EDMONTON -- Over the last three more traditional campaigns, the Edmonton Oilers played the Vancouver Canucks four times per season. Monday, as the weirdest regular season on record comes to a close, the two teams meet for their first of four games in a week.
Actually, they’ll play four games against each other in six days -- nine this season -- starting with back to back in Vancouver on Monday and Tuesday, and then they’ll rekindle in Edmonton Thursday and Saturday.
As one team plays out the string while the other readies itself for a playoff run, if this was a prize fight, they would be billing it as “Tuning Up vs. Tuning Out.”
“Ready to Roll vs. Rolling Over.”
The Oilers can clinch a playoff spot with a point and they can’t wait.
“This was our first goal coming it the year. Getting into the playoffs,” said Jujhar Khaira, who draws back into the lineup Monday. “Solidifying a spot here tonight would be huge for the group. It shows the hard work we’ve put in this year has paid off.
Is it something the coach talks about with his team? Or is it quite the opposite, a topic to be avoided?
“We talked about it,” head coach Dave Tippett said after practice. “We want to put that ‘X’ beside our name. We’re well aware of what we have to do.”
As such, Edmonton has all the energy in the world and everything to play for. Connor McDavid is chasing down 100 points, while players like Mikko Koskinen, Tyler Ennis and Ryan McLeod get some games and different roles to sharpen up for the post-season.
The Oilers have played .700 hockey for three months now. They’re not perfect, but Edmonton is a pretty good team.
Here’s how they’ll line up tonight:
Draisaitl, McDavid, Yamamoto
Kahun, Nugent-Hopkins, Puljujarvi
Ennis, McLeod, Archibald
Neal, Khaira, Chiasson
Khaira comes back in after missing five games. He suffered his second concussion in just over a month and will centre the fourth line with James Neal and Alex Chiasson, a unit that was excellent in the playoff bubble last summer.
“Three big bodies on a line, we keep it very simple out there -- get pucks in and get on the body. It creates room for us,” said Khaira, who has no issues with coming back from concussions. “Comfort level is 100 per cent. It’s one of those things -- I definitely got my bell rung, but by the time I was in the tunnel I felt back to normal. The frustrating thing was not being able to play. I was just focussing on getting back a soon as possible.”
There was a time in hockey when coaches made the calls on injuries like this, which resulted in players coming back before they were ready. Now, not only do the doctors make the call, but most if not all coaches are conscious of how careful they should be with brain injuries.
“I’ve made sure that the doctors, the neurologists, everybody (can sign off). We’ve kept him out a few extra days to make sure everything is in place,” Tippett said. “He’s had some hard practices, talking to the doctors they have zero hesitation in him playing, and I felt we needed to get to that point before we would play him again. He’s been anxious to play for three or four days now.
“He’s been totally cleared by all of the professionals, so you have to take their opinion on it.”
One last note: Tippett continues to investigate young McLeod’s ability to help in the playoffs. He’ll centre a line with Ennis and Josh Archibald and get a shot on the penalty kill.
The Oilers have their goals per game up to eighth in the NHL at 3.22, and their goals against at 10th in the NHL, at 2.67. Their powerplay runs at 26.6 per cent, second-best in the NHL, while the Canucks average of 9.8 penalty minutes per game ranks 30th.
That’s a bad contrast heading into this four-game set.
The Canucks, on the other hand, can’t wait for an end to a bad season that has taken a turn for the worse. After winning three of their first four games post-COVID, the Canucks have become a team that simply does not have what it takes to outplay NHL competition for anything more than the odd in-game stretch.
They are without eight forwards now including Brandon Sutter, Elias Pettersson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel, Micheal Ferland, Jake Virtanen and Tyler Motte. Their last 10 games have been a mirror image of the Oilers, with Edmonton going 7-3 and the Canucks stumbling at 3-7.
Here are the Canucks lines:
Pearson, Horvat, Lind
Hoglander, Miller, Boeser
Vesey, Boyd, MacEwen
Highmore, Graovac, Hawryluk