THE TEAM TODAY

THE TEAM TODAY: T-Minus One

Oilers practice at Millennium Place, comment on home-opener & more Saturday

Saturday, 08.10.2011 / 5:30 PM / The Team Today
By Ryan Dittrick  - edmontonoilers.com
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THE TEAM TODAY: T-Minus One

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 8

T-MINUS ONE

“You can practice all day long, but games are games; the intensity is up and it's going to be a battle,” Cam Barker said.

Isn’t that the truth. The Oilers’ 2011 pre-season schedule came to a close last Saturday – seven days ago, during which time up-tempo, on-ice sessions have become the norm.

Today, Head Coach Tom Renney brought a back-to-basics approach, pushing his troops for an hour and 30-minutes with a drill-intensive run-through in Sherwood Park.

“You can only practice so much – eventually you're doing the same things,” Barker added. “I think everybody's pretty anxious to get a game going and get the season going. We’re really excited in here.”

The Oilers head into tomorrow’s matchup vs. Pittsburgh with a clean 0-0-0 record, while the Penguins will have already played a pair to open the season in Vancouver and Calgary.

As Gilbert explains, matching the visitors’ intensity and game-ready mode “shouldn’t be an issue.”

“You can't really focus on what the other team has done,” he said. “The main focus is on us and what we need to do to come out with a win tomorrow. We’re going to control the tempo, get our crowd into it, get our lines going and get our D pairings moving the puck.”

With Ryan Whitney out according to the bench boss – “He won’t play.” – the 28-year-old puck-moving rearguard has assumed a greater role as the Oilers’ longest-serving D man.

Renney is certain Gilbert can handle the 25 or 30-minute load.

“This is a game of Snakes and Ladders right now,” he laughed. “We've got a lineup we think can win a hockey game. That's the beauty of depth and the work that this management team has done over the summer.

“We’re where we want to be with our group as it is. That said, we have a couple guys that have got to come back in soon, and that will have a real impact on our backend.”

Gilbert isn’t concerned about the impending challenge or Whitney’s imminent return. Rather, he’s driven to make an impression, stepping up in a pivotal role on the blueline.

“It's nice [to play 25+ minutes],” he explained. “Every single time you're on the ice, you've got to play hard and never let up. Like I always say, you’ve got to be effective when you’re given that responsibility.”

Barker, 25, will also be presented with an increased role tomorrow evening. The 6’3”, 215-pounder didn’t record a point in the pre-season, but did assume duty in a two-way role, helping to accumulate a +2 rating in three exhibition contests.

He’s ready to start the season with a W.

“I think we've got to play a strong possession game; and as a D core, we need to pass the puck up quick, give our skilled players some space, so they can attack with speed. We’ve got so much skill to make things happen, so quick puck movement is essential.”

“Other than that, get pucks on net so our wingers and bang home some goals. That’s the key and I'm sure we'll have success.”

PRACTICE NOTES

Eric Belanger, who’s scheduled to centre the team’s second line (or ‘1-A’ unit) with Ryan Smyth and Jordan Eberle, was mysteriously absent during this morning’s skate.

Smyth played spot-duty between Eberle and Lennart Petrell, but Renney revealed in his post-practice media scrum that Belanger should be good to go come tomorrow.

“He’s a little under the weather,” Renney explained. “Nothing too serious. We anticipate he'll be skating with us in the morning and getting ready for tomorrow night.”

In another surprise-event, Sam Gagner came out in his gear to conclude the Oilers’ practice session today. The 22-year-old was declared week-to-week, but is improving and is hoping to return to the lineup as quickly as possible.

“I haven't even missed a game yet,” he said. “It's only been a couple weeks, so I think that's a good thing. I want to make sure I'm 100-percent healthy.

“I'll take it day-by-day right now, let pain be my guide and go from there.”

Gagner skated for 30 minutes today, pushing his hobbled ankle with quick turns, cornering and other high-speed techniques.

In other news, the Oilers’ starting goalie has still yet to be declared publicly. Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk shared the ‘tending duties during the pre-season, each posting a 2-0-0 record in the process.

Dubnyk recorded a 1.60 goals-against average and .947 save-percentage, while Khabibulin, 38, notched a 2.38 goals-against average and .872 save-percentage.

Renney has made his decision, but is mum about his intentions.

