Jason Brough

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Tonight in Columbus, a chance for the Oilers to prove their doubters wrong

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People are still skeptical about the Edmonton Oilers.

That’s only natural, given the Oilers haven’t made the playoffs in a decade and, in that time, have drafted four times with the first overall pick.

They’ve been a pretty, pretty bad team over the last little while.

And to be sure, the Oilers are still losing games that good teams normally win. Like Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Vancouver, a home game against a non-playoff side that had played the night before.

“We were flat, our execution was poor, we played the game standing still,” head coach Todd McLellan told reporters after that one. “We didn’t go after and skate against a team that played an overtime game the night before. When you stand around and try to do it the easy way, it doesn’t work.”

So when it comes to the Oilers, the skepticism is understandable. In fact, it’s wholly warranted.

Which leads us to their upcoming road trip, starting tonight in Columbus against a Blue Jackets side riding a 15-game winning streak.

If the Oilers would like to prove their doubters wrong, now would be a great time to do it. And to help them, they’ll get Andrej Sekera back after the veteran defenseman missed a couple of games due to illness.

“It’s a good opportunity to play the best team in the NHL right now,” said captain Connor McDavid.

At 19-12-7, the Oilers are still comfortably in a playoff spot, six points up on Dallas and Vancouver. But as mentioned, they have yet to earn the benefit of the doubt that they can hold on. The Oilers could still be caught by Calgary, Los Angeles, or even Vancouver for third place in the Pacific Division. And if that happens, they’d also have to fend off Dallas, Nashville, or even Winnipeg for a wild-card spot.

Oh, and one more thing about this Oilers team — their starting goalie, Cam Talbot, has made 34 starts, against just four for Jonas Gustavsson, who’s gone 1-2-1 with an .893 save percentage.

Talbot has played well, going 18-10-6 with a .919 save percentage, but no goalie has come close to matching his workload, which could make for an interesting stretch drive.

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It could also make for some criticism of GM Peter Chiarelli, if things go sideways.

After all, Gustavsson was a curious signing. His career save percentage in the NHL is just .902, the lowest among the 33 active netminders with at least 150 games of experience. Heck, it was Chiarelli’s former team, the Bruins, who didn’t feel confident enough to bring the goalie back for another season in Boston.

In other words, it’s no real surprise that McLellan doesn’t seem to have any confidence in his backup.

So it’s going to be fun to watch, as these Oilers try to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Lots of questions remain. Lots of doubters, too.

“You’ve got to look forward to the challenge,” winger Milan Lucic said ahead of tonight’s big game. “You have to embrace it. That’s the fun in being a competitor and on a competitive team. It’s playing the best of the best.”

And hopefully, for the sake of the Oilers and their loyal fans, coming out on top.

Things are getting interesting in the Atlantic Division

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A poor performance by the Boston Bruins has opened the door for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who can move into a playoff spot with a win tonight over the visitors from Winnipeg.

The Bruins saw their modest two-game winning streak come to an end last night in New Jersey, where they lost, 3-0, to the Devils.

“We just couldn’t muster up anything tonight,” Boston coach Claude Julien told reporters. “We were flat. We were flat from start to finish.”

And so the Lightning will head into tonight’s game two points back of the B’s for third place in the Atlantic Division. And with two games in hand, they’d hold the tiebreaker if they can beat the Jets.

Meanwhile, the second-place Ottawa Senators are on their “bye week.” By the time they return to action Saturday, they could be out of a playoff spot themselves.

Speaking of teams from Ontario, the Toronto Maple Leafs have won five straight and currently sit just three points back of the Bruins, with four precious games in hand. They take on the Caps tonight in D.C.

And let’s not forget about the Florida Panthers. As disappointing as they’ve been, the Panthers still have the potential to go on a run, and they’re only four points back of Boston, with two games in hand. They host Winnipeg tomorrow, Nashville Friday, then have a big game with the Bruins Saturday at BB&T Center.

Detroit and Buffalo round out the division. Though neither team looks like it will be a factor down the stretch, you never know for sure. With a lengthy playoff streak on the line, the Red Wings will give it their all.

