THE TEAM TODAY

THE TEAM TODAY: Eastward Bound

Oilers skate in Phoenix prior to departure for Montreal and eastern portion of the trip

Sunday, 06.11.2011 / 3:15 PM / The Team Today
By Marc Ciampa  - edmontonoilers.com
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THE TEAM TODAY: Eastward Bound

  SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 6

EASTWARD BOUND

Following last night's 4-2 setback at the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes in Glendale, the Oilers did not immediately head to Montreal, where they will be playing their next game on this six-game jaunt this Tuesday. Instead, the club broke from routine and returned to their hotel.

The Oilers then held practice at Jobing.com Arena on Sunday before heading to Eastern Canada.

"This is hockey mecca," said Oilers head coach Tom Renney when asked if he was looking forward to the trip to Montreal. "Any of the Canadian cities are just so good to play in because their fans are so passionate about it and they do understand the game. In Montreal, they express that better than anyone else."

As the Oilers look to get back on track following their first loss after six-straight wins, Renney notes that the visit to La Belle Provence couldn't have come at a better time.

"It will be a real good test for all of us - and certainly the young fellas - to play in that environment."

One term Renney used following practice to describe the challenge faced in Montreal is "sharpen our pencils".

"We brought it upon ourselves last night, in all honesty," Renney began. "We fell into a trap. We might have worked hard but we certainly weren't smart about it. They worked hard and they were smart. They took advantage of a team that was outside of what they needed to do to play."

FULL SIXTY

One concern from the Oilers of late has been their inability to put a full 60 minutes together. That really cost them last night as a second period during which they were outshot 8 to 3 and outscored 2-0 essentially did them in despite a strong third.

"Walk the walk, or walk the talk as they say," said Renney when asked what the team needs to do Tuesday to ensure a complete effort. "It's great to look in retrospect on what you might have done better and need to do better. What you have to do now is commit to that."

Blueliner Colten Teubert, who did notch his first career NHL point last night, agreed with the coach.

"We've just got to know that we have to play sixty minutes. We didn't come to play in the first two periods. It was a little too late. Going into Montreal - a real loud building - we just have to have a good start and play a full 60 minutes."

HEMSKY GETTING CLOSER

The next step in the road to recovery for Oilers winger Ales Hemsky occurred as he was cleared for contact. The next step is getting the skilled playmaker back into game shape.

"It's too early," said Renney when asked if he's begun planning to have Hemsky back in the lineup. "We need to get some heavy lifting for him in practices and see how he responds to that. There's also the fitness element which I've got to pay attention to as well."

Hemsky had initially said about a week ago that he could return as soon as last Thursday against the Kings. He may still get into one of the team's final four games on the roadie.

"There's a chance - a reasonable chance - that he'll play on this trip. We just have to make sure we have enough time with him on the ice in those situations where he can challenge himself physically and I can get a good look at his fitness level and see where he is."

-- Marc Ciampa, edmontonoilers.com | with files from Ryan Dittrick

  SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 5

COYOTES 4 - OILERS 2

GAME ESSENTIALS
  GAME DAY
 POST-GAME VIDEO
 POST-GAME AUDIO
 THREE STARS
1. Daymond Langkow - PHX
2. Boyd Gordon - PHX
3. Adrian Aucoin - PHX
 UPDATE
With the loss, the Oilers' record drops to 8-3-2 on the season; the orange & blue remain atop the Northwest Division but sit in second spot in the Western Conference behind the Blackhawks.
 WHAT'S NEXT
The Oilers continue their six-game road trip with a stop in Montreal on Tuesday. Game time is 5:30 p.m. MT and it can be seen on Sportsnet West.
The Oilers orchestrated a strong third-period push to pull within one on goals by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Theo Peckham, but the Coyotes pushed back, doubling-up the Oilers 4-2 Saturday night at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, AZ.

Devan Dubnyk got the start in goal, posting 27 saves in the loss.

AT THE MORNING SKATE

In search of the team's seventh straight win, the Oilers bussed 30-minutes to the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale to begin the second game day morning of a marathon six-game road trip.

The Oilers' 20-minute skate saw little in the way of surprises, as Cam Barker and Ales Hemsky, who pondered a return tonight, remain out; but Nikolai Khabibulin, who's posted a 0.98 goals-against average and .963 save percentage, will sit as Devan Dubnyk makes his fifth start of the season.

