SHERWOOD PARK - Still basking in the glory of a 3-2 shootout win over the rival Vancouver Canucks 13 hours earlier, the Oilers returned to the ice in good spirits Monday.
With Oprah in town and taking over Rexall Place as a result, the Oilers participated in a quick, 45-minute practice at Millennium Place in Sherwood Park. Head Coach Ralph Krueger's (winning) line combinations and D pairings remained the same, although some of the healthy scratches had to play spot duty since Ben Eager was absent.
As a result of his entertaining middleweight tilt with Canucks winger Zack Kassian, Eager suffered a small cut over his eye that swelled up overnight. Krueger doesn't expect the 29-year-old to miss any time, however.
Krueger's NHL head-coaching debut could not have gone any better. The rookie bench boss was all smiles as he looked back on his club's come-from-behind win.
"That spirit that we were feeling and that we all spoke about prior truly showed up in the game," Krueger said. "The work ethic and attitude that was there right through Training Camp was confirmed. As a coach, you're pleased when what your gut is telling you is brought out in the game because that's all that counts in the end -- whether we win or lose hockey games. We're pleased this morning, but we're right back at it and this is going to be the pace for 48 games. All we're thinking about now is how to continue on and to continue to grow.
"It really was a perfect first night."
Through 20 minutes in Vancouver, the Oilers were down 1-0 and trailed 13-7 in shots. Some undisciplined play also presented the Canucks with three separate power-plays in the opening period. The Oilers looked like a team that hadn't played in nine months. And they hadn't.
"We settled in," Krueger said, praising his team's stick-to-itiveness in remaining 40 minutes. "Especially 5-on-5, we out-chanced them 17-14 by (Goalie Coach) Freddy Chabot's count, and that's an excellent game in Vancouver.
By night's end, the Oilers outshot the Canucks 32-29 and won the special teams battle by notching the game's lone man-advantage marker.
"As a team 5-on-5, we did a lot of good things," added veteran pivot Eric Belanger, who played 12:05 and won 56 percent of his draws. "We stayed calm on the bench kept playing our system. Because of that, we were rewarded with a big win.
"It's not going to go your way for 60 minutes every game. There are a lot of momentum shifts throughout a game and when things don't go your way, you have to stay calm and keep working at it. We did that (Sunday) and that has to be our focus all season."
Oilers defenceman Nick Schultz was a force on defence vs. Vancouver. The 30-year-old veteran played 18:45 alongside rookie Justin Schultz and led the team with nine blocked shots. No other Oiler had more than one.
"I don't know how accurate that is," Schultz laughed. "Particularly on penalty kills, it's something where you've got to get in lanes and do whatever you can to knock pucks down to make it easier on your goaltender. It worked out pretty well."
Like countless others who didn't have any options overseas during the lockout, the 30-year-old headed into the 2012-13 season cold. By the time the puck dropped at Rogers Arena Sunday night, it had been almost 300 days since his last game.
"For not having played a game in nine months, I was feeling pretty good," he said. "It was nice to get back out there and get back into a rhythm. It's only going to get better as we get some more games in.
"It's a new season. It's good to get our confidence going like that with a big win to get it all started. We started to take over the game a little bit in the second period -- that's the relentless attitude we need to have all season. Even though we were down by a couple at one point, we felt as though we were going to come back and win it. We had some quality chances throughout the game and Dubey (Devan Dubnyk) was playing very well. It was just a matter of getting that first one.
THE OTHER SCHULTZ'S DEBUT
It seems Justin Schultz didn't get the memo. The NHL is a difficult league and there's usually an adjustment period for young players to wade through. Didn't anyone tell him?
Playing over 20 minutes and recording one shot on goal, the 22-year-old had an exceptional debut. He could have very easily scored a goal (or three) as well, but Roberto Luongo answered the bell.
"What's outstanding is his ability to make a play under every circumstance," Krueger said. "When he's going to the puck, you know he's going to create a solution. That's what makes him an elite player, is that ability to avoid the forecheck, to escape and never put himself in a position to be hit. Without the puck, he very rarely got himself into trouble because he gaps so well and sees the ice like a mature veteran already.
"A perfect debut."
"He played well. You can see the skill he has out there," added Nick, Justin's defence partner. "He's smart with the puck and makes smart decisions. He has that ability to jump in the play at the right time, too. That chance he had in the second period -- it was a great read by him to get in there, create the turnover and get a good, quality shot on goal. He's got that instinct in his game."
What Nick found most impressive was Justin's ability to navigate the defensive zone. Doing it in practice is one thing, but handling it in an NHL game with Daniel and Henrik Sedin in chase? That's a whole other ball game.
"We rolled six D pretty much all night, so we would often be out there for a defensive zone faceoff. With the Canucks having the last change, we were out against the Sedins quite a bit. That builds a player's confidence, when he's put into situations like that. Justin has this demeanour about him where he's relaxed, calm and confident under the most challenging situations. He's a smart player, understands the game and how he needs to play. That's a big part of it too, which is why he's going to be a special player in this League."
The Oilers will return to Rexall Place Tuesday for a 10:30AM MT morning skate in advance of the home opener vs. San Jose (8:00PM MT puck drop).
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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