THE TEAM TODAY: Gearing Up
Oilers back on the ice for practice, preparing for final 20 games
EDMONTON – After keeping Monday light with an off-ice workout rather than a skate, the Oilers were back on the ice Tuesday for a fast-paced 45-minute practice. The team is set to embark on its final 20 games of the condensed campaign, well within striking distance of the playoffs thanks to a 3-0-1 record over the last four games.
Contrary to recent campaigns that saw the team on the outside of the playoff picture looking in during the latter stages of the season, the Oilers are right in the mix with six weeks left to play. Their even 11-11-6 record puts them just two points back of eighth in the West and six points back of Northwest Division-leading and third-place Minnesota, as well as the fourth and fifth place squads.
"I've been here before, so it's good to be back," Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff said of being in the post-season hunt. "But our work isn't even close to done yet. It's not even April, and we go right to the end of April, so there's still plenty of hockey to be played. We've done a greet job of late at a pivotal time in the season to really battle back and give ourselves a chance here. We've got another important week ahead of us."
In the grand scheme of things, simple consistency has been the major key to the Oilers recent turnaround. Coach Ralph Krueger said the talent and the systems have been in place, and now the team is sticking to its game plan.
"The identity that we're trying to evolve here, you could feel it in pieces earlier in the season, and it would come for a moment, for a period or even for two periods," Krueger said.
"We're now feeling that identity through a game and it's getting us two points. We're actually feeling a control over our destiny. We all knew this entire season was going to be a process, and we're far from a finished product, but we're much, much closer to being the team we want to be."
A DIFFERENT TEAM
Game one of the final 20 tomorrow night at Rexall Place comes against a team the Oilers have struggled against this season, the San Jose Sharks. The Oil have already tangled with the Sharks twice this year, only able to steal a single point with a 3-2 shootout loss in San Jose on January 31, also dropping a 6-3 decision in their home opener at Rexall Place on January 22.
The Sharks were red-hot to start the season, winning their first seven games, but they crashed back down to Earth with seven consecutive losses and currently sit eighth in the Western Conference with 30 points. The Oilers are just two points behind them and believe they are a much improved team than the group that dropped the two early-season meetings.
"They were really hot at the beginning of the year, and we gave them too many chances to score," said defenceman Ladislav Smid. "I think our game has changed a lot since the beginning of the year. They have highly-skilled players like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, but we're more focused on our game. I think we're headed in the right direction, and our last four games have showed that. Hopefully we can keep getting better and better."
Key situational scoring and some solid goaltending have been major factors in the Oilers recent success, but Coach Krueger said an important underlying aspect of their game has been their physical play. Edmonton has out-hit its opponents 84-70 over the last four games, including 27-19 on Sunday against Nashville.
Smid currently ranks fourth in the NHL with 86 hits (in addition to ranking first in blocked shots with 76) and fellow blueliner Jeff Petry is not far behind in a tie for 12th with 70 hits. Defenceman Mark Fistric is tied for 29th in the league rankings with 56 hits, though he's played at least eight and as many as 14 fewer games than any other player in the top 30.
Up front, recent acquisition Mike Brown is averaging more than two hits per game since joining the Oilers, totalling 16 in seven appearances. Current linemate and Finnish power forward Lennart Petrell leads the team in forward hits with 31 in 22 games.
"Hockey is a physical game, and you need leaders physically," Krueger said. "That's a skill that is not considered a skill by many people, but for me it's a huge skill to be a physical presence and wear down the opposing team. Players like Mark Fistric hitting forwards and Brownie hitting defencemen, those are really important. Petrell and Brown are putting a lot of pressure on the opposition's D. Those are important skill-sets."
Eric Belanger has missed the Oilers last four games after tweaking his groin in his last shift in Nashville against the Predators on March 8, and he was eyeing a return against the Sharks tomorrow prior to Tuesday's practice.
Unfortunately for the veteran centre, he was forced to leave practice early after feeling some lingering groin pain. Coach Krueger said he is now unlikely to play against San Jose, but the official call will be made following morning skate.
"It wasn't like a new pop, but certainly a setback," said the bench boss. "He's very questionable for the next few days. The chances (of him playing against the Sharks) are very small right now. It's pretty logical that we'd err to the safe side."
-- Ryan Frankson | edmontonoilers.com
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