THE TEAM TODAY

THE TEAM TODAY: Heavy Mettle

Oilers prepare for extended six-game road trip, comment on division lead & more

Tuesday, 01.11.2011 / 6:00 PM / The Team Today
By Ryan Dittrick  - edmontonoilers.com
  TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 1

HEAVY METTLE

With three days between Sunday's 4-2 win and Thursday's game in Los Angeles, the Oilers used Halloween to recoup, but returned to the ice this morning at Millennium Place in Sherwood Park.

Ales Hemsky skated once more, but was still donning the baby blue non-contact sweater. Andy Sutton, who was still awaiting a decision from the NHL regarding his suspension, was also present but was not made available to the media.

  PRESS RELEASE: Andy Sutton comments on being issued a 5-game suspension

Cam Barker missed Sunday's game with a sore shoulder and did not skate today. No. 13's status will be updated tomorrow prior to the road trip.

GOOD VIBES

Through 11 games this season, the Oilers have amassed a 7-2-2 record, 16 points, leading the NHL's Northwest Division and are locked with the Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks for the Western Conference lead.

Last season, the orange and blue were sporting a 3-7-1 record through 11 games.

"Compared to last year and the last three or four years, it's obviously more fun when you're winning," Tom Gilbert said post-practice. "We're working hard and that's the main reason why we're having so much success.

"We're having fun, and we're going out every single day and playing as hard as we can. That's been a huge key to our success this season. Now we're eager to keep going and see where it takes us."

Gilbert has registered a goal and three points, along with a -2 rating in his team-leading 24:47 TOI average. In anchoring the Oilers' blueline with sound coverage and production on the scoresheet, No. 77 has been a huge contributor to the team's hot start.

It's also provided a boost to the entire 23-man roster.

"Absolutely," he said. "We've gone out and beaten some really strong teams in the past week or so. Knowing that we can beat teams like that is huge. [Washington is] a strong team and they're going to be contenders this year. Teams like Pittsburgh, Vancouver – knowing that we can play 60 minutes with those guys and come out on top, it gives you such a boost.

"Now we need to build on those games, making sure we're doing the right things so we can play at a more consistent level night-in and night-out."

That's an area where 25-year-old Ladislav Smid has excelled in this season. The 6'3", 210-pound rearguard has averaged 20:48 per game, establishing his name as one of the team's go-to blueliners.

Smid has blocked a team-best 40 shots (23 more than second-best Tom Gilbert), dished out 18 hits (also a team-high) and has only accumulated eight minutes in penalties.

With Ryan Whitney, Cam Barker and Andy Sutton also out of the lineup, Smid's contributions continue to be essential.

"He's always shown the character that you need in a lineup," Renney said. "He's got so much respect from his teammates because of that. He's coming around to the point where he's someone that has to be looked at as a more complete D man now than maybe ever before."

Smid, who's been paired with Gilbert this season, was appreciative of his coach's praise; especially so, considering the smooth-skating defenceman has taken a new approach to the 2011-12 campaign.

"I know my role on the team," he said. "I've narrowed the things I wanted to accomplish out there each night. Rather than pushing to do too much, I'm making sure I'm breaking a game or practice into segments so that I'm keeping my list much more manageable. It's been great so far.

"Last year was tough for me because I had surgery, but I came in with a new attitude this year and it's helped. Playing with [Gilbert] isn't a bad thing, either. We work so well together and I think the chemistry has been good."

SIX GAMES, 12 DAYS

The Oilers will practice once more before departing for Los Angeles tomorrow on a marathon, six-game road trip. The Oilers will make stops in Phoenix, Montreal, Boston, Detroit and Chicago in addition to LA.

The Oilers played eight games at Rexall Place and only three on the road (Minnesota, Calgary and Colorado) in October. The challenge begins anew in November, with the club preparing to battle on the road in 10 of the team's next 12.

"It's a good test for us," Renney said. "We have to embrace it, obviously. It's an opportunity to continue to grow as a team and see if we can sustain good work habits and a winning approach on the road."

