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THE TEAM TODAY

THE TEAM TODAY: T.G.I.M.

Oilers hold one-hour practice, praise goaltending & more Monday morning

Monday, 24.10.2011 / 6:55 PM / The Team Today
By Ryan Dittrick  - edmontonoilers.com
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THE TEAM TODAY: T.G.I.M.

  MONDAY, OCTOBER 24

T.G.I.M.

With games against the Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues in the coming week, energy was high as the Oilers took to the ice this morning at Rexall Place.

And why wouldn’t it be? The New York Rangers succumbed in a 2-0 shutout Saturday evening; Nikolai Khabibulin’s 44th in his illustrious 15-year NHL career, propelling the Oilers’ record to an above-.500, 3-2-2 mark.

‘TENDING TALES

Khabibulin stopped 19 in the win, upping his league-best numbers with an impressive 0.72 goals-against average and .969 save percentage (bested here by Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick with a .972 save percentage).

The 38-year-old netminder is pleased with his telling early-season numbers, but isn’t overly concerned with league-wide stats and where he stacks up among his 'tending peers.

"I don't really think about it," Khabibulin said. "I go out every game, do what I'm supposed to do and do my best. It's nice to have a good start, but it's a long season and I've got to keep it going.

"It's too early to even talk about it. All I worry about is the next game."

Having allowed a mere 10 goals in 2011-12 as a group, Khabibulin was quick to credit his team’s increased commitment to own-zone awareness.

"I think a big part is how we're playing as a team," he explained. "There's a lot more blocked shots and guys are working hard in front of the net, too.

"No, I haven't changed anything," he added about his preparation. "I've done the same thing for many years now, and I don't want to change too much because I don't want to scare my body with something new. It's a product of the team."

Khabibulin has only allowed three goals on 88 shots this season, lending credence to his pre-season declaration of a rebound campaign. Head Coach Tom Renney, who’s optimistically believed in his goalie’s renewed energy since camp opened on Sep. 16, isn’t surprised with his veteran’s strong start.

"To [Khabibulin’s] credit, he's a pro and he was driven to come out this year and have the start that he's had," he said. "I don't think he's needed a push from anyone. He's a smart man, he's a good pro, he's a competitor and he in his own mind made it very clear that he was going to be better."

His admirable outings have not only impressed Renney, but teammates as well.

"They've been awesome," Sam Gagner said of Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk. "Both Dubey and Khabby are giving us a chance to win every night, and that's all you can ask from your goalies.

"Khabby made some big saves last game, including a couple breakaways. He came up really big for us. It's important to have good goaltending."

FAMILIAR FACES IN NEW PLACES

Gagner made his return to the lineup vs. New York alongside Magnus Paajarvi and Eric Belanger on right wing. The 22-year-old has skated at centre for several seasons, but did have success in this position during the 2007-08 season; he recorded 16 points in the team’s remaining 18 games, pushing the Oilers to within three points of a post-season berth.

"I think there are different things you have to focus on [as a winger], especially in your own end. I tried to focus on moving my feet a lot; at centre you're able to keep your speed a little more coming through the middle. On the wing you've got to get going a little quicker.

"We have so much depth on this team that guys are going to be forced to play out of position sometimes. I'm willing to play wherever the coach wants to put me. I want to be ready for whatever's thrown my way.

"I want to continue to grow at that position."

Gagner, 5’11" and 195 pounds, is fully aware of the position’s challenging request. But with competition across the lineup forcing the issue (and Linus Omark to the press box), it’s a constant battle to maintain value in this heated, re-building NHL environment.

Like he usually does, Gagner is taking it all in stride.

"I'm just hoping to get better here. Everything else will fall into place when you that."

SWEDE SUCCESS

Magnus Paajarvi can relate to that all too well. The slick-handed 20-year-old is still without a goal through seven games (so too are Anton Lander and Linus Omark). It’s not in the Swede’s makeup to get down, especially since he’s been stepping up as a leader on the puck’s defensive side.

"That's what I want to be good at, too," Paajarvi said. "The team has been excellent this year; we've got a really good goals-against. It's better that you have really good defence and solid offence, rather than the other way around, because then you're going to lose games.

"The D have good gaps and we back-check as well. Once we get the offence going, we're going to be really dangerous. We've been taking points away so far and that's most important."

Paajarvi began the 2010-11 season having recorded three multiple-point games by the season’s ninth contest, leveraging his totals to 2-4-6. Following that, however, he endured a 13-game stretch were he was unable to record a point.

It’s all part of being a second-season student at the NHL level.

"I've had [pointless] streaks before, a lot longer than this," he laughed. "You've got to keep working, be patient and keep doing the things that you need to do, but not really get frustrated. It's going to come.

"When you do score a lot of goals and a lot of points, you don't think and everything happens. You've got to find that rhythm. It's good for the team and as long as it goes that way, I'm happy."

One thing’s for sure: as the sophomore works his way through some early-season trials, he’s got his coach’s support in full view.

"Maggie's starting to drive the net more, and he's putting pucks on goal and following those shots to the net. It's close-quarters and you've got to go to the tough areas, and it's not like he doesn’t want to."