SECONDARY SCORING

Since returning to the lineup on Oct. 22 vs. New York, Sam Gagner has been the Oilers' good luck charm. The team has yet to lose a game and, in the same stretch, he's increased his ice-time in each outing, extending to a season-high 18:48 played at Staples Center in the most recent win.

Having recorded two assists in his last three games, the 22-year-old [natural] centre is pleased with his six-game start.

"The last three games, I feel like I've played a lot better," Gagner said. "I feel better out there, I've been creating chances, I've been in the right spots and I've been getting my timing and legs back. I want to continue to grow from here."

Gagner, alongside Eric Belanger and Magnus Paajarvi, is his unit's leading scorer in a time when production across all four lines has become crucial. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle can't do it alone.

"The last couple games, [our line has] created a lot. Especially in LA we had some chances and we've just got to continue to have our foot on the gas. We're going to need some secondary scoring going forward here, and it's important for us if we're going to win.

"It's got to be on all four lines and I think for our line, we've got to keep developing that chemistry and we'll go from there."

PRESSURE TO PERFORM

No. 91 has some extra incentive to perform tonight, as his mother, who's seen her son play in about 10 NHL games back in Edmonton, will be up in the stands watching along with nine other Oilers moms.

"She doesn't know how it is on the road, and how we live on the road and how fortunate we are with all the things around us," Paajarvi said. "It's really neat to share that with them. Thanks to the Oilers for giving us an opportunity to really show them how it is, because they're the biggest reason why a lot of players are in this dressing room and play for this team. You can't forget that."

Head Coach Tom Renney agreed, added that the moms have been a nice addition to an otherwise challenging six-game trip.

"They're worse," he laughed when referencing the dads' trip from a year ago. "It's really good. We had a really nice night with them last night, a little reception with them and had a good visit. All the players spoke a little bit about their moms and what they mean to them.

"It takes you back. It makes you understand why you're here and how you got here. It's really good to have them, they're enthusiastic and energetic."

EXTENDING THE STREAK

The Oilers will be up against one of the league's most-improved PK units in tonight's matchup. The Coyotes have secured an 87-percent success-rate through 12 games, but have killed 37 of the opponents' last 40 chances.

As Renney explains, it's a matter of "working harder."

"Some nights your power-play has those tendencies not to work hard, and I thought the other night we tried to force things; we started standing around and we got a little frustrated instead of working harder."

"We were a little disorganized last game," Tom Gilbert added. "I think the support wasn't as good as it has been in the past few games; supporting each other better, moving the puck in small areas and the simplest thing is getting pucks to the net as much as you can, and we weren't doing that enough."

Tom Gilbert has averaged 24:50 in TOI this season, continuing last season's mean (24:30), in the absence of Ryan Whitney and others. The 28-year-old has excelled in this role and is thrilled with how he's been able to help the team.

"You've got to make the most of it," he said. [Ladislav Smid and I] have been doing great. We're out there communicating well and working well together."

Gilbert, who's racked up one goal and four points in the team's 12 games, is also heating up. A pair of assists by No. 77 in the Oilers' last two games (and wins) has helped the team overcome some middling scoring concerns.

Still, it's a team game and one that the Oilers are keen to massage.

"Last game we played a really good road game," Gilbert said. "It was simple, our turnovers were pretty low and we got pucks deep, which is so huge when you're on the road; you don't get the changes you want, so you've got to keep the game as simple as possible."

"We can't take a single opponent lightly," Renney added in regards to tonight's game against a Phoenix squad that sits 6-4-2, ninth in the west. "We were the 30th-placed team last season and these guys weren't. I think [Phoenix is] better than their record and we better be ready for it."

Gagner, who will be looking to shoulder (at least part of) the load tonight at evens and on the power-play, is ready to go in what promises to be an exciting clash on Hockey Night in Canada.

"We've got to stick to our game," he said. "They're a pretty systematic team and they play the right way. We have to continue having our good habits and continue growing as a group and if we do that, we'll hopefully come out with a win."

-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
  FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 4

SWAGGER TIME

Phoenix, AZ - You don't have to look too far to see players' smiles these days. In securing another win one night ago in Los Angeles, the Oilers have once again risen to lead the NHL's Western Conference standings.