Gilbert agreed, adding that, while the team has struggled to produce wins on long trips in recent seasons, this year's squad is better prepared.

"This is the big one," he laughed. "We're playing some really good teams on this road trip, too. It's going to be a great test for the young guys who haven't yet experienced this. We've got to focus on the way that we want to play, regardless of where we are so we can have success."

"It's going to be challenging," Smid added. "But we're all pros and we know what it takes. We're going to play some tough teams. LA is doing really good, we're going to play Chicago and Boston in their buildings, and they're good as well.

"It's really going to show what this team is made of."

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

  SUNDAY, OCTOBER 30

OILERS 4 - BLUES 2

GAME ESSENTIALS
 GAME DAY
 POST-GAME VIDEO
 POST-GAME AUDIO
 THREE STARS
1. Ryan Smyth - EDM
2. R. Nugent-Hopkins - EDM
3. Shawn Horcoff - EDM
 UPDATE
The Oilers win their 5th straight, improving to a 7-2-2 record; leading the NHL's Northwest Division & Western Conference standings with 16 points on the season.
 WHAT'S NEXT
The Oilers hit the road to start a 6-game road trip Thursday night in LA. Game time is 8:30 p.m. MDT and it can be seen on Sportsnet West.
The Ryans (Smyth, Nugent-Hopkins and Jones) combined to score two goals and three assists, factoring in each Oilers tally as the home side doubled-up the visiting St. Louis Blues 4-2 Sunday night at Rexall Place.

Nikolai Khabibulin got the start in goal, posting 28 saves and propelling the Oilers to their fifth straight win.

AT THE MORNING SKATE

Following a brief morning skate, the Oilers had a team meeting in preparation for the St. Louis Blues - a team who started out slowly but have played well as of late.

"We've been playing good hockey. Good enough to win games. We'd like to be a little bit sharper these last few games. A lot of turnovers," noted blueliner Tom Gilbert, who was quick to point out that the play between the pipes has been instrumental certainly with the last three victories.

"Our goaltending has been huge for us. When they're playing well, we have a good chance to win."

Gilbert also reflected on playing the Blues tonight. St. Louis had won three straight before dropping a 3-1 decision on Friday in Calgary.

"They're a great forechecking team. They come very hard. It's got to be really good puck control, get the puck moving as quick as possible. They're physical. The more we get the puck moving the better we'll be."

LIFE WITHOUT SUTTON

Awaiting trial for suspension following his hit on Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog Friday, Andy Sutton will not be playing tonight.

"He will be (missed tonight). We need to make sure we pay attention to how we want to play that area anyway and do the best we can and make sure those people who are engaged do it with a little bit of jam and fortitude."

The loss of Sutton means more opportunity for a player like Theo Peckham, who needs to play physical.

"It doesn't matter who we're playing, when he's in the lineup he needs to deliver with that part of his game, no question about that," stated Renney. "Against a team that attacks well like St. Louis does - and they do have some heavy bodies - the way he plays is certainly at a premium."

PETRY RETURNS

With the suspension to Sutton, Jeff Petry makes his return to the Oilers lineup. He was sent to Oklahoma City only 11 days ago but with Sutton's situation as well as Whitney's injury, he may now be up for awhile.

"Our hope was to put the best team on the ice that we could and if that included him, wonderful for him," said Oilers head coach Tom Renney.

"We also recognized that we have an excellent coaching staff in Oklahoma City and the guy would play a lot of minutes and get lots of responsibility. It's not purgatory, that's just learning and developing, not just with him but with many others."

For Petry, at this stage in his career he knows it's all about development.

"You never know what's going to happen. One day you're here, one day you're down there. I just need to continue to grow in the areas that I need to."

Petry did not play badly in his time with the big club this season. In three games, he had a +2 rating and averaged 20 minutes of ice-time.

"I need to do the things that I was doing before I left, continue to do those things. Get the puck up ice, get back to pucks early, not trying to do too much. Make the simple plays."

Petry had an assist and was +1 in his two games with the Barons.

