THE TEAM TODAY: Trying Times
Oilers hold optional practice/off-ice workout, comment on injuries & scoring troubles
TRYING TIMESEdmonton, AB - Following a 3-2 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild one night ago, the Oilers returned to the rink bright and early Thursday morning, opting to work up a sweat in the team's gym at Rexall Place.
THE HOT TOPIC
Sam Gagner notched a shootout marker in yesterday's loss, but is still without a goal in regulation time this season, which has now extended to an 18-game drought.
In a game where the Oilers had established a 2-0 lead and were in need of a third to capture some insurance, the orange and blue's need for a legitimate secondary scoring threat became especially obvious.
Gagner isn't the only one, mind you. Magnus Paajarvi and Eric Belanger, who have played a combined 46 games this season and are still sporting a goose-egg; 73 shots have been directed on goal, but nothing has gone in.
"There was a stretch there where I wasn't playing my best hockey, and I knew that," Gagner explained. "I wanted to get back to the way I knew I could play. I'm moving my feet more, I have the puck on my stick more and I'm making plays. I have to be happy with that.
"There has to be a level of urgency to produce."
Not too much, Gagner cautions. While he doesn't want to relent on his prided-upon two-way game, No. 89 knows that there's a balance derived from scoring production.
"The more you have the puck in the 'O' zone, the harder it is for [the opponent] to score," he said. "That's been my goal the last little while here. Making sure I'm making the right plays and making the smart plays, and playing in their end as much as possible. Last night especially, our line created a lot."
The Oilers' captain agreed and commented further on Gagner's assessment. The 94-10-89 connection had a solid outing 14 hours ago; a positive sign, no doubt.
"You can only do so much," Shawn Horcoff said, regarding a hands-on approach to guiding Gagner's struggles. "I thought Sam played great last night. It's only a matter of time for him. Our line had a ton of chances, and it's a little unfortunate in the third that we were buzzing a little bit and couldn't get one.
"They need to realize that they're not going to turn their season around in one night," he added. "You're not to score six goals and all of a sudden be back on pace for 20. They're all good players, and once you get that one goal, more seem to fall and things then become easier."
THE BATTERED & BRUISED
Although the bulk of the team elected to work out, a select number did skate on the pristine early-morning sheet at the rink. Among those was Corey Potter, who's been out since Nov. 18 with an ankle problem, causing him to miss the past seven games.
"It seems like it's going pretty good," he said of his recovery process. "I'm right on track right now. It's been two weeks and the doctors were saying about four (weeks), so I think I still have some time to heal up, get better and get back into shape."
Much like Ryan Whitney's issue earlier in the season, Potter acknowledged that he'll have to work through some pain before he can declare himself fit to play; prohibitive pain, in fact, which has limited his availability to skate to this point.
"I've talked with the guys (doctors and teammates) and they say that there's a pain threshold that you've got to get through," he explained. "It's something I've got to deal with. I'd like it to be 100-percent. It's kind of a reoccurring thing that happens throughout the season [if you don't heal properly].
"You've got to battle back," he added. "It's bad timing for sure. It's unfortunate that it had to happen at that time. It's no fun watching and you'd rather be helping and going through the wars with them."
Also on the ice today was Taylor Hall, who donned full gear in a 30-minute twirl. No. 4 handled, shot and passed the puck with ease, showing no unusual signs as his 2-4 week recovery process gets underway.
It could, perhaps, be safe to assume that he's ahead of schedule.
"That's probably for the doctors to decide," he said. "There's no pain. It's easy to feel good in a setting like that where you're not really being tested with quick movements. You're on your own, doing your own thing; the biggest test will be when I get some contact in. You can't really tell until you're in the game."
"I'm trying to heal as best I can and work as hard as I can to get back as soon as I can," Hall added. "I don't want to come back too fast; I don't want to rush it by any means."
Ben Eager also participated in this morning's skate, but an update on his condition (back) was not made available. He was, however, able to skate for nearly an hour at a brisk pace.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
WILD 3 - OILERS 2 (SO)65 minutes solved nothing, as the Oilers and Wild required a six-round shootout to determine a winner. Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner and Shawn Horcoff each scored in the skills competition, but the home side was bested as Minnesota's Kyle Brodziak scored the shootout-winner, edging the Oilers 3-2 Wednesday night at Rexall Place.
