THE TEAM TODAY: Back to Work
Oilers return to practice, comment on Sunday's victory & more
BACK TO WORKAfter an off-day on Monday, the Oilers hit the ice on Tuesday for the first time since their dramatic 2-1 shootout victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in their 2011-12 season opener on Sunday night at Rexall Place.
Concerns with the number of turnovers they committed in their first game were addressed, but overall the team was still buzzing with a lot of positive energy as they look to ride their momentum into Thursday night's road game against the Northwest Division rival Minnesota Wild.
On Cloud Nine-ty Three
One of the heroes from Sunday's season opening victory was rookie centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who tallied his first NHL goal in his first NHL game to knot the score at 1-1 with just 4:55 left in the third period, forcing overtime and the eventual shootout.
The 18-year-old 2011 first-overall draft pick said he's still riding the wave of opening night but is focused on continuing to contribute as the season continues this week.
"It definitely was exciting and I enjoyed the win that night, but you've got to move on and I'll take the same approach on Thursday," said Nugent-Hopkins, who received a deafening ovation from the Rexall Place faithful following his pivotal goal. "It was pretty nice seeing all the support and congratulations I got. It's pretty incredible how loud it was."
Eager For Action
One player who didn't get a chance to compete in the season opener on Sunday was power forward Ben Eager. The off-season free-agent acquisition has been sidelined since the Joey Moss Cup intrasquad game on Sept. 18 when he suffered a concussion and whiplash on a body-check into the end boards from defenceman Kirill Tulupov, who has since been assigned to the Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound left-winger has been cleared to participate in full practice and will travel with the team for their one-off road game against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday. The 27-year-old Ottawa native said he's feeling good and can't wait to get back in the lineup, though it's still be to determined whether he'll be ready to return against the Wild.
"The last week or so I've been pushing pretty hard, and I'm starting to get my legs back and get back into game shape," Eager said. "There's been no (post-concussion) symptoms, so it's been nice. I haven't been cleared to play in a game yet, but hopefully that's not too far away. A few more practices, probably."
Chorney Claimed By Blues
On Monday, the Oilers placed defenceman Taylor Chorney on waivers for the purpose of assignment to Oklahoma City, but the 24-year-old is now headed to St. Louis after the Blues claimed him off the wire early Tuesday morning.
The Thunder Bay native played 56 games with the Oilers over the past three seasons, scoring one goal and six assists with 16 penalty minutes. He spent the majority of his time in the organization with the Springfield Falcons and Barons AHL affiliate squads, tallying 50 points in 146 games.
Head Coach Tom Renney replied "not really" when asked if he was surprised to see the North Dakota alum claimed. The bench boss also said he would "have that discussion" with General Manager Steve Tambellini should the Oilers have an opportunity to re-acquire Chorney in the future.
"I was hoping (he didn't get claimed) because I think he's a good player and we needed to get him playing, but I wasn't sure exactly when that was going to happen here," the coach said. "We were hoping to get him down to Oklahoma City to get him playing. If we get another crack at him — great."
Fellow up-and-coming defenceman Jeff Petry said it's tough to bid farewell to a teammate and friend, but he ultimately wishes Chorney the best of luck in St. Louis.
"I played with him last year in OKC and got to know him even more this year," Petry said. "You never like to see a teammate go, but it's a good situation for him to move on and get a chance with the Blues. It's part of the game and you've got to go with it."
No Hordichuk-MacIntyre Mash-Up
There could have been even more fireworks during Sunday's season opener had Oilers tough guy Darcy Hordichuk gotten the chance to drop the gloves with former Oilers enforcer Steve MacIntyre, who was acquired by the Penguins during the off-season. But with both players receiving limited ice time in the tight game, the showdown never played out.
"There's no doubt (it would have happened)," Hordichuk said. "He was already chirping on the bench. Pretty much every game you get into when the other team has a tough guy, if he's willing to go, I'm always willing to go. There was a couple times where I thought I was going to get on the ice with him, but we never got that chance to match up. I was just trying to get my feet moving out there and do what I do best, which is throw the body around."
The Saskatchewan natives first encountered each other in the WHL when they were trying out for the Saskatoon Blades in 1998. Hordichuk said they fought three times during training camp and then had a few more scraps when MacIntyre was traded to the Prince Albert Raiders.
-- Ryan Frankson, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS vs. PENGUINS
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.”
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