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THE TEAM TODAY

THE TEAM TODAY: The Road Ahead

Tilted road schedule, Sutton on his suspension & more at Monday's practice

Monday, 12.12.2011 / 4:30 PM / The Team Today
By Ryan Dittrick  - edmontonoilers.com
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THE TEAM TODAY: The Road Ahead

  MONDAY, DECEMBER 12

THE ROAD AHEAD

Edmonton, AB - Following a 3-0 loss to the Flames Saturday night in Calgary, the Oilers returned home to hold a one-hour practice this morning at Rexall Place.

Having been given Sunday to rest up and relax, Head Coach Tom Renney pushed his squad in a demanding session, concluding practice with a heart-pumping, leg- and lung-burning skate around the circles as a gentle reminder of what was required to compete.

No one was particularly pleased with the outcome over the weekend. The Oilers' 20-man representation struggled to produce, ultimately succumbing to a shutout loss to a hated division rival; all the while dropping one point out of a post-season spot in the NHL's Western Conference.

"Those ones are a bit tough to assess," said Ryan Jones, who's tallied nine goals and 15 points through the team's 30 games this season. "There was some complacency on our bench. We got out-battled in the areas that we needed to, and in the areas where we needed to win hockey games; winning the battles, special teams – we needed our power-play to score a goal, and we simply didn't get pucks to the net.

"When we get pucks and bodies to the net, we'll get back to winning real quick."

The loss to the Flames began a (broken up) three-game road trip on a sour note. Prior to that, the Oilers established a 2-3-1 record on a six-game homestand, which didn't help muster an additional climb in the standings.

Now, with eight of the next 10 to be played on the road, the Oilers know they'll need to maintain an even keel as the season's newest challenge arrives.

"The consensus since I've been playing is that you want to go around .500 on the road and then take care of business at home," Jones said. "You're not going to win every game at home, but if you do well and play good hockey on the road, you're a post-season team.

"That's what we're looking to do with such a crazy stretch of road games coming up; we want to make sure we're making up for letting a couple games slip away on this last homestand.

"You have to," the 27-year-old added, regarding the Oilers' push to break the next stretch into smaller, more manageable segments. "With the way that we are in this dressing room, it's a game-by-game mentality. We can't look past anybody and I think that's the way it should be in the NHL.

"There are so many good teams in this league nowadays. You look past an opponent and to the next game; you're going to get beat. It doesn't matter who you're playing, your opponent is going to have an opportunity to beat you. It doesn't really matter who's 'better' or who's 'worse.'"

That will be put to the test once again in the coming week. The Oilers are set to make their second trip to Jobing.com Arena in Phoenix, where the 15-11-3 Coyotes will play host in the teams' second meeting.

That also means another three days before the Oilers can return to game action. Following a back-to-back set, the schedule's strange setup continues to bite.

"You get a little rest going into games like this, and then when you haven't had a lot of rest, at least you're playing and staying game-ready," Jones said. "When we have guys that have bumps and bruises, it's always good for them; and we need those guys in the lineup, getting a guy like Taylor Hall back. In this case, we're getting four days in between so some guys can rest up, come back and help us win."

Taylor Hall, indeed. No. 4 took part in practice today, donning a regular white sweater in place of the baby blue, non-contact variety. Renney said there's a "reasonable chance" that he'll be available for Thursday's matchup in the desert.

"I didn't have any problem with shooting or with contact or anything, so I'm hoping to get cleared to be in the lineup on Thursday," Hall explained in his post-practice media scrum.

SUTTON'S SUSPENSION

Prior to Saturday's game vs. Calgary, it was announced that Andy Sutton had been suspended eight games for his illegal check on Carolina's Alexei Ponikarovsky; combined with an earlier suspension he received when he cranked Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog in late-October, the 36-year-old is now slated to miss 13 games, coughing up over $250,000 in salary, too.

"I wasn't very happy about it," Sutton said of Brendan Shanahan's call.

"At a certain point we have to start keeping our heads up, too, and knowing who's on the ice. You can't be skating around with your head down and not expecting to get hit because everyone's going to get suspended. The guys are learning, but we don't have the balanced tilted just right yet."

-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
  SATURDAY, DECEMBER 10

FLAMES 3 - OILERS 0

GAME ESSENTIALS
 GAME DAY
 POST-GAME VIDEO
 POST-GAME AUDIO
Audio highlights will be available later tonight
 THREE STARS
1. Miikka Kiprusoff - CGY
2. Jay Bouwmeester - CGY
3. Jarome Iginla - CGY
 UPDATE
With the loss, the Oilers' record drops to 14-13-3 as the team also slips to 10th spot in the West.
 WHAT'S NEXT
The Oilers' three-game road trip continues on Thursday in Phoenix. Game time is 7:30 p.m. MT and it can be seen on Sportsnet Oilers.
Second-period goals by Tom Kostopoulos and Jarome Iginla propelled the home side to (what turned out to be) an insurmountable two-goal lead, as the Calgary Flames blanked the Edmonton Oilers 3-0 Saturday night at Scotiabank Saddledome.