-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

  SATURDAY, OCTOBER 22

OILERS 2 - RANGERS 0

GAME ESSENTIALS
 GAME DAY
 POST-GAME VIDEO
 POST-GAME AUDIO
 THREE STARS
1. R. Nugent-Hopkins - EDM
3. Taylor Hall - EDM
 UPDATE
The Oilers' record improves to 3-2-2 with the win.
 WHAT'S NEXT
The Oilers welcome the Vancouver Canucks to Rexall Place on Tuesday, Oct. 25. Game time is 7:30 p.m. MDT and it can be seen on Sportsnet West.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins recorded a goal and an assist, while Nikolai Khabibulin stopped 19 shots as the Oilers blanked the Rangers 2-0 Saturday night at Rexall Place.

Khabibulin improves his record to 2-0-2 with the win, as well as establishing league-best numbers with a 0.72 goals-against average and .969 save percentage.

AT THE MORNING SKATE

Who's in, who's out and who's starting in goal. Those vital game-day questions were answered at Saturday's morning skate.

Sam Gagner, who's missed all but one pre-season match in 2011-12, makes his return tonight vs. New York. 24-year-old Linus Omark, held pointless through six games with a -2 rating, will be relegated to the press box.

It's expected that Gagner will slot in alongside Magnus Paajarvi and Eric Belanger. No. 89 will play on the right wing, where he's had success in past seasons.

During the team's miraculous run in 2007-08 when the Oilers came within three points of a post-season berth, Gagner scored 16 points in the final 18 games on a line with Robert Nilsson and centre Andrew Cogliano.

"I have, as a matter of fact," Head Coach Tom Renney said when asked about putting Gagner on the wing. "I've had good visits with him and actually talked to a former coach of his. There's where we're going to put him tonight."

With the Oilers having scored a mere 10 goals this season, this morning's hot topic was the Oilers' sputtering attack.

"You can't forget about our defence," Paajarvi said when asked about what was needed to boost scoring. "Our defence has been good. We've been back-checking hard, and that's why we've been able to be in the games all the time.

"We've got to work on [scoring], but we can't forget about our defence, because that's one thing that's so much better than last year."

Ladislav Smid, who's been a big part of the Oilers' solid own-zone game, having accrued 20 blocked shots (ranked in the NHL's Top 5) on the season, also stands by the team's rock-solid play, but believes there needs to be a greater emphasis on generating an up-ice attack.

"I think we're balanced," he explained. "I don't think we're sitting too far back. I think we're aggressive and have created some chances; it's just not going in right now, so hopefully we can turn it around and start scoring more goals.  

"For us as a team, I think it's more important that we don't allow as many goals and make it as easy as possible on our goalies. In previous seasons, they had to make 40 saves every game to give us a chance to help us win some games.

Smid, along with Ryan Whitney, Cam Barker, Andy Sutton, Tom Gilbert and Corey Potter, have promised a better return. The group has combined to record four points (a pair each from Gilbert and Potter), but wants to help out as much as possible.

"When we have meetings with the coaches, that's what they want us to do: move the puck quicker and support the offence," Smid said. "It's not that one D man is going to go end-to-end to score a goal. We have to move it quickly and jump up in the attack and you never know; you can create some chances."

Gilbert, the Oilers' lone goal-scorer from this past Tuesday's 2-1 loss in Calgary, agreed.

"I think the more you squeeze your stick when it comes to offence, the harder it actually gets," he said. "We've been getting a lot of chances, but just haven't been burying them. I think if we continue to keep playing solid across the board, our chances will come and we'll start scoring some more.

"We've got to bear down on those opportunities; on odd-man rushes, in-zone setups and even on broken plays. When that comes, and it will, we'll have success."

N-Y-RETRIBUTION

Last season, the Oilers and Rangers met once at Madison Square Garden in New York. The home side drubbed the orange and blue by an 8-2 score, in the process making enemies as Sean Avery sucker-punched Ladislav Smid; a total of 154 minutes in penalties were assessed, too, in the late-game melee.

"It's behind me, it's in the past and I'm looking forward to this game," Smid said. "I think everybody can make a picture about [Avery]; he's not in the lineup this year and it doesn't matter to me anymore.

"That was a really bad game," he added. "We played really poorly and the score was 8-2. It was a terrible game, but this one is in our building and we don't want to slide on a losing streak, so hopefully we can get a big W."

Gilbert came to Smid's aide that evening, tussling with New York's Michael Del Zotto along the benches as Avery was escorted to the locker room. He, too, insists that 2011-12 is a new season and that there's no bad blood spilling into this once-a-year matchup.

"I don't think so," he said when asked if there was any extra motivation heading into tonight's contest. "I think that was a different story last year; we were in a bit of a slump and the team wasn't playing as well as we wanted to. I think, overall, we're in a better place this season.

"You take what you learned from last year and the experience you had, and you don't want it to happen again. We're more focused on the way that we want to play and the way we've been playing. That's more important and that's how we're approaching this one."

