EDMONTON - After an off-day on Thursday, the Edmonton Oilers returned to practice at Rexall Place on Friday with a game against the St. Louis Blues coming Saturday night (8:00 p.m. MDT, CBC).
The Oilers have been playing well as of late, with points in each of their last five games (3-0-2). Head Coach Ralph Krueger said the most encouraging thing hasn't been the results so much as the how the team has been playing.
"I think, more than anything, confirming the way we want to play," he began. "The points are the largest confirmer you can receive but the players feel the opportunity with the discipline, we've simplified our game offensively and have a real good commitment to playing as a group defensively. That's giving them a confidence right now. We believe that not only are we in this race but we're continuing to climb. That's something we haven't had yet this year. This type of belief in the way we're playing and how we need to play."
The biggest hurdle the team has right now is being able to hold onto leads, but Coach Krueger said that is part of the process.
"You have to always see that we were able to establish leads against these teams, who are also desperate for points and feeling pressure. They're not in here relaxed, they're playing playoff hockey too. Number one is the ability to get leads against these teams, often with the help of five-on-five and the power play coming through early in games."
With so many teams in tight races around the NHL, Krueger said that closing games out is never a guarantee but if the team could get better at it, that would really help their position in the standings as the season winds down.
"Being able to deal with that, you're never going to be able to guarantee to close games but we have to get better at that and have to simplify, even to a higher degree with leads. It's something we're addressing. Giving the opposition nothing when you have a lead, especially in the third period. We'd like to keep the pace up defensively. We don't want to be a team that sits back completely. But understanding the management of the puck needs to go to an unbelievably simple level. That's the challenge of a skilled group to understand and comprehend that. They're getting it, though."
Krueger did talk about some of the positives when it came to closing out games, including the ability to stop a hard-charging Chicago Blackhawks team to become the only team to defeat the 'Hawks at the United Center in regulation this season (which still stands as of today).
"We have to look at the fact that we were able to close three other games (on this streak). We closed Chicago in their building with over 10 minutes to go. That was outstanding. I thought in Colorado the team did an excellent job of closing that game out and getting it done, as we did against Nashville," Krueger continued. "We can look at the two that didn't work or we can look at the three where it did work. If we're in a 60/70% closing ability we'd like to get it up to maybe 75%. But the reality of the National Hockey League is, there's some very good hockey players on the other teams trying to score and they're not thinking defence anymore. And you're not going to close 100% of your games at this level and that's what makes it so exciting.
"I've always got to pull the picture a little bigger and say 'okay, three out of five games we closed' -- especially the Chicago game, which was a huge test of our mettle with what happened from 4-0 to 6-5," Krueger said. "Looking at Detroit, looking at San Jose alone wouldn't be a fair discussion. Yes, we're not happy with that happening and that's unacceptable to give up a lead ever but the reality is if we can pull it up from 60 to 75 or 80% down the stretch that will probably give us a good shot at being in the playoffs."
"Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is very doubtful for tomorrow. What I had hoped after the game (on Wednesday) was a 24-hour flu which had hit multiple players here. Sometimes on days off and sometimes -- like Hemmer (Ales Hemsky) -- played through a flu there. We lost Peckham when he was back in."
Krueger had felt at the time on Wednesday that RNH was very likely for Saturday but that is no longer the case.
"Nuge seems like it's a deeper thing. He's still under the weather pretty deeply today. He's very doubtful."
The head coach added that the more games that Nugent-Hopkins misses the longer it will take him to get back into game shape.
"Whether it gets into something else, we'll have to see. We're hoping to be able to tap it where it is right now but he's still extremely weak today. Looking at that to be at least three days long, you will expect he will need the equal amount of days to get back. Even if he's better tomorrow we have to be very careful."
On the positive side, Hemsky and Nick Schultz will both be ready to play tomorrow.
"Hemsky and Nick were truly maintenance days today. Just no need for them to be on the ice and just working on bumps and bruises where we expect both to be able to play tomorrow."
BELANGER CLOSE TO RETURNING
The good news for the Oilers is that even with Nugent-Hopkins out, Eric Belanger appears ready to return.
"I had some jump today and the discomfort wasn't there. It's a step in the right direction," said Belanger, adding that he was very hopeful that he would be back in the lineup tomorrow.
"Belanger made a huge stride yesterday and today. We're expecting him back in the lineup so that would fill that void," said Krueger.
The head coach added that having a centre with the face-off-winning calibre of Belanger will be a big boost to the team.
"Belly would come back into a slot of stabilizing us on the penalty kill, the whole face-off factor which we all know we have a hard time on any given night pushing ourselves over 50%. It certainly changes things," he said. "In critical face-off situations, when we're talking about game-closing strategies, one way to really help yourself is to win 60% of your face-offs in the last 10 or 15 minutes of a game."
"So often teams are getting possession where we're in a closing mode so that will improve those kinds of situations. He's one of those guys (we would use) with six forwards and five minutes to go."
Krueger added that if he were to activate Belanger, the team could easily put Nugent-Hopkins on injured reserve since he would be retroactive to the last game he played, which was Sunday.
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