Canadiens, Oilers on upward trend going into matchup

EDMONTON, Alberta — You can look at Saturday’s game between the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers as a battle between teams that have disappointed for most of the first half of the season.

Both of them are out of the playoff positions in their respective conferences heading into the Christmas break, and both need to make up significant ground between themselves and the teams they’re chasing.

Or you can look at Saturday’s game as a matchup between teams showing signs of turning things around.

The Oilers (16-17-2) have won three in a row and are looking to hit the elusive .500 mark.

The Canadiens have won three of their last four, including their first two stops — Vancouver and Calgary — on their Western Canadian road trip, when many fans turn up in their red, white and blue jerseys to cheer on Les Glorieux, erasing much of the home team’s advantage. The Canadiens have climbed to 16-15-4.

“It’s huge,” said Brendan Gallagher, who has 13 goals this season, of the team’s perfect-so-far western Canadian jaunt.

“This Western swing has never been the easiest for us. I think it’s always nice to come out and play in front of our fans, but since I’ve been here anyways we haven’t had the greatest success. It started off well. It would be nice to finish this thing off in Edmonton.”

Byron Froese, who scored his first goal as a Canadien on Friday, said the team’s mood continues to improve.

“It’s good. We’re not satisfied and now we’ve got guys coming back from injury. We’ve got a healthy club now so it’s creating a lot of in-house competition. That’s really going to motivate our guys and our club. Anytime you win a hockey game it’s a good feeling and you’re going to be feeling good the next day, too.”

The Oilers have found success after the decision was made to give Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl their own lines to center.

The move has given the team scoring depth. In fact, during the team’s most recent two wins, McDavid has only one goal and no assists, though the Oilers scored eight as a team. It’s a big thing when a team doesn’t have to rely on the defending league MVP night after night.

“We have been talking about having a good December, and winning December, and just playing with that swagger and confidence we know we have in this room,” Oilers left winger Patrick Maroon said. “We’re a good hockey team, we’re a deep hockey. I think that, when everyone is going, we’re a scary team to play against. … I think being .500 before Christmas is going to be a good step in the right direction for this Edmonton Oilers team.”

The Oilers should be confident facing the Habs; two weeks ago, the teams met in Montreal. The Oilers chased Canadiens starting goalie Carey Price and went on to an impressive 6-2 win.

Even though the Oilers started the week nine points out of a playoff spot and have reduced that deficit to five, coach Todd McLellan says he and his players aren’t leaping to the Internet to refresh the standings page.

“We’re aware of where we’re at, but we’re not talking about it,” McLellan said. “We’re not putting the standings up and saying ‘only four more points’ or ‘six more points.’ That hasn’t been our focus at all. I think we’ve heard enough earlier from the outside world that affected us. Right now, we’re just trying to keep our game in order.”

Montreal left winger Artturi Lehkonen is on the road with the Canadiens and was activated ahead of Friday’s game. The team called up defenseman Brett Lernout from their AHL affiliate in Laval, Quebec, to take the roster spot that opened when veteran Shea Weber was placed on injured reserve. But Lernout, who has three NHL games on his resume, didn’t get into Friday’s win over Calgary.