If you're an NHL player and could pick your first opponent coming off a three-month injury absence, the last-place Columbus Blue Jackets would be an obvious choice.
Rookie Connor McDavid didn't disappoint in that scenario Tuesday night in Edmonton's convincing 5-1 win, scoring a highlight-reel goal and adding two assists after missing 37 games with a broken left collarbone.
If you're an NHL player and could pick your next opponent, the struggling Ottawa Senators would be an obvious choice.
McDavid and the Oilers begin a four-game road trip in the nation's capital Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET) against the winless-in-two Senators, who are not expected to have regulars Chris Phillips, Clarke MacArthur, Milan Michalek and Kyle Turris in the lineup.
From there, it's off to Montreal for a Hockey Day in Canada matinee on Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 2 p.m. ET) versus the free-falling Canadiens, who are in a 5-20-1 funk and minus reigning NHL MVP Carey Price.
But back to Ottawa, where recent headlines in the Sun newspaper — "Penguins skate circles around slumping Senators," "Sens need to get on the same page," and "Senators trying to solve all kinds of problems" — only serve as motivation for McDavid and company.
The fact Ottawa has surrendered the first goal in 34 of its first 51 games this season, allowed five goals or more eight times, including Tuesday in a 6-5 loss to the Penguins, and is second only to the Blue Jackets in shots allowed per game with 33.3, only further motivates Edmonton.
2 productive lines
McDavid and linemates Jordan Eberle and Benoit Pouliot combined for three goals and seven points versus Columbus while another imposing unit featured the 1-2 punch of Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl, who collected a point each.
Head coach Todd McLellan has thought about the McDavid-Eberle combination since last April when the team won the first overall pick in the draft lottery and selected McDavid two months later. But Eberle missed the first 13 games of the season, returning Nov. 3, the night McDavid broke his collarbone in an awkward end-boards collision.
After limping into the last week's all-star break, the Oilers awoke Wednesday eight points back of the unbeaten-in-four Anaheim Ducks for the third and final playoff spot in the Pacific Division. But the return of McDavid appears to have rejuvenated the group.
"I felt that every line and every guy contributed to [Tuesday's] win," said Hall. "It was a great game, but at the end of the day, we have to follow it up in Ottawa."
Senators goalie Craig Anderson, who has faced more shots (1,303) than any NHL puckstopper this season, understands it's his job to "stay focused, stay calm and controlled" in the face of adversity, especially against young standouts like McDavid.
"He's got skill, he's got speed, and I think being physical on him will be our key to shutting him down," said Anderson.
For the record, McDavid has been held off the scoresheet five times in 14 games (six goals, 15 points) and has recorded four multi-point efforts.