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THE TEAM TODAY

THE TEAM TODAY: Story on Special Teams

Hemsky update, new line combos & special teams talk dominate practice discussion

Friday, 14.10.2011 / 5:35 PM / The Team Today
By Ryan Dittrick  - edmontonoilers.com
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THE TEAM TODAY: Story on Special Teams

  FRIDAY, OCTOBER 14

STORY ON SPECIAL TEAMS

14 hours removed from a 17th straight loss at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN, the Oilers returned home to Rexall Place for an up-tempo one-hour practice.

28-year-old winger Ales Hemsky did not emerge, leaving only 25 players on the ice and allowing Head Coach Tom Renney to assemble new line combinations:

  View Line Combinations

Hemsky will have an MRI on his sore right shoulder later today and will be re-assessed tomorrow. The Oilers’ bench boss did not rule him out for tomorrow’s game vs. Vancouver.

"We'll have a better idea [tomorrow] morning," Renney explained. "It's good that we can do this as quickly as we can to help ease everybody's mind quick."

Hemsky played only 5:28 last night before leaving late in the opening period. While the veteran has struggled with crippling hits in the past, his latest ailment came under an unusual circumstance – a simple dump-in, even.

"I didn't get a chance to talk with him at all through the course of the game," Renney said. "I knew that he was out at a point in time, and in talking to him later it had settled down. He had a good night and it had settled down even more.

"I think it was a sweeping motion with the puck; making a pass or making a play."

PENALTY KILL PROWESS

The Oilers have collected three of a possible four points in 2011-12, and much of that early-season success can be credited to the team’s superb work on the penalty-kill.

Having killed 10 power-plays on 11 chances, the Oilers are ranked eighth in the NHL with a 91.7-percent success rate. The team’s captain has played an integral role, playing over 12 minutes shorthanded through two games.

"It's got us points in both games and given us a chance to get the win," Horcoff said. "We take pride in it. We're showing some real good signs out there. Special teams are a huge part of the game.

"We've changed some things. We've got six guys that are comfortable with each other. We're having success on faceoffs out there, too, which is a huge part of the PK. It's early so we don't need to talk about too much too soon."

Ladislav Smid, who has averaged over 20 minutes in both games so far, has blocked nine shots on the season and has taken on an increased role across the board; particularly on the penalty-kill and with the deduction of Ryan Whitney, his game has been a pleasant surprise.

"I like it," he said. "Obviously we really miss Ryan and hopefully he's going to be back soon, but for me it's a good chance. I'm trying to prove to my teammates and coaches that I'm capable of handling it."

Smid also commented on the team’s blistering success on the man-disadvantage.

"I think we've got a bunch of hard-working guys on the PK," he said. "You've got to show some pride. You have to do whatever it takes to keep the puck out of the net: play smart, have good positioning game and block some shots.

"For sure," he added when asked about his ever-increasing plate. "I don't really try to over-think things. When I'm out there I don't want any shots to get through."

"You've got to show some character. We've got lots of character in this room. As a group, we've been stepping up and we've got to keep it going."

SPUTTERING POWER-PLAY

Along with Detroit, Anaheim, New York, Columbus and Winnipeg, Edmonton is still without a power-play goal. The Oilers have had six chances, all unsuccessful, and are eager to right the ship in that regard.

"It's always easy watching from the press box or on the bench," No. 10 explained. "We've gone against two teams that can kill penalties pretty well, too, so we've got to give them credit where credit is due.

"I think when it's struggling, you've got to get pucks to the point, get to open lanes, get pucks on net and get into some out-manned situations."

Super sophomore Taylor Hall will, in all likelihood, be playing on a new line vs. Vancouver. Joined by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, he’s looking to step up to a higher level in another crucial divisional matchup.

"No matter who you're playing with, it's the same principles that you have to work with," the 19-year-old explained. "That's a huge thing for our line. [Vancouver is] a good team. They played very well against Detroit last night. They're very close to the team they were in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last year."

Stepping up and improving the team’s 0.0-percent power-play should help.

"I'm not sure," Hall said when asked about what needed to improve. "We really didn't get in a whole lot on Minnesota; we weren't coming out together on the breakout. It's tough to score goals that way."

The Oilers have been shorthanded 11 times, but have only been up a man on six occasions early this season. Hall believes his club can do better in securing their own opportunities.

"That might be a good point," he said. "We created so many penalties with our speed and puck possession [vs. Pittsburgh]."

