EDMONTON - This is a huge game tonight and the Oilers know it. That was the focus of discussion following an option morning skate at Rexall Place ahead of tonight's game against the San Jose Sharks.
"We talked about one of our goals at the start of the year was to get to April with meaningful games," said Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff. "We've done a good job of getting where we are right now but we're still two points out. It's really tight and every game is obviously important. You're playing teams that are close to you or just above you."
The Oilers currently sit in 12th place in the Western Conference with a record of 11-11-6. Dallas is one point ahead of them at 29 points and Columbus, Phoenix and San Jose are all tied with 30 points for the eighth and final playoff spot. Minnesota and Vancouver are also just six points up on the Oilers for top spot in the Northwest Division. And the Oilers have a game in hand on the Canucks.
"We're within striking distance of the division title, too," said Horcoff. "That's not out of the realm of possibilities for us. There's lots of games left and if we can continue the run that we're on, we should give ourselves a chance with that also. For us, it's just a matter of taking it a game at a time and focusing in on that night's job."
Tonight's job is disposing of the San Jose Sharks, a team that started the season on fire with a record of 7-0-0. The Sharks have cooled off big time, however, with only five wins in their last 21 since then. Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger cautioned against the team taking lightly a Sharks team he knows is more talented than their recent play of late.
"San Jose is a heavy team, they're a very strong team. They play a very physical game down low, in the corners at both ends of the ice," said Krueger, adding that the team is really enjoying being in the thick of the playoff race right now.
"It's a lot of fun. We're having a lot of fun," he said. "The mid of our road trip we had a few opportunities with teams. We could have caught Minnesota, we could have caught Nashville when we were in their buildings and we were disappointed not to be able to step up to those occasions. Now lately, the team has had these opportunities and really looked them in the eye.
"We feel good about our chances here today against San Jose, who we respect a lot. It's going to be an excellent game again. The group is enjoying these challenges right now."
Krueger added that the Sharks struggles to win and to score (with only 36 goals in their last 21 games) aren't something his team is focusing on.
"Getting a good start here at home is always important," Krueger stated. "I thought that being a little off against Nashville in the first period and recovering from that to win the game was a good experience for us. In the past, maybe a bad first period would have turned out to be a bad game. You look at San Jose and you look at their potential as a group, you need a lot of respect. They're going to come hard here, too. They're a proud team with a lot of character in their lineup. They're going to look at this opportunity, too."
Krueger looked back to the last meeting between these two teams as an indication of what the Sharks are capable of.
"I'm sure it's going to be a high speed game. I think back to our game in San Jose (3-2 Oilers shootout loss), it might have been the fastest game that I have ever watched from the bench in my three years here. It was an amazing pace. Anybody who was there would attest to the pace that we had and looking at that game and the quality of it, I'm sure we will be tested big time tonight."
OILERS TO ICE SAME LINEUP TONIGHT
The Oilers will be going with the same lineup tonight that they had on Sunday night against Nashville. That means Taylor Hall skating with Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky, Magnus Paajarvi with Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov, Ryan Jones with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle and Mike Brown with Ryan Smyth and Lennart Petrell up front. The extras on defence will once again be Corey Potter and Theo Peckham.
The team had an optional skate this morning where Hall, Hemsky and RNH did not participate but Coach Krueger confirmed the same lineup at his post-practice media availability.
"Winning and losing doesn't really influence the lineup for the next game. This is what we feel is the best lineup for San Jose today. We feel good about the group and we'd like to leave it intact."
Running the same lineup means that Teemu Hartikainen will sit out once again. Krueger said that as long as Belanger is still nursing a groin injury, Hartikainen will remain in Edmonton.
"At the moment, until we see what's with Eric we'd like to keep him here. We are working with Harti on a lot of other issues too. To have him watch what we're doing here, evolving his game in the direction we'd like it to go. Sometimes it's something we do in practice and also our off-ice work. There's a lot of opportunity in a young player like that to keep him here. We will definitely keep him around until we're clear with the Belanger situation."
Belanger skated briefly this morning but left early on as he continues to battle a groin injury.
-- Marc Ciampa, edmontonoilers.com
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