Iginla added an empty-netter, while Devan Dubnyk posted 31 saves in the loss.

AT THE OILERS' HOTEL

Calgary, AB - "At our expense, [Calgary is] growing and getting better," said Jordan Eberle who, through 29 games this season, has notched 11 goals and 31 points as the NHL's seventh most productive scorer.

Following a well-deserved 4-1 win one night ago at Rexall Place against the Colorado Avalanche, another Northwest Division rival stands as the orange and blue's next assignment; Round 3 of the Battle of Alberta goes tonight, as the Oilers hope to break a season-long donut in the win column vs. Calgary.

"I watched them the other night and they played a pretty complete game," Eberle said of the Flames. "They're a divisional game, a four-point game. The standings are always close and it seems to be like that each year. You need wins like this to pull ahead of teams, so this is a big game.

"They're a team that has our number right now. We've got to change that."

The Flames have come out with wins in both meetings this season, with the last coming a week ago in Oil Country as the visitors skated to a 5-3 triumph. As No. 14 explains, Calgary's commitment to quelling the Oilers' potent power-play played an integral role; in that matchup, the home side squandered six separate chances.

"You're not going to score every time, but the biggest thing is that you don't want to lose momentum," he said. "We hadn't been doing that. We'd been getting entry pretty easy and setting up. I think the quality of our shots hadn't been the best and we weren't getting second opportunities."

In knowing it will be a critical component again tonight, Eberle stressed the importance of making good when the chances come.

"When you get on the road, your power-play is that much more important because you don't get as many 5-on-5 opportunities, and you have to bury them on the power-play. If we get the opportunity, we want to take it to them.

"We need this game."

Having lost 14 of the last 15 meetings with the Flames, the Oilers know there's some added incentive to tonight's sure-to-be intense matchup. With a 13-13-2 record, Calgary has ascended the NHL's Western Conference standings and are hot on the Oilers' heels.

"They're not happy with us, but neither are we with them, so we're going to do something about that tonight," Head Coach Tom Renney said as he addressed the media at the team's hotel. "With all due respect to the Flames, we have a tendency to beat ourselves when we play them. If we can eliminate that process, I think we've got a shot at beating them."

Eric Belanger, who's still a rookie by Battle of Alberta standards, agreed with his coach's assessment. It's not hard to get up for a game in which post-season positioning bears importance.

Not to mention the ever-evolving role of bragging rights and plain disdain. Everyone revels in that.

"It is fresh," No. 20 said, looking back at last week's loss to the Flames. "It's a big rivalry and a divisional game; those guys have been playing better lately, too.

"We have to make sure we want it more than they do."

LINEUP NOTES

"Let's wait," Renney laughed as he was prodded to reveal tonight's starting goalie. "Let's wait on that one."

Nikolai Khabibulin earned his 10th win of the season last night, matching his 2010-11 total in only 19 starts (it took him 47 to reach that mark last year). The 38-year-old veteran is expected to get the start, looking to improve on his 10-6-3 record, 1.95 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.

While most of the team caught up on sleep at the team's hotel, the Oilers did hold an optional morning skate. Magnus Paajarvi tagged along, skating with Taylor Hall, Corey Potter and Andy Sutton. It's expected that No. 91 will be the odd-man out, as Darcy Hordichuk will slot back in on the fourth line.

"I'm going to make a game-time decision on that," Renney explained. "Maggie (Magnus Paajarvi) skated and he'll also take the warm-up here. We'll see how it goes."

Looking to ignite the Oilers' physical game and round-out the team's four-line attack, Renney is eager to see how his group will respond against a physical, veteran-laden Flames squad in tonight's contest.

"I think so," he said, regarding his team's growth in matching a more experienced opponent. "That's what we're all about here. We can lean on people, we can create an advantage by using the size, strength and skill we have. As long as we do that and manage the puck accordingly, we'll give ourselves a chance to beat our nemesis here."

-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
  FRIDAY, DECEMBER 9

OILERS 4 - AVALANCHE 1

GAME ESSENTIALS
 GAME DAY
 POST-GAME VIDEO
 POST-GAME AUDIO
 THREE STARS
1. Sam Gagner - EDM
2. R. Nugent-Hopkins - EDM
 UPDATE
With the win, the Oilers' record improves to 14-12-2 as the orange and blue leap into 7th place in the West.
 WHAT'S NEXT
The Oilers begin a three-game road trip tomorrow night in Calgary. Game time is 8:00 p.m. MT and it can be seen on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada.
Sam Gagner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle combined to record seven points, while Nikolai Khabibulin was stellar, stopping 28 shots as the Edmonton Oilers cruised to a commanding 4-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche Friday night at Rexall Place.

AT THE MORNING SKATE

Edmonton, AB - 28 games in 2011-12, the Oilers have established a 3-4-3 record against the Northwest Division. With another opportunity to reach the .500 mark tonight, the orange and blue could also be back in a post-season spot.

Doing so will be a challenge, as the Oilers have won only once on the current six-game homestand, spotting a 1-3-1 record overall as the struggling Colorado Avalanche roll into Rexall Place.

In order to come out with the team's second win in six, the Oilers' sputtering veterans will be counted on to produce; look no further than Ryan Smyth, who's struggled of late, posting donuts in two consecutive games in which the home side has dropped 5-3 decisions.

"[Colorado] is playing well, they're playing hard," said No. 94. "We've got to be assertive; we've got to make sure we're ready for 60 minutes. That's one thing you can control on a daily basis is your effort; work ethic, and once you ply that to the game plan, you're going to get your results."

Smyth, 35, has notched 12 goals and 26 points in 28 games this season; a blistering pace, no doubt, so a small bump in the road was to be expected to come at some point.

Looking for a spark, however, Head Coach Tom Renney has assembled new line combinations in preparation for tonight's matchup. Smyth will line up alongside Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky who, combined, came up with some early-season success as a trio.

"In that sense, it's a wake-up call for everyone," Smyth said of the changes. "It's a matter of staying focused, whoever your linemates are that that particular time."

GAGNER'S ROLL

With the changes in mind, Sam Gagner has been promoted to the top line; he'll skate next to point-per-gamers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle as he hopes to continue his mid-season roll. The 22-year-old has recorded one goal and nine points in 21 games this season, but has registered seven in his past eight outings.

"Things aren't always going to go your way," he said, looking back on his earlier challenge. "You've got to continue to push, and by no means do I think this is the end point. I know I still have a lot to prove. I want to continue to bring that intensity every night and help contribute to a win.

"That's a huge part of it," he added, regarding his ever-evolving boost in self-assurance. "You hear about it a lot in sports. I think the one thing I never wanted to lose was that intensity and the will to get through things. That's the attitude we have to have throughout our entire lineup right now. Tonight will be a good starting point."

Upping the heat was a bout with Nashville's Matt Halischuk back on Nov. 22, when the Oilers captured a 6-2 win. That was the start of Gagner's eight-game run; leaving little doubt that it was a turning point in his abbreviated 21-game season. 

"I think that did it for me," he agreed. "I want to continue to play with that same passion; it's hard to do night-in and night-out in this league when you play so many games, but you've got to make sure you harness it and bring it every night. That was a big turning point for me.

"You've got to try and do anything to light that that spark."

Renney, who's been preaching passion since he arrived, couldn't agree more with Gagner's unrelenting drive to improve.

"I thought [Gagner] was spot-on before that," he explained. "He showed a great attitude, allowed himself to continue to be coached; bounced around the lineup a little bit to help us out in various locations as we put together the strongest lineups on the ice that we could.

"I think it can enlighten you, I think it can encourage you to impart your will, again, on your opponents. It wouldn't bother me to see other guys do the same if they feel they can be successful at it."

TEUBERT'S TIME

With Andy Sutton having been suspended by the NHL for a leaping hit on Carolina's Alexei Ponikarovsky in Saturday's tilt, Colten Teubert will get back into the lineup tonight vs. Colorado. The 21-year-old has missed the past four games as a healthy scratch and is understandably excited to get back in.

"I'm happy," he said. "Everybody's happy to be [in the NHL], but you've got to earn it. I'm working hard every day and trying to get better and improve; obviously when my chance comes, I'm going to be ready and that's now. "

No. 33 has recorded one assist in eight games this season, and will be looking to fill Sutton's exceptionally large skates during the veteran's untimely absence. As usual, he's driven to keep his game simple and not let the NHL's crackdown on headshots change his game.

"You've got to play the game the way you were born to play it," said Teubert, whose 6'4", 195-pound build will strike fear into oncoming attackers. "I've got to play to my strengths, and that's being physical, simple and that's what I'm going to do."

Nikolai Khabibulin (9-6-3, 2.00 goals-against average and .932 save percentage) will make his 19th start of the season.

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



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