ST. LOUIS - The time is now and the Oilers know it. Without a victory in their last three games, the team is running out of opportunities with which to make up ground in the jam-packed Western Conference playoff race. There are 17 games left to play, and the margin for error is miniscule.
If the Oilers want to make a serious run towards a post-season berth, it all starts tonight in St. Louis. The 11-13-7 squad is set to tangle with the Blues, who sit in seventh in the West, seven points ahead of Edmonton. The Blues blanked the Oilers 3-0 on Saturday at Rexall Place, and that was followed up with a 3-2 defeat in Nashville last night. The Oilers battled back from a 3-1 deficit in the third period but were unable to complete the comeback in the Music City.
Ryan Smyth, Mike Brown, Ryan Whitney, Theo Peckham, Ryan Jones and Lennart Petrell, as well as goalie Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin, skated this morning at Scottrade Center, while the rest of the Oilers had an off-ice workout at their hotel. Urgency and desperation were the key words as the team's post-season destiny hangs in the balance.
"This team is good enough to win on every given night, right through the rest of the season, which would mean we have the opportunity still within our hands," Head Coach Ralph Krueger said. "We all know we need to have an unbelievable run here, but there's no give-up in that room right now. There's no belief that (playoffs) is not still possible to achieve."
"(Urgency) needs to be there today and it needs to be there from the first minute," he continued. "(St. Louis) is one of the strongest teams in the National Hockey League, playing at a very high level. If there's ever a night to show desperation, and to show battle and compete, it's tonight. We need the reaction."
The Oilers are looking to build on a strong third period against the Predators last night that saw them score once, create plenty more scoring opportunities and out-shoot the home side 12-4. They were two unsuccessful power-play opportunities away from completing their comeback, and now tonight they will look to multiply that final frame effort by three.
"We increased our battle level and were playing more in their end," Krueger said. "The passion we needed to have was there. You have to be pleased that there was a reaction. There was an extreme sign of life. We out-chanced them in the third period, and opportunity was there to tie. The reaction needs to be quick and successful here in St. Louis."
The Oilers players drove home the same notion.
"We came back in the third and tried to make a push, and we really did, but we've got to play like that, desperate hockey, for 60 minutes, not 45 or even 55," Magnus Paajarvi said. "There was a lot said in the locker room. That's what we've got to do right from the get-go. Just go out there and play, don't think too much, be really desperate and really simple."
"We need a win, it's that simple," Jordan Eberle added. "We need to bring the same effort we brought into the third tonight. We talked in the locker room and it was pretty simple and obvious that we needed to turn things around. The time to do it was then, and now we have to bring it for a full 60 minutes tonight."
The Oilers are making three lineup changes for tonight's game against the Blues, as Nikolai Khabibulin will get the start in net, Ryan Whitney will draw back in on defence with Mark Fistric coming out, and Ryan Smyth will play centre as a result of Eric Belanger (groin) going back on injured reserve.
"A little bit of energy change," Krueger said. "I think Ryan Whitney gives us a certain offence while Mark Fistric's strengths lie more on the defence. We felt we were unable to create five-on-five during the first two periods last night, and we're going in here to win tonight. We're not going in to sit back and hopefully try to squeeze it out at the last minute. We feel that Whitney and Corey Potter give us a little more of an offensive punch. We want to get out of our end as quickly as possible."
In terms of forward line formations, the bench boss said Smyth will play between Lennart Petrell on the right and Mike Brown on the left. The other three combinations will be revealed and implemented during pre-game warmup, as the coaching staff continues to work on them during the afternoon.
Belanger's second period departure from last night's game in Nashville led to the veteran going back on IR as he continues to recover from a nagging groin injury. That move frees up a spot on the Oilers roster, but Coach Krueger said the team will wait until after tonight's game to recall a player from the Oklahoma City Barons of the American Hockey League.
"We feel we're fine for tonight with the 12 forwards we currently have," said Krueger, who did add the three likely candidates for recall are centres Anton Lander and Chris VandeVelde, as well as winger Teemu Hartikainen.
Lander has played four games with one assist with the Oilers this season, VandeVelde has played 11 games without reaching the scoresheet, and Hartikainen — who was just sent back down to OKC on Monday — has played 19 games with three points.
-- Ryan Frankson, edmontonoilers.com
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