AT THE MORNING SKATE
DENVER – The Oilers look to continue their dominance over the Colorado Avalanche this year with their sixth-last game of the regular season and third straight game against a Northwest Division opponent.
The Oilers sent a small but hungry contingent to Denver for tonight's game, with four players remaining in Edmonton due to various injuries and illnesses. Eric Belanger (groin), Ales Hemsky (foot), Lennart Petrell (ankle) and Theo Peckham (illness) did not make the trip, as Edmonton looks to post its fourth victory in five matchups with the Avs this season.
The team's top two forward lines will remain the same tonight against Colorado, with Sam Gagner playing between Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins flanked by Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle.
Ryan Jones draws back into the lineup and will play right wing on a line with Anton Lander at centre and Shawn Horcoff on the left wing. Trade deadline acquisition Jerred Smithson also returns to the Oilers lineup and will centre a line with Ryan Smyth and Mike Brown. Between the pipes, Devan Dubnyk will make his second consecutive start.
SNAPPING THE SKID
With six consecutive defeats in their rearview mirror, the Oilers are looking to get back to the form that saw them post five straight victories prior to the losing skid. Smithson said the team needs to relax and enjoy playing hockey again as they close out the regular season over the next eight days.
"We just haven't been doing the things we need to do," he said. "But we know what we have to do to change it; a little more effort, a little more consistency and just go out there and have fun again. We're not where we want to be in the standings, but we still play hockey for a living. We have to go out there and enjoy it and play with passion. If we do that, we'll win games."
As far as passionate players go, defenceman Ladislav Smid is right up there. The tenacious rearguard leads the Oilers in blocked shots this season with 105 and hits with 134. He said it will be important for the team to channel its frustration from recent action into a desire for victory tonight.
"We all know we've got a really bad streak going on right now," Smid said. "Coming into Colorado, we obviously want to turn things around. It's tough to cut (our memory) off, because it's been frustrating, but at the same time you've got to have a positive mindset. The boys are hungry tonight. Everybody is ready."
If there was an ideal team for the Oilers to snap their current losing skid against, it would be the Avs, whom they've gone 3-1 against this season and outscored 15-8, including a 4-0 blanking in their last encounter on March 12 at the Pepsi Center.
"In those three (wins) we played a full 60 minutes of hockey, and that's why we've had so much success," Smid said. "We know they're playing much better lately, so we have to respect that, but we just have to play a smart road game."
JONES-ING FOR SOME GRIT
Head Coach Ralph Krueger said Ryan Jones' injection back into the lineup is due to the veteran winger's ability to provide energy and grit in a checking line role, while also logging significant time on the penalty kill.
"It's important for us to take a good look at Ryan Jones and give him an opportunity to be the player he can be for the Edmonton Oilers," Krueger said. "After the injury to Petrell (last game), to bring some grit into our lineup is what we're looking for from Jonesy. The character is indisputable. We're excited that he now has that opportunity for us."
"MORE PUNCH" NEEDED FROM HARTIKAINEN
Teemu Hartikainen was recalled from the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons on Monday and played 10:37 with two shots on goal against the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday. The Finnish winger finds himself out of the lineup tonight against the Avs, though, and Coach Krueger said he needs to continue to develop his consistency at both ends of the ice.
"He's just continuing to try to figure out what, in the National Hockey League, a gritty, strong power forward does," the bench boss said. "What's important for him is to continue to work on being able to manage the puck in all three zones. I find in the O zone he's grown and able to create some opportunity, but in our end through the neutral zone he's still working on the habits that type of personality has to bring into the game. Coming in last game, we would have liked a little bit more punch and grit in that role."
-- Ryan Frankson, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS (16-19-7) at AVALANCHE (14-22-7)
TV: RDS2, SNET-W; ALT
Last 10: Edmonton 4-6-0, Colorado 3-4-3
Season series: It's the fifth and final game between these Northwest Division rivals. The Edmonton Oilers lead the season series 3-1-0, including a 4-0 shutout in their last meeting on March 12 in Denver.
Big story: Edmonton is looking to snap a six-game winless streak as they host the Avalanche in a meeting of two teams looking toward next season.
Oilers: The Oilers won five straight games and were in seventh place in the Western Conference before dropping a season-high six straight games, including a 5-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday. The Oilers have been outscored 22-7 in that span and have been booed at home in losses to Calgary and Minnesota.
"We have six games remaining and we need to grab something positive from what is left here and be a team that shows character in this challenge," coach Ralph Krueger said. "We will work hard to make these games valuable."
Avalanche: With just five regular-season games remaining, Colorado is hoping to finish strong as it looks for its third win in five games. Colorado may be able to bounce back with the expected return from injury of goalie Semyon Varlamov and forward Milan Hejduk.
Colorado nearly defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night after coming from behind and taking the lead in the third period but the Blue Jackets, who are fighting for the eighth and final playoff spot in the west, tied the score at the 18:33 mark of the third period to force overtime. Columbus proceeded to edge the Avalanche 4-3 in overtime.
Cody McLeod scored twice in that game, matching his career high.
"Especially when we scored to make it 3-2, and we give up a goal a couple shifts after," McLeod said. "We can't do that. That's kind of what we've been doing all year, and we've got to get better at that, that's for sure."
Who's hot: Oilers rookie Nail Yakupov had a goal and an assist against the Wild and has two goals and five points in Edmonton's past five games. ... PA Parenteau continues to lead Colorado in points (40) including three in his past four games.
Injury report: Oilers forward Ales Hemsky is out as he tries to recover from a broken foot. Forward Lennart Petrell suffered a leg injury Tuesday and is expected to miss a week. ... Varlamov has missed six games with a hip injury but he and Hejduk (shoulder) are expected to return. Defenseman Erik Johnson has been out with a hand injury and is questionable for Friday.
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