“Yeah,” he said when asked about whether or not the starter has been named. He wasn’t interested in revealing the name to a media horde: “Correct,” he added, laughing.

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. There’s only 18 hours until the Oilers’ morning skate at Rexall Place.

-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 7

THE WAITING GAME

It’s been 180 days since the Oilers last played a regular-season game and even longer, 182, since Rexall Place played host.

Now we’re close, but not close enough. Another 54 hours stand in the way, as the Oilers anxiously prepare for the team’s home- and season-opener on Sunday vs. Pittsburgh.

The Oilers held an up-tempo, one-hour and 45-minute practice this morning at Rexall Place. Head Coach Tom Renney pushed the pace, preaching energy, physical play and communication throughout the team’s spirited skate.

The Penguins’ 2011-12 campaign opened yesterday with a 4-3 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena. The rink was rocking there and across the league as the NHL’s regular-season got underway.

When Pittsburgh arrives at Rexall Place, Sunday’s home-opener will be charged, and the wait will have been well worth it.

“It's almost surreal,” Theo Peckham said. “You're 22-23 and some guys are 18 [years-old] in here. You go out, they're announcing your name and everyone is cheering for you. It's an awesome experience.

“Who would have thought that when you're kid playing House League that you'd be here some day. Opening night is very special.”

“It's going to be electric out there,” Ryan Jones added. “We've got the greatest fans in the league, by far. They’re going to be crazy-loud.”

DRAWING CLOSER

Ladislav Smid, who has been medically cleared to play, is questionable but could get the opportunity to suit-up in Sunday’s matchup. Having participated in three home-openers with the Oilers, the 25-year-old is understandably pumped to make this one happen, too.

“I've done everything I could to be in this game,” he said. “There’s going to be great energy with Ryan (Smyth) being back and getting another No. 1 overall pick, I think the fans are really anxious for the beginning of the season, and so are we."

Along with Taylor Fedun and Taylor Chorney, Smid had to leave last Thursday’s game in Minnesota. It was suspected to be a long-term problem at the time, but Smid’s rehab schedule has helped him improve much more quickly.

“We were worried about how serious it would be, but I had a couple x-rays and nothing is broken,” he said. “There were some strained ligaments, but nothing that serious.

“I’m mostly pain-free. I had a couple battles today and it was strong; the strength is there. In my mind, I'm good to go. Now it's the coaches' decision. I'm recovering well, and the rehab and exercises have helped me out big-time this past week.”

Head Coach Tom Renney is pleased with No. 5’s quick recovery, but is in no rush to pencil him into the lineup so soon.

“We'll see,” he said. “He's been medically cleared. We'll give him some contact again tomorrow and then make a decision based on that.”

Edmonton’s other hobbled rearguard, Ryan Whitney, is also nearing a return. Limited to only 35 games in 2010-11, the 28-year-old has been extremely disappointed in his ankle’s stubborn healing process.

It’s coming along, but at a snail's pace.

“My strength is getting better,” Whitney said. “It's getting stronger each day.

“[Pain] comes back and it gets sore, it's just not as strong and the pain isn't as bad, so that's good. It's not a sharp pain right now either, and that's what's important.”

“Maybe, I don't know yet,” he added when asked about playing in Sunday’s season-opener. “I haven't talked to Tom (Renney) yet. Probably not, but you never know. We’ll see.”

Whitney last played on Dec. 28, 2010 when the Oilers endured a 4-2 loss on home ice. His 3:48 TOI that night put the brakes on a commendable campaign in which he’d scored a pair, adding 25 assists
(second-best in the NHL, at the time) and a team-high +13 rating.

When Whitney is slotted back into the Oilers’ lineup, the smooth-skating D man will have missed over nine months; and without a pre-season tune-up to help guide his early-season return, Whitney is expecting a challenge.

“It's not ideal,” he laughed. “No one would really choose to do that. Other guys are in the same boat and it's something you sometimes end up having to do.”

Missing Game 1 of 82 may be a necessary swallow, but Smid and Whitney need not be rushed back in, assuming they’re not ready to skate at the league’s highest level, so says the Oilers' bench boss.

“I'll sit down with him and T.D. (Forss, Head Athletic Therapist), and we'll talk about where he is and how he feels and start to draw some conclusions, at least.”


