THE TEAM TODAY: The Cavalry
Khabibulin, Hall and Potter all appear healthy, ready to go Thursday in Phoenix
THE CAVALRYEdmonton, AB - With a key road trip coming up against the Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks -- the two teams directly above the Oilers in the standings -- the Edmonton Oilers are getting some help in a big way from sick bay.
Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who missed the last two days of practice to try and recover from some nagging injuries, plus Taylor Hall and Corey Potter, are all expected to be back in the lineup in Phoenix tomorrow night.
"It was good. We had a few days without games so I think it was good to get a few days off," said Khabibulin, noting that his absence from the ice Monday and Tuesday wasn't due to anything serious.
"Just basically get some rest, everything back in order and start over," he continued. "It was a couple of good days of working out and checking everything out then back to work."
It was also back to work for Taylor Hall, who looks to be ready to make his return after passing Renney's test this morning.
"The season's long, we still have a long haul ahead of us and I'm glad to be back as soon as I could," Hall said. "It sucks missing games, especially when the team's not doing well. You just want to be back and help but I'm glad I took the extra few days to really get it better and I feel great now."
Another player who passed the on-ice test is Corey Potter, who skated with Theo Peckham and said he was ready to go.
"I was cleared by the doctors, did the test today. Everything checked out well so I'm ready to play tomorrow," Potter said, adding that it will ultimately be a coaches decision on whether he gets back in the lineup.
Coach Renney stated that it will depend how much ice time Potter gets, particularly on the power play. Before the injury, Potter was on the number one unit.
"We'll be prudent here and we'll keep the expectations where they belong and hopefully he can help us sooner rather than later," Renney remarked. "He's done such a good job and he's made the best of this opportunity. We owe him that much to be fair about his integration back into the lineup."
The Oilers sit with 31 points, in 10th place in the Western Conference. Phoenix and San Jose both have 33 points and sit in ninth and eighth, respectively. It's not too difficult to see the importance of this two-game trip to Arizona and California.
"It's obviously an opportunity to catch up to some teams that are in front of us and close the gap between us and the playoffs," noted Ryan Jones. "That's our goal in here right now and we have to win these games if we want to achieve that goal."
The team looks to be going with Hall, Hemsky, Horcoff and Gagner, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle for the top two lines. That means Jones will be reunited with Ryan Smyth, who he had some success with earlier in the season. Eric Belanger will play down the middle between the two.
"Continue to battle low," Jones said about playing with Smyth. "Smytty is a junkyard dog type of guy and he needs to get the puck to the net so we need to both get there and allow (Belanger) to use his hands, make passes and use his shot so we can score goals as a line and create offence."
WORLD JUNIOR MEMORIES
On the day in which Team Canada selected its roster for the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championships, Taylor Hall reflected back to the time he got cut.
"You're up all night, you're thinking about if you're going to make the team or not. I've got a funny story, my first year I was rooming with Matt Duchene and he ended up getting a call at about 5:30 in the morning. About half an hour passed and I was thinking 'okay, I made the team because I didn't get a call'," Hall said. "Sure enough, I got the call and I had to go see Pat (Quinn) and I got cut but I got to play in the World Juniors the next year. It was a lot of fun and I have a lot of great memories.
"Getting cut made me a lot stronger."
As a former World Junior coach for Team Canada, Tom Renney also did some reflecting, noting that both of the Oilers' top overall selections -- Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins -- found themselves on the outside looking in at the tournament.
"I think that you want to put the very best team on the ice as you possibly can," said Renney. "On behalf of those players who get released, it serves a great motivation normally. I don't think anyone should look at it as fatal, it should be looked at as a real springboard to continue to grow their career through an experience that allows them to do that if they take it properly."
-- Marc Ciampa, edmontonoilers.com
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