-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

  THURSDAY, OCTOBER 13

OILERS at WILD
AT THE MORNING SKATE

GAME ESSENTIALS
 GAME DAY
 POST-GAME VIDEO
 POST-GAME AUDIO
 THREE STARS
1. Devin Setoguchi - MIN
3. Niklas Backstrom - MIN
 EDM SHOOTOUT RESULTS
1. Jordan Eberle - Score
2. Anton Lander - Miss
3. Taylor Hall - Miss
4. Shawn Horcoff - Miss
 MIN SHOOTOUT RESULTS
1. Matt Cullen - Score
2. PM Bouchard - Miss
3. Mikko Koivu - Miss
4. Devin Setoguchi - Score
 UPDATE
With the loss, the Oilers' record drops to 1-0-1. They are tied with Vancouver for third in the Northwest Division.
 WHAT'S NEXT
The Oilers return home to face the Vancouver Canucks at Rexall Place on Saturday.
Following a three-day break between the team’s opener and second regular-season contest, anticipation was high as the Oilers skated in an energetic, 20-minute morning skate in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.

The Oilers will have a couple changes to keep an eye on this evening: Lennart Petrell will draw in alongside Anton Lander and Darcy Hordichuk, while Linus Omark will be scratched.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Getting the start in goal tonight is veteran Nikolai Khabibulin, who’s 4-12-2 all-time vs. Minnesota. The 38-year-old netminder posted a 2-0-0 record, along with a 2.38 goals-against average and .872 save percentage in three pre-season games; in total, he made 41 saves on 47 shots.

"It's always exciting to start a new season," Khabibulin said. "Overall I'm pretty excited to be playing. Obviously you don't want to sit on the bench. Devan (Dubnyk) played really well vs. Pittsburgh and could have played again tonight, but it's Tom (Renney)'s decision and I'm happy to play."

Khabibulin understands that Dubnyk is chomping to earn the club’s starting role on a full-time basis, but the 14-year veteran is eager to earn his own playing time as well.

"It's an extra push," he explained. "It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge."

Head Coach Tom Renney was pleased with Dubnyk’s 33-save outing vs. Pittsburgh, but wanted to give Khabibulin a chance as early as possible.

"[Dubnyk] played very well and we all know what he's capable of. We wanted to make sure, as quickly as we can, that we know what Khabby is up to and there's no better time than right now."

While the bench boss didn’t give much heed to the team’s rotation between the pipes (especially in the season’s opening week), Khabibulin and Dubnyk have both been told they’ll play. How much is still to be determined.

"This is not a free ride here," Renney said. "We're now in the business of winning hockey games. Last year, as much as we tried to and wanted to and thought we could, we didn’t win very much."

"I don't know what I'm going to go," he added when asked about who will assume the reigns as the club’s go-to keeper. "I won't be surprised if it's close to being even or having some balance there. I want to make sure guys know they've been given a chance and that there are no excuses."

Opposite Khabibulin, Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom has an impeccable home record vs. Edmonton: 14-0-0 at the Xcel Energy Center. Combined with the team’s 16-game losing streak in St. Paul, the Oilers know they’re in tough.

"With each loss, I think the chances of winning the next game are increasing, because I've never seen streaks that have never been snapped," the veteran ‘tender laughed. "It has to stop some time.

"It's always in the back of your mind a little bit. Every game starts at 0-0 and on that day, both teams have an equal chance of winning. There's no use putting emphasis on [the losing streak].

Renney couldn’t agree more.

"[Minnesota is] a division opponent," he deadpanned. "That's the only thing that I'd suggest we have to embrace, in terms of beating this team tonight. I don't give a crap about history. I really care about what's in front of us and that's Minnesota.

"I'm not going to build this thing up into something it's not. It's not an insurmountable challenge for us at all. We're out there like any other team going after our win, and we'll do that again tonight."

AWAITED RETURNS

The Oilers’ last win at the Xcel Energy Center came on Jan. 16, 2007. Shawn Horcoff, Ladislav Smid and Ales Hemsky were all there, but so was Ryan Smyth; and in his four seasons departed from Oil Country, the Oilers couldn’t capture another victory in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

"We're going to change that," the 35-year-old veteran said. "We've got to beat teams in our division. They’re well rounded and they've got some great depth. Backstrom is Backstrom – he plays solid.

"We’ve got to minimize turnovers, too. Those guys live on them.

"We can't give them time and space either."

Cam Barker is also making his return to Minnesota. The 6’3", 223-pound defenceman played in 71 games over two seasons with the Wild from 2009-2011. He potted only two goals and 12 points, as well as a concerning -12 rating before being bought out on Jun. 30.

He then signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal with the Oilers the next day and is thrilled with his new chance to succeed. The 25-year-old rearguard is looking forward to his return – and a victory.

"We want a big win tonight. The guys are feeling good, we had a good week of practice and, obviously, we want to start [the season] on the right foot."