KHABI-BRILLIANT

Up to this point, Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk have split the action, playing in three games each in the Oilers' first six matches. The ‘tender carousel will come to an end tonight, as No. 35 will granted a second consecutive start between the pipes.

Can't argue with the coach's call. Khabibulin has posted a 1-0-2 record, along with a league-best (among netminders with more than one game played) 0.96 goals-against average and .962 save percentage.

"I thought he was good the other night," Renney said. "I liked the way he played, I like where he is mentally, but I wouldn't read too much into it beyond him starting tonight."

-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

  FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21

REFUSING TO SETTLE

The morning after their second consecutive heartbreaking loss to a Northwest Division rival, the Oilers continue to stick to their guns and stress the importance of building a successful team based around sound defence. The squad held an optional skate on Friday morning at Rexall Place following Thursday's 2-1 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild.
 
Thanks to Ryan Jones' second goal of the season, the Oilers maintained a 1-0 lead on the Wild until Dany Heatley snuck a shot past Nikolai Khabibulin with just one second left in the third period to force overtime. Minnesota went on to win in a shootout, with Matt Cullen scoring the lone goal. The tough loss came just two days after the Oilers squandered a 1-0 lead against the Calgary Flames, as their provincial rivals scored two goals 89 seconds apart late in the third to win 2-1.
 
"None of us are happy at all with these last two losses," Head Coach Tom Renney said on Friday. "We were right there to win these two games. But that's the beauty of this team is that they're not happy. They're pissed off, and that's the way it should be. You can't come out of a loss saying we sure tried hard and did a lot of good things and leave it at that."

STICKING TO THEIR GUNS

Six games into the 2011-12 season, the Oilers are tied for third in the NHL with just 10 goals allowed but also sit tied for second last in the league with only 10 goals for, and that even ratio has translated into an even 2-2-2 record.

 "We started placing a premium on playing defensive hockey a couple of years ago," Renney said. "We've really tried to create a defensive foundation that we can build our whole game from. I think we're in a good place this early in the season, but we still have a lot of work to do. In no way, shape or form should (our defensive focus) distract at all from offence. I'm hoping it's only a matter of time until everyone else gets to chip in."
 
So what will it take to vault the goals-for number higher?
 
"The bottom line is we're getting chances as a team to score," the coach said. "I think we've got to maybe work a little bit harder to get to the blue paint and hang around there a little more and fight for body position. We do have the ability to score, even though the statistics may indicate otherwise right now."

 KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES' (PACE) 

Jones tallied his second goal of the season during the first period of Thursday's contest against Minnesota, and with two goals in six games, the right-winger is well on his way to matching or surpassing his 18-goal career-high 2010-11 campaign. 

"He plays a complete game," Renney said. "He can play with anybody in the lineup and be valuable to us. I like the fact that he does really and truly care about our defensive look. He's a great communicator on the ice and he's a second and third effort guy, which is what we're going to have to be all about this season."

Though he has been known to break free and find the back of the net on a breakaway or hard drive to the net, Jones' goals so far this season have been scored into wide-open cages on passes from linemate and namesake Ryan Smyth. The first was an empty-netter against Nashville on Monday, and last night's against the Wild was a no-doubter on the doorstep.

"I just go to the net," said Jones, who has primarily played on a line with Smyth and Shawn Horcoff. "Smytty has been unselfish. We just want to continue playing the way we have. We've been fairly consistent as a shut-down line, as a checking line, and it's also nice to be able to contribute to the scoring when we can. Yesterday was one of those times where we created a turnover down low, went to the net and Smytty made a nice pass."

In addition to playing on the same line, sitting next to each other in the locker room, sharing the same name and sporting similar, flowing hairstyles, Jones and Smyth also play a similar hard-nosed game, making number 94 a role model for the 27-year-old.

"Smytty is easy to get along with," Jones said. "He's a blue-collar guy who works hard, and he's made a career out of working as hard as he possibly can and going to the hard areas. Being in front of the net is kind of a painful area, but if you go there you're going to score goals. I try to pick his brain as much as I possibly can, because that's the sort of career I hope to put together."

GAGNER ON THE BRINK

Sam Gagner has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain since the team's pre-season tilt with the Flames on September 24, but the centreman is likely to return to action against the Rangers this Saturday, thanks to four weeks of recovery time.

"At this point, it's up to the coaches and trainers, but I feel good out there, and fitness-wise I'm ready to go," Gagner said. "The ankle feels good, so hopefully tomorrow I'm in. I think the only test I have left is getting into a game situation." 

One questions remains, though. If Gagner is indeed cleared to play against New York, will he move to the wing while Horcoff, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Anton Lander and Eric Belanger remain at centre? That's fine by number 89, he says.
 
"I just want to get back playing, I don't care where it is," Gagner said. "My first year I pretty much played wing the whole year, so I'm pretty comfortable with playing there. Wherever they want to put me, I'm fine with that. We have so much depth on this team that guys are going to have to switch around and play different positions from time to time."

-- Ryan Frankson, edmontonoilers.com

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