After finishing in the bottom two spots of the Western Conference a season ago, a pair of rookies have helped vault the Oilers and Avalanche to the top of Northwest Division.
With both clubs set to play in their 10th game tonight, both Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Gabriel Landeskog of Colorado appear to figure in the short-term and long-term success of the club.
The top two picks of the 2011 draft each figure to be on the ice Friday when the Oilers visit the Avalanche and the Pepsi Center.
Under current rules, NHL teams have nine games to decide whether to send a player back to juniors and prevent their three-year, entry-level contract from counting against the salary cap. Both Nugent-Hopkins and Landeskog reached that mark this week, with Landeskog playing in his ninth game in Wednesday's loss in Calgary and Nugent-Hopkins skating in last night's big 2-1 win over Washington.
The top selection of the most recent draft after the Oilers finished with a league-low 62 points last season, Nugent-Hopkins leads the Oilers with five goals and logged an assist for a third straight game last night as Edmonton handed Washington its first loss of the season. The 18-year-old's linemates both notched the tallies, with Taylor Hall netting his third goal of the campaign and Jordan Eberle notching the game-winner on the power play in the second period.
The Oilers won their third straight game and tonight will try to win four in a row for the first time since Nov. 29-Dec. 4 of last year.
"One of the things that helped us win the game were the character components of a hockey team, the intangibles," said head coach Tom Renney. "Shot blocking, taking hits to make plays and trying to do the things that at the end of the day can win you games like this."
While all eyes are on the Oilers' Lottery Line, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin continues to put together a great start to the campaign. The veteran stopped 33-of-34 shots last night, giving him a 4-0-2 mark on the season as well as a league-leading 0.97 goals-against average and .964 save percentage.
"The guy's incredible. He played unbelievable tonight. He got us that win," said Eberle, who has six points over his last three games. "He's been so solid back there as far as making saves when we give up opportunities."
Landeskog has also gotten off to a great start, ranking second behind Nugent- Hopkins in goals by a rookie with four. That has him one off the club rookie record for the month of October and the 18-year-old leads all freshman skaters with 36 shots.
Landeskog logged an assist in Wednesday's 4-2 loss to Calgary, Colorado's first on the road this season (6-1-0). The Avalanche's six-game road winning streak was the longest in club history to begin a season and one off the longest in franchise annals.
The Avs, who finished just six points ahead of the Oilers in 2010-11, now begin a three-game homestand looking for their first victory this year at the Pepsi Center. They have been outscored 6-1 in their two losses there and will play 14 of their next 18 as the host. The includes an Avalanche-record eight- game residency from Nov. 18-Dec. 4.
"It's tough to play catch-up in this league, no matter how well we played in the third period," Avs head coach Joe Sacco said.
Though the two clubs split their six-game series last season, the Oilers did not lose in regulation to the Avs, dropping one meeting in overtime and the other two in a shootout.