-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

  WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 12

BEFORE THE ROAD TRIP

Prior to hitting the road and boarding the team’s charter in a cross-national hop to St. Paul, Minnesota, the Oilers held a quick and spirited, one-hour practice at Rexall Place early Wednesday morning.

Rather than pushing the pace with high-speed, up-and-down line rushes, Head Coach Tom Renney approached the session with calculated drills intended to help counter the Wild’s repressive style.

It’s a good thing, too, because the Oilers are still sporting a losing streak like no other; coming out un-victorious in 16 straight contests in the land of 10,000 lakes, with the team’s last win coming on Jan. 16, 2007 by a 2-1 score.

EXCELLING AT XCEL

"We always approach it like we're going to go in there and win," Renney remarked. "I don't think we place as much weight on this thing as [the media does]. It's not like it's a heavy load or a cross to bear. It's another hockey game in a building where we've had limited success."

When asked about whether or not the streak was by coincidence or some other matter, Renney was mum but highly-assured with his club’s preparation.

"I don't know," he said. "That's a good question and I wish I had an answer. I'm really not that concerned about it. I'm concerned about winning every time I go to the rink.

"We prepare exactly the same way. I think our intensity, preparation and readiness is as good as anybody's in the league."

It depends on how you look at it, I suppose. The team may be on a 16-game winless skid in the regular season, but did come out on top vs. the Wild at the Xcel Energy Center only 12 days ago in a pre-season matchup.

Buoyed by victory, exhibition or not, Ryan Jones has put plenty into the club’s pre-season success in St. Paul.

"It always seem like there's added stress going in there when you haven't won in a while," said the 27-year-old winger, who's been moved up to play with Shawn Horcoff and Magnus Paajarvi on the team's third line. "Even though it was a pre-season game, it’s good knowing you can win in there.

"It's still a win and we're on a high going in there right now."

PETRELL ON PATROL

With Linus Omark donning the non-contact, baby blue sweater at practice, expect to see Lennart Petrell draw in vs. Minnesota. The 27-year-old Finn missed Sunday’s action as a healthy scratch, but is understandably thrilled to embark on a new opportunity.

"I'm really excited," he said, smiling. "I was nervous before the last game and I didn’t even play – but I think it helped me prepare and match tomorrow's preparation. It’s like I’m ready for my first NHL game already, even though it didn’t happen. It’s good.

"It's not disappointing," he added when asked about sitting out vs. Pittsburgh. "It's something you get used to in this business. There are always last-minute changes and you never know. Everybody has to be prepared to play – and we've got some extra guys, so we know two guys aren't playing every night.

"It's not disappointment. It's something you've got to learn to live with and it gives me extra energy for tomorrow's game against Minnesota. I'm really happy."

Petrell is slated to skate on the right wing, opposite Darcy Hordichuk and with Anton Lander down the middle on the team’s fourth line. According to Renney, it's "a job description right up [Petrell’s] alley."

"We've played him enough in the exhibition games to know what he can bring to us," he said. "All things being equal, he will start tomorrow night. I'll rest on that and make a decision in the morning, but I anticipate he'll play.

"He has the wherewithal to know what's going on around him as he plays that exuberant game, because sometimes you can get lost out there and not accomplish a whole lot, but he does. He's got a good physical presence to him, he goes to the net hard, he's an honest two-way guy and he's a very good penalty-killer."

It’s still to be determined whether Omark has been diagnosed with a leg injury or is a simple strike-through on the coach’s lineup card. Either way, Petrell will be looking to show what he’s got in the Swede’s place.

"I don't think I have to do anything special," he explained. I need to be energized, be good up the ice and in my own end. That's probably what [the coaches] expect and that's what I’m going to do."

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Sunday’s win was an emotional 60-minute clash, but as the players admitted, it sure as heck wasn’t a Picasso.

"We've had a lot of good practices and I think they've helped us out," Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. "We've been working on some systems.

"We know that [Minnesota] will come hard at us. They're a hard-working team and they like to put pressure on us and, even on the power-play, they'll send two guys down on the ice on the PK.

"We need to be ready."

Renney is equally as determined to right some early-season struggles, but is more concerned with rolling with emotion and capturing another victory while his squad bonds on the road.

"It's critical to get our wins on the road," he said. "With being the visiting team, you don't have any control over some things to the degree that you want, and I think that's a good thing because you have to have the resolve to push through those things.

"That can be very galvanizing for a team and we're looking forward to that."

ODDS AND ENDS:

Ben Eager, Sam Gagner and Ryan Whitney all skated today. Whitney continued to wear the regular white sweater, but Eager and Gagner rolled with the baby blues. Regardless, all will remain at home while the team embarks on this quick, one-game roadie.

-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

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