-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 6

CHEMISTRY TEST

With eight days in between the pre-season and Sunday’s home-opener vs. Pittsburgh, the Oilers opted out of a fourth consecutive on-ice session this morning, and instead chose to hold a dry-land workout in the early-morning hours.

Heading into Sunday’s Thanksgiving clash, Head Coach Tom Renney has concocted a balanced mix, highlighting the club’s speed, skill and veteran experience.

Right-winger Jordan Eberle will play alongside Eric Belanger and Ryan Smyth, while fellow sophomore Taylor Hall will anchor the team’s ‘2A’ line next to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ales Hemsky.

PLAY YOUR GAME

“I think our practices have been pretty up-tempo,” Hall said. “It's nice to know that we have some solid lines now, and this is going to be the team that we're going to play with.

“We don't get to play until Sunday, so building chemistry early on has become especially important.”

“I need to go out there and play my game,” Eberle added when asked about his line’s contributions.” I thought [my line] gelled pretty well in practice and I'm excited to finally get the season going.

“When you've got enough players like we do and have such depth, you can mix the lines up. Anyone can play together and when you play in this league, anyone's good enough to play with anyone.”

Eberle scored 18 goals and 43 points in only 69 games in his rookie season. The 21-year-old is looking to improve upon that this year, and certainly doesn’t enter the new campaign with any reservation about a potential sophomore slump.

“No, not at all,” he said. “This is my second year. I know what to expect, I know what the season will be like and I know the pace. I expect to be a key contributor for this team.”

Renney thinks so, too.

“He was important to us all year long (in 2010-11), but as guys started to drop out of the lineup, he became even more important and became a marked man; a guy that had to be circled by the opponent in trying to stop him.

“[The young guys are] more enlightened. I hope they feel that they can continue to press the issue, play their game and attack the opponent.”

LET ‘EM PLAY

By the time the Penguins roll into Rexall Place on Sunday, they will have played a pair, while the Oilers will still be sporting a 0-0-0 record.

“We have to make sure we're ready,” Renney explained. “[Pittsburgh] will certainly be game-ready and we won't be. I think we'll have done enough good work, and we have certainly done that here in Jasper with the type of practices we've held.

“We’re back at it again tomorrow on the ice to prepare ourselves; and then three more days where we sit around and wait (the Oilers’ next game will be on Oct. 13 in Minnesota).

“We'll be ready. I would have liked to have played sooner, but that's the way it goes.”

The Oilers reported for medicals back on Sep. 17 and have since been going hard in preparation for 2011-12. Prior to, the team skated in lengthy two-hour sessions at the Kinsmen Arena and Perry Pearn’s 3-on-3 Camp in late August.

Somehow, it seems as though it’s been a long season already.

“I'm sick of practicing,” Eberle laughed. “Let's get this going.”

BALANCING THE BLUELINE

Both Ryan Whitney and Ladislav Smid are progressing and could potentially shock Oil Country by playing vs. the Penguins, but Taylor Chorney is certainly ready to go.

No. 41 removed the baby blue, light-contact sweater at yesterday’s practice, emphatically declaring his clean bill of health. Chorney’s knee was tweaked during the Oilers’ 4-3 shootout win over Minnesota last week, but as the smooth-skating blueliner describes, it was nothing more than a “little scare.”

“I hurt my knee last year and hadn't had any problems when I was back and healthy late in the season,” he said. “It was good throughout the summer, but I twisted it in Minnesota and initially thought I may have sprained it again. It settled down and maybe busted up some scar tissue, so the knee feels good.

“I'm ready to rock.”

With Cam Barker, Corey Potter and Jeff Petry in the mix, Chorney may not get the opportunity to play on opening night, but he’ll be ready to lace ‘em up should he get the coach’s call.

“I'm healthy enough, but I haven't really heard anything about getting into the lineup or what the plan is regarding that,” Chorney explained. “I'm sure it will get sorted out soon. Either way, I'm ready to go.”

With such movement on the backend (Taylor Fedun, Ryan Whitney and Ladislav Smid all out), Chorney is eager to get into the team’s full-time rotation.

“It's still early enough in the season where no one has really had the chance to play with any one guy in particular. We’re still feeling each other out, so when I do get my chance, I think I’ll be able to blend in pretty easily.

“We’re all excited about getting things going. There’s so much potential here. We’re all looking forward to the challenge, for sure.”

-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick


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