The Oilers' 3-0 shutout over the Kings was the team's sixth straight triumph, improving to 8-2-2 on the season and accomplishing a winning streak not matched by the orange and blue since March 26, 2002.

Nikolai Khabibulin continues to dominate with a 0.98 goals-against average and .963 save percentage, leading the NHL in both categories without having fallen in regulation time.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle's torrid pace was alleviated with the addition of some much-needed secondary scoring. Lennart Petrell and Anton Lander each registered points, Corey Potter scored and Ryan Smyth continues to up Oil Country's remembrance of past success.

It's been an unforgettable ride. Who are these guys?

"It's awesome," Jordan Eberle said at the team's hotel in Phoenix. "It's so much better coming to the rink when you're winning hockey games; the atmosphere is great. We haven't got too high and we haven't got too low.

"We've got a little swagger; and I think that's good, you bring it into your game."

Eberle played 17:30 last night in LA, was held pointless but posed a consistent scoring threat, both at even-strength and on the man-advantage. He was on the bench when Lennart Petrell struck, recording his first-career NHL goal during the second period; overloaded with emotion, Petrell's celebration carried to the bench's moment of seized momentum.

"When you see the excitement level in his eyes, it amps up your bench pretty well," he smiled. "It's great when you get scoring like that, and it really makes your team a threat when you get it in all positions.

"I thought we played an all-around good game," Eberle added. "We handled the puck well, I think we turned it over a little bit, but as the game went on, we played better and better. We got pucks to the net, found ways to put the puck in, and Khabibulin was tremendous."

The Bulin Wall stopped 19 shots to earn his second shutout of the 2011-12 campaign. In 490 minutes played, the 38-year-old netminder has continued to fleece opposition attempts with ease. But another area has also helped contribute to the orange and blue's success this season.

"There's a reason why we're winning a lot of hockey games," Eberle explained. "One is Khabibulin and the other is [Ladislav Smid and Tom Gilbert]."

Smid and Gilbert continue to be workhorses on the Oilers' blueline, averaging well over 20-minutes per game in ice-time. No. 5 has now blocked 45 shots, leading the NHL in this regard, while No. 77's strong breakout pass and revved up physical play has made the pairing a lethal duo.

"I don't think a shot has gotten by him yet," Eberle said of Smid. "He's blocking everything and [Gilbert] has been so sound. Every good team has a D pairing that takes over and plays against top lines; and they've been playing very well."

The Oilers' run of success has been tough to watch for one rearguard. 28-year-old Ryan Whitney (knee) is still recovering and has been forced to watch all but four of the team's games this season.

"Maybe a little surprised," he said about the winning streak. "I don't think we planned on winning six in a row this early, but we'll take it by all means. They're playing real well. You can tell they're feeling it."

"I think we have a system in place that guys have really bought into."

Whitney is scheduled to return to Edmonton in a couple days where a doctor will evaluate his condition; he hopes to gain clearance to resume skating and, once again, become a more close-knit component to the team's wins.

"It's coming along good," he said. "It feels much better than it did a week ago. It should be about 7-10 days of skating and then I can return.

"When you're losing you want to get in there and help. It's great that they're winning, but you miss being out there and being a part of the wins. I haven't really experienced that since I've been here, so I want to get back in the lineup as quick as I can, because it looks like a lot of fun.

"Now I want to get my spot back," he laughed.

Whitney was acquired in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks back on Mar. 3, 2010 in a deadline-day deal that sent smooth-skating blueliner Lubomir Visnovsky back the other way. Upon his arrival, Whitney was never shy to voice his opinion of the Oilers' losing locker room culture, arguing that it needed to be changed to help the club return as one of the league's top teams.

With an ‘A' stitched to his sweater, it appears as though it's happened.

"I think guys really believe in each other and really believe in the system the coaches gave us," Whitney said. "There's no one on their own page and nobody's trying to do too much. If everyone does the same thing, all of a sudden it works because it's a team coming together.

"It sounds pretty simple, but when guys are on their own page and doing their own thing, it never works out, and I think that's a little of what was happening before. It's a group that really gets along. Everyone really likes each other and hangs out a lot. It's a fun team to be on."

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

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