THE TEAM TODAY: Making Progress
Oilers look ahead to Minnesota & talk about their improved play the last couple games
MAKING PROGRESSEdmonton, AB - After a second consecutive defeat in a game where the Oilers deserved a better fate, the team stepped onto the ice at Rexall Place for a brief 30 minute practice two days before a big Northwest Division clash against the Minnesota Wild.
Last night, the Oilers did all the little things right and battled stride-for-stride with the Detroit Red Wings but just came out on the losing end thanks to a late third-period goal by Detroit's Drew Miller.
However, the mood of the team wasn't necessarily one of hopelessness as the club seemed upbeat that they were heading in the right direction.
"We haven't got the results that we've wanted but we've been doing some good things that can make us a successful team. I think if we continue to play that way I think we can start to win some of these games that are so tight," said blueliner Corey Potter.
Head coach Tom Renney went more in-depth into the conversation.
"Call it whatever you want, if it's a slump, or whatever. One thing that we can't lose sight of is the fact that we're working. In all honesty, there's four games this year that I flat out did not like at all. Four games that were dogs for whatever reason.
"Other than that, I think we've worked hard in every other game. A break here, a bounce there and maybe it's a different outcome. And we did get some good results from that. That hasn't been lost on our veteran players. They've done everything they can to lead, even when they're not producing and that's important, even under the circumstances."
Renney was quick to point out that the team isn't looking for any 'moral victories' at this stage in the season.
"If you lose, you lose it's that simple. That's the ultimate thing we look for at the end of the night. Bottom line is, the last couple of games we've played better."
The team had back-to-back 3-2 losses -- in San Jose and versus Detroit. Against most teams in the League, those would be wins and that's what Renney is ensuring he gets through to his crew.
"I think back to the game against Carolina where we were just awful. Then we played better against Colorado. So we're kind of in fits and starts right now but at least this is something to look at as being consistent in these last couple of games," he said. "Hopefully that's the beginning of winning again, quite honestly. Oftentimes as has been said, you win games you should lose before you go on that little streak then you lose games you should win before you go on that streak. We're hoping the pendulum is going to swing the other way but you don't just snap your fingers and have that happen. It's everybody in, all the time. We came as close to doing that last night as we have in quite some time, start to finish in every aspect of the game."
NEXT TEST: MINNESOTA
The Oilers now open a three-game set against teams within the Northwest Division. They play Minnesota on Thursday, Vancouver next Monday on Boxing Day then another date with the Wild in Saint Paul the following Thursday.
Darcy Hordichuk hopes that the team's recent improved play translates against a team they've traditionally struggled against.
"No doubt about it. We've definitely been playing a little bit better the last couple of games and this is a team that's been struggling with a little bit of injuries. Hopefully when they come up here they'll be a little banged up still and that'll be the start of a new direction here," Hordichuk said.
Though he did not know if he would be dressing for the game, Hordichuk added he hopes he will be able to play and add a physical element.
"I'm sure it'll be a little bit more physical of a game where we can get in on the fourth line and get some checks, maybe some energy. Hopefully I can help the team out."
Corey Potter added that winning the last game before Christmas would be a psychological boost as well.
"It would definitely be nice to get a win before Christmas and go into the holidays with a happy smile on our face," Potter began. "I think it's definitely important for the team morale to get a win right now for sure."
Sam Gagner, Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Whitney all did not skate today.
For Horcoff and Whitney it seemed like more of a maintenance day, but Gagner did appear to go down with an injury on several occasions last night -- though he did not miss much playing time.
Coach Renney did confirm that Gagner's situation may be a little bit more serious. Renney called Gagner questionable on Thursday with a bit of neck whiplash.
-- Marc Ciampa, edmontonoilers.com
RED WINGS 3 - OILERS 2The Oilers stayed step-for-step with the Red Wings, pushing the veteran squad late into the game locked in a 2-2 score, but Detroit's Drew Miller tallied late to propel the visitors to a 3-2 win over the home side Monday night at Rexall Place.
AT THE MORNING SKATE
Edmonton, AB - "[Detroit has] a veteran lineup that does a lot of good things," Head Coach Tom Renney said. "They make you play poorly or really well, so we're obviously hoping for the latter.
"It's a great challenge for us, we're looking forward to it."
The Oilers come into tonight's game having lost three straight, all on the road, as the club returns home to Rexall Place sporting a below .500 record and a 12th place standing in the NHL's Western Conference.
The orange and blue's latest outing saw them come closer, dropping a 3-2 decision to a perennial powerhouse in the San Jose Sharks; but the assignments don't get any easier, as the Red Wings' 20-10-1 record presents another daunting opponent ahead on the Oilers' quick two-game homestand.
"I think we played better last game," said Sam Gagner who, on a personal note, has been producing much more as well, scoring three goals and 12 points in 25 games this season. "We were a little loose and making plays, and I think that's important for us.
"We've got a young team and we need to stay focused on being solid defensively and not turning the puck over, but at the same time, we've got to play loose and enjoy ourselves out there, and make plays with each other. I thought we did that last game; and while we didn't get rewarded with a win, sometimes you lose one you shouldn't prior to going on a big winning streak.
"Tonight's a big night for us and we're going to turn things around."
As disappointing as Saturday's result was, it was made even worse, as the Oilers held a second-period lead when Ryan Jones' shorthanded marker put the visitors up 2-1. The Sharks tied it up, but took the lead when Theo Peckham's third-period penalty allowed the home side to cash with the man-advantage.
"It's crucial to stay out of the box, especially in important times in the game," Gagner explained. "For the most part, our special teams have been quite good this season. We were putting so much emphasis on making [the opponent] work. 5-on-5, we've got to make sure we're playing solid, moving our feet and not taking those penalties that will cost us games.
