THE TEAM TODAY: Maintenance Day
Hemsky comments on mid-season struggle, Hall, Smid on recovery & more
MAINTENANCE DAYEdmonton, AB - There's something strange about Ales Hemsky's body language.
The 28-year-old has recorded three goals and 11 points in 19 games this season; but now, three pointless games and a -2 rating later, the nine-year veteran has the microscope pointed in his direction.
"He's sick and tired of losing," remarked Head Coach Tom Renney in his post-practice media scrum at Millennium Place Tuesday. "He's a good man and he's one of those guys who's been beaten up physically. He'd like to be a part of something that wins again, naturally, and he wants to play a role in that.
"I'd rather have that than anything else."
Following the Oilers' magical run to the Stanley Cup Final in the spring of 2006, Hemsky signed a six-year extension that expires at the end of the current campaign.
It's cost the Oilers $4.1 million on the cap, but 2011-12 has seen the talented winger earn a cool $5 million; the most he's ever been paid on an NHL deal.
On pace to notch 40 points, the Oilers have a choice to make in the coming months: begin contract talks and look to re-sign him to another extension, or begin calling the NHL's other general managers in search of a trade partner.
Only time will tell, but Hemsky's current position is bled with orange and blue.
"I'm not complaining," he said. "I feel pretty good, actually. I don't think I've been put in the situations I've been in before. It's a bit of a unique role for me, and I'm trying to be positive and help the team. I don't feel bad. It's a long season. Every opportunity I'll have, I'll do my best and help the team.
"You'll go through low points and high points; it's a long season and you have to deal with it."
"What's happened, obviously, is that we're a deeper team," Renney added. "That doesn't change Ales' status at all with us. His work habits haven't changed, his attitude toward teammates and playing hasn't changed. The bottom line is, when Taylor (Hall) is out, he's not able to play with the type of player he needs to have success.
"When Taylor comes back as we're hoping, I think Ales' game changes, too."
HALL-ELUJAH! … AND MORE MAINTENANCE
Having missed the past seven games with a dinged-up shoulder, Taylor Hall looks poised to return; the timing couldn't be better, too, with Hemsky struggling and with the hometown club amassing a disappointing 2-4-1 record in his absence.
He'll have one more practice tomorrow morning at Rexall Place before hopping on the plane, but his inclusion in Thursday's lineup (vs. Phoenix) is probable.
"There were a couple instances yesterday and today where I was really battling," Hall explained. "If the shoulder wasn't strong enough, it wouldn't have held up; it did. It feels strong, so I'm going to be feeling good [during the game].
"I'm excited to get back in the lineup," he added, smiling. "It's been a long time. Missing seven games has been like an eternity for me. I want to get back out there, help the team out as much as I can and get back to playing my game."
Ladislav Smid was also present at practice for the second straight day. Calgary's Olli Jokinen struck No. 5 across the grill midway through Saturday's second period, drawing blood (and pain) in a scary scene as Smid rolled in agony. Even so, he returned and played 17:12 in an abbreviated Battle of Alberta.
"I was more in shock when it happened because I've experienced it before," he said. "Fortunately I've already lost my upper-front teeth, so I didn't have to lose them all over again. My tooth was stuck in my lip, too, so that's why I was panicking a bit."
Smid, 25, is always eager to entertain. Today was no exception, as he looked back at a previous incident and shared a laugh with the attending media.
"It was the same thing when it happened last," he chuckled. "A baseball swing; on the ice, with a hockey stick, though. I'm sure it was an accident!
"But seriously, I'm happy I didn't have my nose broken or anything. I have a couple chipped teeth, but the dentist already attended to it. Other than a couple cuts, stitches and being uncomfortable, I'm okay."
Nikolai Khabibulin, who's posted a 10-6-3 record in 19 starts this season, accumulating a 1.95 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, was missing in action once again today. As such, Goaltending Coach Frederic Chabot took his place opposite Devan Dubnyk.
"[Khabibulin is] sore," Renney said. "He's treating his body. You can check hips, groins and shoulders. He's doing everything with (Head Athletic Therapist) T.D. (Forss) right now. We're using it as maintenance because it's a really good time for that. He's working out hard, too."
With Hall's return imminent, Renney also concocted new line combinations to help balance the Oilers' attack across three lines.
Hall will line up next to the captain and Ales Hemsky on the second line, while Sam Gagner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle will continue to patrol the top unit.
Corey Potter is also nearing a return; and while he isn't quite as close to Hall regarding a return date, it's possible No. 44 could be available for Saturday's contest vs. the San Jose Sharks.
Rekindling some early-season success, Potter was paired with Ryan Whitney, while another Michigan State University product, Jeff Petry, moved down to skate with Theo Peckham.
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THE ROAD AHEADEdmonton, 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.
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
FLAMES 3 - OILERS 0Second-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."
"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