"I was only there for two games. Jumped right into those and felt pretty good down there. Team looks great, so it was a good situation."

Alex Plante was also recalled and will be arriving in Edmonton later this afternoon.

HEMSKY SKATES, NEARING RETURN

Ales Hemsky skated with the team for the first time this morning and his return could come as soon as this Thursday in Los Angeles.

"They told me three to four weeks so it's pretty much on schedule," said Hemsky. "I think three weeks we'll be at the LA game so we'll go from there."

The additional time off has helped Hemsky, who never really had the shoulder pain go away in the first place.

"I had pain there the whole three months and just couldn't get rid of it. Now it's feeling much better. I don't have the pain there. I'm feeling the best I have in a long time."

Hemsky is expected to play at some point on the team's upcoming six-game road trip and for coach Renney, any chance to get the skilled winger back into the lineup is welcome.

"It's been too long. Being without him for a game is too long. We'll see how it goes. It's pretty much on track. Once he's able to skate and participate with contact, it's a whole new ballgame for him, of course," said Renney, who added that he doesn't expect this to be a lingering issue throughout the season.

"I have all kinds of faith in our medical people. Bodies break down, that's just the nature of the game but I expect him to be there for the duration."

-- Marc Ciampa, edmontonoilers.com
  FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28

OILERS 3 - AVALANCHE 1

GAME ESSENTIALS
 GAME DAY
 POST-GAME VIDEO
 POST-GAME AUDIO
Audio highlights will be available later tonight
 THREE STARS
1. Devan Dubnyk - EDM
2. Ryan Smyth - EDM
3. Ryan O'Reilly - COL
 UPDATE
The Oilers improve to 6-2-2 on the season and have moved to a share of the NHL Western Conference lead with the Dallas Stars (14 points in 2011-12).
 WHAT'S NEXT
The Oilers return home to clash with the St. Louis Blues on Sunday. Game time is 6:00 p.m. MDT and it can be seen on Sportsnet West.
Second period goals by Cam Barker and Andy Sutton put the Oilers ahead 2-0, while sophomore 'tender Devan Dubnyk stopped 40 shots as the Oilers edged the Colorado Avalanche 3-1 Friday night at Pepsi Center.

Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly scored the home side's lone goal, but Oilers captain Ryan Smyth responded 27 seconds later to secure the win.

AT THE MORNING SKATE

Immediately following the Oilers’ one-goal triumph over the Capitals one night ago, the team darted to the airport, hopped on the club’s charter and traveled three hours south, landing in snowy (and chilly) Colorado in the early-morning hours.

The lights went down at about 3:45am, so the Oilers opted out of a morning skate and instead chose to assemble for a team meeting, nourishing lunch and a 20-minute noon-hour seminar with the media.

Nikolai Khabibulin stopped 34 shots last night as he propelled the Oilers to a 2-1 win over the league’s best team. The veteran 'tender has improved to a 4-0-2 record and on his league-leading 0.97 goals-against average and .964 save percentage.

Tonight on a tough back-to-back set in Denver, Devan Dubnyk will get the call as he returns to the crease with a 1-2-0 record, 2.31 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

His last outing came on Oct. 18 when the Oilers dropped a 2-1 decision to the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome; that night he stopped 26 shots, but gave up two late goals to seal the loss.

"It'll be good," Dubnyk said. "It's been a little while, so I'm going to get in there, get a feel right away and really concentrate on what I need to do.

"It will take a couple minutes to get back into it when you've had an extended break. It won't take long. It never hurts to watch a clinic like that (Khabibulin’s 42-save outing vs. Washington). I’m going to go out there and give these guys as good a chance to win as he's been doing."

NUGENT-HOPKINS HERE TO STAY

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers’ leading scorer with a 5-4-9 stat-line through nine games, wasn’t told whether or not he’d be staying up with the Oilers passed the Mile High trip, but quelled all speculation at the team’s hotel today.