"Detroit has a lethal power-play; even when they're not scoring, they're creating chances and adding momentum. We can't let them do that tonight."
Veteran rearguard Ryan Whitney has been back in the lineup for 11 straight, but isn't 100-percent. The 28-year-old admitted that his struggling start to the season could be due to some pain he's been forced to deal with as the 2011-12 campaign rolls along.
"It's not really looking at points," he said, pinpointing his slow start. "It's about feeling better about my whole game. It's physical and mental, but it's physical when you take a stride and feel pain. You've got to be mentally strong to get through those things, because a lot of guys are playing in pain.
"It's tough to be comfortable when you're in pain, so there's a thought process you've got to have in getting by that."
"I hope he's there," Renney added. "I'm not going to sit here and critique a guy in front of the media, to be honest, it's not my style. We need Ryan to play well. We need all our players to play well."
Whitney agreed with his coach's sentiment. Averaging 18:38 per game, down from last season in which he patrolled the ice in 25-plus, and having recorded only two assists on the season, the Oilers' No. 1 D man knows he needs to be better; but it's a comment not lost on the club's desire to climb the standings, as each person in the locker room needs to step up.
"We need to be better. We need to be better as a team."
Nikolai Khabibulin returned to the pipes in Saturday's game, stopping 34 shots as he notched the loss. He'll get back in tonight looking for redemption, as the Oilers need a win to keep pace with the conference's post-season dwellers.
"We have to approach every game as its own entity," Gagner said. "They're tough games, but for now we've got Detroit. It's going to be a tough test for us, but we thought we played pretty well last game; and assuming we continue to play that way, have intensity and make plays like we did, we're going to win more games than we lose.
"It's important for us to have a good start and establish the tone right away."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
SHARKS 3 - OILERS 2Ryan Jones scored a shorthanded goal in the second period to put the Oilers up, but the Sharks replied with two unanswered, including a third-period tally by Patrick Marleau to propel the home side to a 3-2 win Saturday night at HP Pavilion.
AT THE MORNING SKATE
San Jose, CA - In needing a win to close out a three-game road set on a high note (and with some points), the Oilers know they're in tough tonight. The San Jose Sharks are struggling, posting a 3-5-2 record in the team's last 10, but are a sleeping giant with skill up and down a veteran-laden lineup.
With Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Ryan Clowe and others patrolling the Sharks' top units, it's a big-body group eager to meet the Oilers' talented young stars.
"We've faced other guys like that earlier this season," said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who's yet to go up against the Sharks in his 31-game NHL career. "(Mikko) Koivu and (Dany) Heatley are the same way; but it's going to be another good challenge for me and the team tonight.
"I don't really think about it too much," he added, referencing the obvious size discrepancy between he in his opponents. "It's a new opportunity for me to play against these guys, so it's really cool to be able to watch them; but you've got to approach it like any other game against any other opponent."
That's where the orange and blue will need to be better. In recent games, slow starts have been crippling, limiting the Oilers' chances while the opponent pots a couple, sealing a win in the game's early or mid-stretch moments.
"The start will be important," agreed Head Coach Tom Renney. "We can't let [San Jose] feel good about a great start, so we have to make sure that we're right there with them. Special teams are interesting here, too. I think we've taken 50-percent more penalties than they have, so we've got to stay out of the box.
"This is a team that will capitalize on your mistakes, so we need to make sure we play as error-free as we possibly can," he added. "I think the other thing we have to do, speaking of 'free,' is to free our minds up to go play. I think when you're struggling a little bit, you almost over-think the game instead of going out and participating."
While the Oilers have amassed a record no better in the team's last 10 contests, ample practice time and matchups against the league's top-end opponents ought to help develop a strong mindset in the locker room. That's challenging, too, as the Oilers sit in 12th place in the NHL's Western Conference standings with 31 points, but it's an integral component all the same.
"You do have to start with good intentions," Renney explained. "Our guys have that, no question about it. We give them a program to allow them to have success with minimal thought, and I think they're doing too much of that (thinking)."
"We've got to get back to playing our game," added Ryan Jones, who's been held without a goal since his hat trick on Dec. 2 vs. Columbus. "We've gotten away from our identity as a team; a hard-working team that creates chances off of turnovers. I think we've tried to play a little more run-and-gun than we would like to, and the results show that.
"We know what [San Jose] can be. I think teams look at us the same way and they're not going to underestimate us. We know they've got the players and the capability to win games, so we're going to have to play our best and play within our means to come out with a win."
There had been some questions about Nikolai Khabibulin's health over the past week, but those appear to have been put to rest. The 38-year-old veteran had missed consecutive practices back in Edmonton, described as "maintenance days," and Devan Dubnyk even made a surprise start in Phoenix.
Khabibulin has been back practicing on the Oilers' current trip and looks to be ready now; he'll get the start in goal this evening as he looks to surpass his entire win total from last season, in which he patrolled the pipes in 47 games.
That personal 14-game losing skid he endured in 2010-11 seems like so long ago.
"As you get older, it takes a little more time to recover," Khabibulin said at Saturday's morning skate. "I get a little more tired than I did 15 years ago, so that's why I pay close attention to these things."
"He's playing," Renney said. "He feels good, he's had a couple real good practices, he's well-rested, so hopefully he can get the job done for us done tonight. Maybe we can lessen the workload that Dubey (Devan Dubnyk) has had to deal with, too."
Having given up a combined 76 shots in losses to the Flames (3-0) and Coyotes (4-2) in the team's road trip to this point, that note has become especially vital. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple message relayed by the Oilers' bench boss:
"We need to get down to good, sound, fundamental hockey, but with the requisite energy it takes to win."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick