out from our blue and their blue."
Speaking of Maroon, the Oilers hulking winger has made quite the season for himself flanking sophomore sensation Connor McDavid. Along with emerging star Leon Draisaitl on the other wing, the trio has become a dangerous and exhilarating matchup for any opponent.
Maroon has already banked a career-high 16 goals this season, and has eight in his last nine games.
"You don't usually see a guy that big with such soft hands and can get up and down the ice well," said McDavid. "He's definitely feeling good about himself. We hope to keep that going."
Maroon gives all the credit to his linemates, saying it's easy to produce with elite talents like Draisaitl and McDavid.
"I think we just complement each other really well," said Draisaitl. "I think that we can all hold onto pucks and can all make plays, all three of us but we also have that drive to the net. With Patty, we have a guy who goes to the front of the net and crashes and bangs and does a little of the dirty work in front of the net for us. It's very nice to have him on that line with us."
The Oilers moved some players around for morning skate. The aforementioned top line remains intact, while Jordan Eberle has been elevated to join Milan Lucic and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. That means Benoit Pouliot and Zack Kassian flank Drake Caggiula on the third line, and the Matt Hendricks-Mark Letestu-Anton Lander trio rounds out the forward lineup.
-- Chris Wescott, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS (21-14-7) vs. SHARKS (24-14-2)
TV: 7:00 p.m. MT; Televised on Sportsnet West
Tonight's game marks the second of five meetings between the Oilers and Sharks this season and the first of two games in Edmonton. The next time these teams will meet is on January 26th in San Jose.
The last time these teams met was on December 23rd in San Jose, where the Sharks won in overtime by a score of 3-2. Connor McDavid and Patrick Maroon both scored for the Oilers in the loss.
Oilers team scope:
The Oilers are coming off a .500 road trip with the most recent game being a 5-3 setback in Ottawa on Sunday.
Edmonton is one point behind San Jose and Anaheim for top spot in the Pacific Division.
Forward Mark Letestu has six special team goals this season, and two scored at even strength. The native of Elk Point, Alberta has four power play goals and two shorthanded goals. He also has four game-winning goals.
Forward Patrick Maroon was named the NHL's Second Star for the week ending Jan. 8, after collecting five goals and one assist in four games, including his first career hat trick in a 4-3 win over Boston on Jan. 5.
With two goals in Ottawa on Jan. 8, the St. Louis native now leads the Oilers with 16 goals, improving upon his career best goals in a season. He also leads the team with a +14 plus-minus rating. Maroon also shared the team lead against Ottawa with five hits (Larsson) and six shots on net (Klefbom).
His 15 even-strength goals ranks him fifth overall in the NHL. Since the arrival of the New Year, Maroon has six points (5G, 1A) in four games, ranking him third in the NHL.
In 58 games since joining Edmonton in a trade, Maroon has 37 points (24G, 13A), averaging 0.64 points a game. Prior to joining the Oilers, he had been averaging 0.38 points a game.
Sharks team scope:
San Jose has dropped three of its last four games with this recent slide coming after the club won seven of its last eight. However, they won their last game over Detroit by a score of 6-3. It was the first game all season where the Sharks scored five or more goals.
Brent Burns leads the Sharks in scoring with 39 points in 40 games. Burns leads all defencemen in the NHL, two points ahead of Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman.
Joe Pavelski is second on the Sharks with 15 goals and 37 points in 40 games.
The Sharks are 51-39-12-9 all-time vs. Edmonton and are 22-4-5 in the last 31 games vs. the Oilers.
Patrick Marleau scored the game-winning goal on Dec. 30 vs. Philadelphia, the 95th of his career, moving him into 11th place all-time in NHL history, passing Hall-of-Famer Steve Yzerman. The game-winner was also his first career game-deciding goal against the Flyers, the 29th and final opposing team that Marleau has collected the game-winner against. Per Elias Sports, Marleau's game-winning goals vs. 29 different franchises is tied for the most in NHL history (Brendan Shanahan, Mats Sundin).