AT THE MORNING SKATE
Edmonton, AB - Following a win in the Land of 10,000 Lakes one week ago, the Oilers roll into tonight's contest vs. the Minnesota Wild with an extra step, looking to get back on track as the six-game homestand rolls along.
The Oilers opted to hold an optional morning skate, as the upcoming schedule sees the orange and blue play three games in the next four nights; all against Western Conference foes, in which the Oilers have posted an 8-8-2 record against this season.
The schedule also sees the Oilers and Wild clash for a fourth time, making 2011-12's Northwest Division start especially vital.
"I think it works both ways for both teams," said Jordan Eberle, who's notched 24 points in 24 games this season. "You get to see them a couple times, so I think we can pick up on their tendencies, so we know what to expect, especially since we're playing them again in such a short period.
"Regarding tonight, we're going to be basing our performance on our own game plan; when we do that, we have success."
Eberle was an integral component to Friday's 5-2 triumph, posting a pair of assists and a +1 rating in 17:21. The 21-year-old insists that tonight's game plan will have to mirror last week's outing, which was highlighted by a patient pace to help counter the Wild's repressive style.
"That's actually the case with a lot of teams, but the Wild do it best, no question about it," he said about Minnesota's penchant to pounce on errors. "You've got to be patient with these guys, because they'll sit back and wait for you to make a mistake. They're a veteran team, and the same thing could be said for Nashville the other night, so we should know what to expect this time.
"If we get down by one, we can't start thinking outside the box."
Having tangled with the Wild three times already, however, Eberle also agreed that there were lessons to be learned; because, as the Oilers are well aware, a .500 (1-1-1) record won't cut it against a division rival.
"Absolutely," he said. "At the same time, we've got to make sure we're managing the puck well. We've given the puck away at inopportune times this season, which I think has killed us a couple times in our losses. We need to make sure we learn from those mistakes, especially against a team like this."
Linemate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who's on an equally as impressive point-per-game tear, agreed with Eberle's assessment.
"They come at you hard," he explained. "You've always got to be prepared for them. It's never a bad thing to put the puck on net, too. We all know that, and that's what you're going to see tonight."
Ryan O'Marra was recalled from the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons yesterday. While the 24-year-old, 24-game NHL veteran has recorded one goal and six points in his big-league career, and has yet to arrive in Edmonton.
He will, however, be slotted into the lineup as Anton Lander will come out with a hand issue.
"Very well," Head Coach Tom Renney said, regarding O'Marra's play down in OKC. "We talk to our minor league guys all the time, and you go in with a point of view as a coach from a long distance, and then you hear what they've got to say; they've said nothing but good things about O'Marra."
Andy Sutton, who missed six games with a pulled groin, will also come back into the lineup tonight.
The added toughness will be a welcomed addition, as the Oilers will be contending with Minnesota's Brad Staubitz once more. The 27-year-old engaged with Darcy Hordichuk in last week's game, succumbing to eight minutes in penalties in the process.
Theo Peckham, another domino in the Oilers' tough plans, is ready to go if need be but isn't expecting much to go down.
"Usually when you go into these games expecting a riot, there turns out to be nothing," he laughed. "I'd imagine they'll be coming pretty hard, they're a physical team and we'll be ready for that.
"If push comes to shove and that other side of the game needs to be taken care of, we've got the guys in here to do it," Peckham added.
Nikolai Khabibulin (9-5-2, 1.88 goals-against average and .936 save percentage) makes his 17th start of the season tonight.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
THE CAPTAIN'S LEADEdmonton, AB - Following a disappointing 2-1 loss to the Nashville Predators one night ago, the Oilers returned to the ice for a spirited one-hour practice at Rexall Place.
While the Oilers have given up leads (2-1 in Colorado and 1-0 vs. Nashville) en route to two straight losses, Head Coach Tom Renney wasn't keen on putting the boots to his squad in this morning's session; it was another learning experience in which the orange and blue will recover and rebound from.
Although the Oilers dropped to a 12-10-2 record in the process, encouraging signs continued to shine amid disappointing scores. The Oilers' captain, Shawn Horcoff, played 22:52, recorded four shots on goal and lit it up in the dot, posting a 61-percent success rate to lead his team.