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It’s all shaping up to be a fascinating second half of the season. And not just in the Atlantic.

Because while some have conceded that the Metropolitan will have five playoff teams (leaving just three for the Atlantic), the Philadelphia Flyers, with just one win in their last seven, can’t be feeling too comfortable these days. The Flyers are just three points up on the Lightning for the second wild-card spot, and the Bolts hold a game in hand.

All four Wild prospects showing well at the World Juniors

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The Minnesota Wild have only made 11 draft picks in the last two years, but it sure seems like they made some good ones based on what’s happening at the World Juniors.

Consider:

Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov, a fifth-round pick in 2015, leads the tourney with seven goals.

Swedish forward Joel Eriksson-Ek, a first-round pick in 2015, isn’t far behind with five goals.

American forwards Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin have also shown well. The former was a second-round pick in 2015; the latter was a first-round pick in 2016.

“It’s been fun to see our guys performing so well,” said assistant GM Brent Flahr, per the StarTribune.

It’s been encouraging, too, given the Wild have a number of older core players, especially up front. Mikko Koivu is 33; Eric Staal and Zach Parise are each 32. Those three are all under contract through at least next season, and they can all still contribute.

But there isn’t a team in the NHL that doesn’t need a constant supply of young talent, and it’s harder for good teams like the Wild, who haven’t missed the playoffs since 2012.

Minnesota has another promising forward in Alex Tuch, a 20-year-old who’s currently in the AHL. Tuch was the 18th overall pick in 2014.

Related: Looking to make the leap: Alex Tuch

‘Hawks assign Motte to AHL, which may signal return of Hossa

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In what may be a sign that Marian Hossa is ready to play again, the Chicago Blackhawks have assigned forward Tyler Motte to the AHL.

Motte hadn’t been playing much prior to today’s demotion. He logged just 10:21 of ice time in yesterday’s Winter Classic, which the ‘Hawks lost to St. Louis, 4-1. The 21-year-old rookie has four goals and three assists in 33 games.

Chicago doesn’t play again until Thursday versus Buffalo at United Center.

Still remaining with the ‘Hawks is center Tanner Kero, who has helped replace the injured Marcus Kruger.

Hossa has missed five games with an upper-body injury, but was close to playing yesterday.

Related: Motte out 2-3 weeks after crashing heavily into boards (Video)

Pre-game reading: On Shea Weber, and an emotional return to Nashville

— Up top, St. Louis may be best known as a baseball town, but the Blues hold a special place in the city’s sports landscape.

— A profile of Shea Weber, ahead of his return to Nashville tomorrow night. “I’m not going to lie — there’s probably going to be a lot of emotion. I’m human. I spent a lot of time there. I put a lot of hard work and effort into everything I did there. Obviously built a lot of friendships and relationships even outside of the game with people there.” (The Tennessean)

— The gamesmanship continues. On one side, you’re got NHLPA chief Donald Fehr saying he’s “more optimistic now than I ever have been” that NHLers will go to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. On the other, you’ve got NHL commissioner Gary Bettman saying owners are still reluctant and nothing has really changed on that front. Big ol’ sigh. (Canadian Press)

— Speaking of the commish, did you know he was in a fraternity at Cornell? That must’ve been fun. Toga! Toga! Toga! “The fraternity system then was really a function of where you were going to live. In fact, we were a fraternity of people who were pretty focused on — in addition to having a good time in college — getting a good education.” Oh. (Sportsnet)

— It sounds like the NHL is aiming for three outdoor games next season. One of them will almost certainly be played in Ottawa, but that won’t be the Winter Classic. West Point’s Michie Stadium, with a capacity of 38,000 for football, could reportedly be in the mix. (Ottawa Citizen)

— For you history buffs, here’s a story about the 228th Battalion, a hockey team that competed a hundred years ago, made up of Canadian soldiers. “Taking the ice, the hockey-soldiers of the 228th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force wore khaki-colored uniforms, just like their brothers-already-at-arms along the bloodied Somme River in France. Known as the Northern Fusiliers or just plain Soldiers, this was, briefly, one of hockey’s best teams.” (New York Times)

Enjoy the games!