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The Edmonton Oilers have the reigning Hart Trophy winner on their roster, but they will soon get their first look at a player enjoying the kind of season to keep Connor McDavid from repeating.
The Oilers close out a five-game run at Rogers Place against Nikita Kucherov and the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night.
Edmonton dropped to 2-1-1 on its latest homestand after Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche despite two goals from McDavid, who took over the team lead with 17.
Oilers coach Todd McLellan knows this game will present several tests.
“You see Tampa Bay at the top (of the standings) and they’ve been there from day one all the way through,” he said. “One, they’re confident. Two, they play with a lot of pace.
“They’ve got the skill to go with the pace. It’s a huge challenge for us, but it’s one that’ll hopefully bring the best out of our team.”
While the Lightning have high-scoring Steven Stamkos (19 goals, 41 assists), Kucherov leads the NHL with 66 points (27 goals, 39 assists) — three more than Phil Kessel of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“They’re unpredictable. They’re highly skilled,” McLellan said of Stamkos and Kucherov. “When they do shoot it, they can shoot it in a little hole, and that makes them two of the best players in the league.”
After seeing his point total rise in each of his first four seasons, the 24-year-old Kucherov is on pace for career bests of 42 goals, 61 assists and 103 points.
“The last couple of seasons he’s been growing so much and he’s such a good player — unbelievable shot, big wheelhouse — he’s very unpredictable, very tough to play against as a defenseman,” Edmonton’s Oscar Klefbom said Sunday.
One night earlier, Kucherov picked up two assists — the second being the 300th point of his career — as Tampa Bay (36-13-3) held off the Vancouver Canucks 4-2.
Still, the winger has struggled of late. Through the first seven games of a season-high eight-game swing that ends Monday, Kucherov has five assists — all in two games. He also has failed to score a goal in 10 straight.
But the Russian has goals in three straight games and eight points in a three-game scoring streak against Edmonton (22-24-4). Lightning center Tyler Johnson has points all eight games in which he has faced the Oilers, totaling two goals and eight assists.
That could make things difficult for Cam Talbot, who is expected back in net for Edmonton after missing one game because of illness and coming off his worst month of the season — 4-5-0 with a 3.57 goals-against average and .890 save percentage in 10 games.
Looking for its sixth win in eight games, Tampa Bay is 4-0-1 in its last five against Edmonton.
“We eke one more out on Monday night, and we’re pretty darn happy with where we’re sitting,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the win over the Canucks.
To do that, Cooper may turn again to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has stopped 149 of 156 shots while winning his last four starts. He also leads the league with 31 victories and should get heavy consideration for the Vezina Trophy.
The 23-year-old notched a win in his only career appearance against Edmonton in January 2016.
McDavid (team-best 56 points) has yet to record a point in two career games against Tampa Bay. Leon Draisaitl and Iiro Pakarinen each have two career goals against the Lightning.
Oilers defenseman Adam Larsson, who has not played since Jan. 23 after the untimely death of his father, is expected to miss his third straight game. McLellan said Sunday that there is no timetable for Larsson to rejoin the team.
The Oilers begin a three-game road trip through California on Wednesday.