AT THE MORNING SKATE
ST PAUL – The Oilers are looking to play the role of spoilers tonight in St. Paul in their second-last game of the season as they take on a Minnesota Wild squad trying desperately to lock down a Western Conference playoff berth.
Heading into tonight's action, the Wild are in the eighth and final playoff spot and have 53 points with two games left to play, while the Columbus Blue Jackets also have 53 points but sit in ninth since they've played one additional game. The Detroit Red Wings are one point up on Minnesota and Columbus, sitting in seventh.
With their playoff destiny hanging in the balance, the Wild are in a must-win situation tonight, and the Oilers know it. And with their own post-season hopes officially coming to an end last Sunday, the Oil are now relishing the role of being a road block.
"Any time you've got a team that's fighting to stay in the playoffs, it's nice to try to be the spoiler," Jordan Eberle said following the team's morning skate at Xcel Energy Center. "This is a team fighting for their lives, so it'd be nice to try to push them back a bit. We're excited to play. It should be a good one tonight."
With the spoiler role comes a very determined opponent, so the Oilers are expecting a Wild onslaught right from the get-go. Head Coach Ralph Krueger believes the team is in the right mindset to weather that storm and keep pace.
"There'd be no more fitting closing road game than for us to have success here, and we're going to try to do everything to resist their aggression at the beginning," he said. "We know they're going to come hard and play with all they have. They're going to want to get this game under control early. There's a good spirit in our group right now in understanding the opportunity here."
Coach Krueger also said he expects the Oilers chances for success to grow as the game goes on, since the pressure on the Wild will also be increasing.
"The clock is totally on our side," the bench boss said. "If you're looking up at a tie game at the 30-minute mark, you know that everything is going to start to tighten up in this building. There's no secret we need to stay in this game and keep it tight. This is a playoff team in playoff mode, so to understand and feel that is a good message for us to try to raise our game here on the road and try to play with them."
With their final road game tonight and season finale back on home ice tomorrow, the Oilers have two more opportunities to give Oil Country faithful some positive energy during what has been a tough final three and a half weeks.
"For the fan base more than anything," said defenceman Mark Fistric. "There's a lot of pride and character in this room and we don't want to go out on the wrong note. We want to make sure we're playing the right way and winning, especially for our fans."
The Oilers have shuffled their lines from Wednesday's game against the Chicago Blackhawks. The top unit is now Magnus Paajarvi and Jordan Eberle flanking Sam Gagner, while Taylor Hall skates with Shawn Horcoff and Nail Yakupov. Anton Lander and Eric Belanger will alternate between centre and wing, with Ryan Jones also on their line. The only line that remains intact is Ryan Smyth, Jerred Smithson and Mike Brown.
On defence, the Schultz-Schultz pairing has been broken up, with Justin moving to play with Mark Fistric and Nick skating with Corey Potter. Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry remain together, as they have for the majority of the season.
Between the pipes, the Oilers will split the duties for their final two games, with Nikolai Khabibulin getting the call against the Wild tonight. Devan Dubnyk will close out the season tomorrow back at Rexall Place against the Vancouver Canucks.
"When you look at the way they've battled for us and given us a chance in a lot of games with their play, I think having them both play in these final games is fitting," Krueger said of his two puck-stoppers.
The coach also announced defenceman Theo Peckham has been diagnosed with mononucleosis, while Ales Hemsky has a fractured bone in his foot and will not be able to compete for the Czech Republic at the upcoming World Championship. So far Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Devan Dubnyk have accepted invitations to play for Team Canada, while Jeff Petry is scheduled to suit up for the United States.
-- Ryan Frankson, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS (17-22-7) at WILD (25-18-3)
TV: SNET-W, FS-WI, FS-N+
Last 10: Edmonton 1-9-0; Minnesota 4-5-1
Season series: This is the fourth and final meeting of the regular season between these Northwest Division rivals. The Minnesota Wild will be aiming for a sweep of the Edmonton Oilers.
Big story: For as much as the Wild have struggled in April, they were on the verge of qualifying for the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs if the Dallas Stars beat the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday. Failing that, a win either Friday against the Oilers or Saturday at the Colorado Avalanche does the trick. Minnesota lost eight of its first 11 games of April, but faces an Edmonton team that has dropped nine of its last 10 games.
Oilers: Edmonton will miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season following its run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006, but has been steadily improving its position in the standings over the past few campaigns. The club was last in the NHL with 62 points in 2010-11 but then had a 74-point effort to finish in 14th place in the Western Conference last season and can now end up finishing 2012-13 at 12th in the West. The Oilers seek to break a three-game losing streak with just two goals scored over that span.
"We're being tested right now in the severest of ways with the losing month like this. We should all expect more from each other," coach Ralph Kruger said following his team's 4-1 loss to the visiting Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday.
Wild: What a difference a game makes. Despite the cold streak in April, all the Wild needed was a hard-fought 2-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday to help secure their place in the playoff picture. Now it's a win-and-they're-in situation as they try to end a four-year playoff drought.
Minnesota clung to the 2-1 lead in the closing seconds Tuesday and needed a tremendous lunging save by goalie Niklas Backstrom on Kings defenseman Slava Voynov with 11 seconds remaining in regulation to earn the victory.
"You just have to stick with it. We talked before: There's going to be ups and downs," captain Mikko Koivu said.
Who's hot: For the Oilers, forward Jordan Eberle has totaled nine points (3g, 6a) over his last nine games against the Wild. … Forward Zach Parise has two goals and two assists over his last five games for the Wild and can establish a three-game point streak if he reaches the score sheet Friday.
Injury report: Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney injured his leg in the game against the Blackhawks and is questionable for Friday. Defenseman Theo Peckham (flu) and forward Ales Hemsky (foot) are doubtful. Forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Forward Lennart Petrell (leg) and Andy Sutton (knee) are out indefinitely. … For the Wild, forwards Jason Pominville (concussion) and Mike Rupp (lower body) are questionable. Goaltender Josh Harding (illness) was activated off injured reserve earlier this week. He last played for Minnesota on Feb. 7. Forward Dany Heatley is out for the season with a shoulder injury.
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