"It was pretty awesome," Nugent-Hopkins said with an ear-to-ear grin. "Steve (Tambellini) and Tom (Renney) both told me, so it was pretty exciting for me.

"I really didn't know what to expect coming in [to the season]," he added. "I'm really happy with the way things have gone. Our line has really been clicking lately and that's very exciting. It's worked out really well."

That line, which includes 2010 No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall and 2008 No. 22 overall pick Jordan Eberle, has combined to score 10 goals and 28 points through the season’s opening nine. Nugent-Hopkins couldn’t say enough about his teammates’ mentorship, even though they’re only second-year NHLers themselves.

"They've been great for me," he explained. "They're only a couple years older than me, but they went through this whole thing last year. It’s great getting to play with those guys; getting to talk with them, get some feedback and everything."

Head Coach Tom Renney said, while the decision to keep The Nuge seemed obvious, he and the team’s management group placed a lot of importance on the Oilers’ recent games.

"It’s good for the scouts, good for the organization, good for his teammates, really good for the coaches and great for him.

"These last few games were really important. We needed to see Ryan through that experience [of playing against tougher opponents]. We needed to see his body of work, and we have suggested that throughout this whole process to see if what we were seeing was real.

"We were noncommittal until we got these couple in because these were big teams. These last couple games were very important. There wasn't a whole lot this young fella was doing wrong."

Oilers General Manager Steve Tambellini, who argued when the selection was made that Nugent-Hopkins didn’t have to play in the NHL this season, said the Oilers followed a staunch process and that RNH had exceeded all expectations.

"We wanted to see what he looked liked in rookie camp, exhibition games and then the NHL games. We said, 'let's let him play the nine games.'

"I told him he should be extremely proud," he added. "Not only was I impressed with the way in which he handled the play on the ice, but I love how good he is with Canadian media and the pressure. He knows the pressure is on him and always will be on him, and still went out there and was able to show what he's always done; intelligence and skill and he was able to handle that."

Perhaps most important in the coach’s eyes, is the way in which Nugent-Hopkins has played and made others around him better. The way in which he controls the puck, especially on the power-play and in tight, is a skill mastered by the NHL’s elite. With RNH’s 10th game to come this evening, he’s well on his way to earning such a title.

"Everybody he played with, played well," Renney said. "He was able to elevate the play of his linemates and that's pretty impressive for an 18-year-old. That was something I'd hoped for, but to the degree that it's happened, it's been really impressive."

AVALANCHE WARNING

The No. 1 overall pick, 18, will line up against a familiar face tonight vs. the Avalanche. Second overall pick in 2011, Gabriel Landeskog, will also be continuing his NHL season; he’s scored four goals and six points in 2011-12 and it showing no signs of slowing as the red-hot Oilers roll into town.

"We became pretty good friends over the summer because we spent so much time together," RNH said. "We've been keeping in touch quite a bit and I'm happy to see that he's been doing so well. I've never played against him before, so it will be good to get out there against him.

"Landeskog is the kind of player that's NHL-ready; he's a big guy, he thinks the game very well and it's not surprising to see him doing so well."

"I'm looking forward to seeing him," Renney added about Landeskog. "I think he's a great young player; very strong, obviously, plays hard and has a great, well-deserved reputation. But I like our guys."

With the Oilers getting in late and going head-to-head against an Avalanche squad that was sitting at home Thursday night, while the orange and blue were clashing with the Capitals at Rexall Place, Renney expects an inspired outing.

"[Colorado is] coming out guns ablazing; they're going to come hard," Renney said. "They've got a great transition game, they've got an excellent attack game, they're fearless in terms of how they want to play the game; I like that, I really like the way they play.

"As much as we can, we have to turn the table and not turn the puck over; manage that better, and get our own attack game going to a point where we can generate regular scoring chances."

LATE ADDITIONS

Head Coach Tom Renney revealed last night that D man Ryan Whitney would miss up to three weeks with a sprained knee. As such, the Oilers have recalled Jeff Petry from the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons and could very well draw in tonight vs. the Avalanche.

  Read the Press Release

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

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