No. 10 has endured tough times in recent seasons, playing in only 47 games in 2010-11 as a pair of injuries limited his availability and production on the scoresheet; all told, he registered nine goals and 27 points last year.
Healthy and ever-determined, Horcoff has rebounded in 2011-12. In 24 games, he's notched seven goals and 16 points, along with a solid -2 rating in an incredible 20:20 average TOI per game.
"I feel better, I feel great," the captain said, smiling, when asked about his rebound season. "Last year was pretty good, too, but I ran into a couple tough injuries that kept me out of the lineup; it was pretty frustrating, as you can imagine.
"This season, I've got lots of energy, my legs feel good and I feel as though I'm creating a lot for this team right now, which is most important."
Not only has he reestablished his name as one of the team's most dangerous two-way centres, but he's done so in an environment where leadership reigns supreme. The Oilers' raw skill as garnered great returns to this point, but has needed a strong hand to protect tough assignments against the league's most threatening counter-attacks.
As such, the 33-year-old veteran is counted upon to lead, produce and guide the youngsters through thick and thin, both in the locker room and on the ice.
"Yeah," said an agreeable Renney, who's also seen a turnaround in No. 10's game. "I think what Horc's done is really taken the responsibility as captain of this team to lead in lots of ways. He always has such a great attitude. Compliance is the wrong word, but he really buys into coaching and systems and really appreciates the effort that other people put into becoming a winner.
"He's always worked extremely hard, but what I like about what's happening now, and I think the young guys have helped do that, is they've added some vigor."
Playing through pain is one thing, but the mental aspect of dealing with multiple (and repeated) injuries puts a ‘strain' on a player's attitude, even when his body says otherwise. Horcoff was forced to deal with that when, in 2007-08 during an all-star season in which he scored 21 goals and 50 points, a separated shoulder ended his campaign 53 games in.
"I came back from a quad contusion last season and that stuck with me for a good month," he recalled, noting the resemblance to the challenge he went head-to-head with three seasons ago. "Even though you're playing, you don't have the same pop because you've got this blood thing; a blood clot in your muscle, there, that's not allowing you to play as well you could be.
"Obviously dealing with the ankle break was tough there, too, and my season ended. It was tough last year, but it gave me a good opportunity to come back, have a good summer and really re-focus on training so I could come into the season in as best shape as I could, both mentally and physically."
WILD ONE AHEAD
For the second time in a week, the Oilers and Wild are set to do battle tomorrow night. This time, the site will be back at Rexall Place, where the home side dropped an Oct. 20 meeting 2-1 in a shootout.
"They're playing good hockey," Horcoff explained. "They're a team that's really built around good defence and we're a team that, when we're playing that way, are successful at it, too. Our biggest problem is that we get away from that a little bit and we beat ourselves as we get away from our game plan.
"Tomorrow we'll have a renewed focus. We had a good practice today, so we're going to be ready."
Minnesota has long been known as a team that's dedicated to sitting back and letting the play come to them; not forcing the issue, in order to buy time and pounce on their opponents' errors to create a strong counter-attack and, ultimately, win the game.
"You bet," the captain agreed. "And it is frustrating, but you've got to be patient. Sometimes that bodes well for us, when we're playing that style and getting pucks deep and praying on teams' turnovers, that's when we're at our best. It's going to be a good test for us tomorrow night."
Renney agreed, adding that there could be some extra motivation heading into tomorrow's clash. The Oilers led or were placed second in the NHL's Northwest Division for quite some time, but dropped to third and out of a post-season spot with yesterday's loss to Nashville.
"We don't want to relinquish any more than we already have with whatever status or respect we may have gained to this point," he said. "We really have to stay the course here and stay very, very disciplined. We've got to play the game on our toes, not on our heels.
"We should have higher expectations of ourselves," Renney added. "It bugged me this morning when I looked [at the standings] and saw 11th.
"It kind of pissed me off."
IN & OUT
Andy Sutton skated once again this morning and has been cleared to get back into the lineup. The 36-year-old has missed six games due to groin pull.
"I think I'm close," he said. "I did Tom (Renney)'s test today and I did well, so we shall see."
"We'll see how he's making out in the morning, and we'll decide on that then," added Renney.
Anton Lander ("maintenance day," described by Renney) did not skate today; nor did Ben Eager, who continues to deal with a nagging back issue.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick