THE TEAM TODAY: Montreal Calling
Oilers assemble for practice at the Bell Centre; Hemsky, Barker nearing return
MONTREAL CALLINGMontreal, QC - Following a day in which the Oilers practiced in Glendale, AZ and then embarked on a cross-(inter)national trip to Montreal, the team assembled for a one-hour practice at the vertigo-inducing Bell Centre.
(It's true. The multi-level arena seats 21,273; and the bowl is plain steep.)
Although line combinations remained the same, there were some notable surprises at this morning's session. Ales Hemsky, who was cleared for contact at yesterday's practice, continued to work back into drills, rotating in and out with several units to ease the load.
To conclude practice, Head Coach Tom Renney assembled a pseudo-slalom course in one end, where the dreaded drop-off exam would take place. With a grimace and wide-eyed stare, Hemsky stepped up to the plate to see if he'd pass.
"I think [I passed]," he said in the team's locker room. "I always pass; I don't have problems passing. It's pretty hard, but I'm not a bad skater."
The exam was a smaller, more condensed version of the coach's method back home. Still, it was a challenging run-through as No. 83 tackled several laps, which included tight-turns around the blue- and goal-lines.
"It's pretty hard," Hemsky explained. You've got to pass the tests [Renney] has. It's not easy, but it's part of the game. I think I'm ready, but it's up to the coaches.
"It's not in my hands anymore.
"It's more fun to watch than last year," he added about the Oilers' recent winning streak. "If the team is winning, the atmosphere in the room is way better. I want to be part of it and I want to play; that's why I'm here and that's why I play hockey."
Hemsky wasn't the only one to run Renney's marathon, mind you. Cam Barker, who's been out with a nagging shoulder since Oct. 30 (missing three games in the process), ditched his powder blue non-contact sweater and returned to a regular rotation in drills alongside Andy Sutton.
He, too, endured the bag-skate. And by all accounts, he's nearing a return as well.
"Yeah, I'm ready to go," Barker said. "I feel good. I've had my legs under me; it's not something I lost. It's a matter of feeling comfortable with my shoulder, shooting the puck, and I feel great right now.
"It's bound to happen in hockey. It's just something that's needed time and there's nothing wrong. It's something you've got to keep an eye on and keep progressing."
Renney said there's been no word on whether or not they'll play in tomorrow's sure-to-be intense matchup, but that he'll "contemplate" that decision.
"The results are very important to me," he said about his on-ice evaluation. They're good to go for full contact, but now it's about fitness. We'll work on that and get them ready to play."
ON THE HORIZON
Last season, Taylor Hall played 16:46 in the Oilers' only visit to Quebec. He was unable to record a point that night, but he did become a bitter rival. In a town where Sidney Crosby and other superstars are booed on a consistent basis, Hall's name was added to the list at the Bell Centre.
Just minutes into the game, No. 4 hurried in to pressure the Canadiens' D, crushing them without hesitation into the end-boards. The boo-birds followed, but that didn't put the slightest hiccup in Hall's aggressive game.
The Bell Centre is a unique place to play. It's also only a six-hour drive from Kingston, ON, where Hall lives in the summer. Marked on the calendar long ago, the 19-year-old winger will have family and friends in attendance tomorrow night.
"Everyone loves coming here," Hall said. "The atmosphere in this building is electric. We'll have fun, it's going to be a great game to play in and we know Montreal is coming along hot right now, so it should be a good one. I'm pretty excited."
"It's a hockey mecca," Renney added. "It's always good to come to Montreal and play in a place where hockey means so much. We've all been able to watch the history of this franchise and now some of us get a chance to participate.
"It's really exciting for all of our guys, and for us."
Itching to be a part of tomorrow's event, Hemsky, who's buddies with Montreal's leading-scorer Tomas Plekanec (4-8-12 in 13 games), is equally as eager to get back in to experience the Bell Centre's ruckus and downright emotional crowd.
"It's a great place to play," he said. "They've got great fans and it's always fun to be part of these games."
Barker, who's in a similar boat, agreed.
"It's exciting. It's a great building to play in. It's fun and the fans are crazy here. It's going to be fast game because they're a fast team. That's something we can bring to the table ourselves."
THIS & THAT
Darcy Hordichuk arrived in Montreal today and took part in the team's practice. He was donning the non-contact powder blue sweater, but was a regular participant in all drills.
Tom Gilbert was struck by an errant puck during practice and was forced to leave, but returned and will require stitches in his right ear lobe.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
EASTWARD BOUNDFollowing 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."
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
COYOTES 4 - OILERS 2The 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 SKATEIn 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.
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