THE TEAM TODAY: PK Prowess
Amid a four-game losing skid, Ryan Jones comments on the Oilers' hot penalty kill
P.K. PROWESSEdmonton, AB - When the Oilers plucked Ryan Jones off waivers on Mar. 3, 2010, it was seen as a depth move. It was at the time. Now, 22 months later, he's blossomed into an even greater cog in the Oilers' ever-evolving wheel.
The 27-year-old had a breakout campaign last season, scoring a career-high 18 goals and 25 points in 81 games. He appears poised to set another milestone with a torrid mid-season pace in 2011-12 as well. Having produced 11 goals, setting a 40-point pace through 33 games, Jones' mindset remains the same.
"I don't think he takes any night that he's in the league for granted," said Head Coach Tom Renney at Wednesday's post-practice presser. "His game has gone from being an in-and-out guy, a role player, to something more. He embraces that, loves that and doesn't want to relinquish that at any point in time."
Goal-scorer or not, Jones' greatest importance to the Oilers is his strength on the PK. When the orange and blue face a 4-on-5 disadvantage, No. 28's name is called and is counted upon to keep the opponents at bay. It's a challenging assignment, no doubt, but one he embraces all the same.
It's helped the Oilers ascend the NHL's rankings to 12th-best with an 83.4-percent success rate; vaulting from last season's 14.5-percent, 27th-ranked penalty-kill. Although the Oilers are mired in a four-game winless skid, their work when down a man continues to mark a high note.
"We're aiming to apply a lot more pressure in the neutral zone and force [our opponents] to make plays in their own end," Jones explained. "Our goal is to pressure them down-ice, making them eat up time in their own end instead of ours, and it's been working well.
"It's all about counter-attacking," he added. "Last year we let teams enter, and we tried to force them once they'd already accessed our zone; but this year we're breaking up passes in the neutral zone, which has done wonders."
Averaging 2:38 shorthanded minutes per game, Jones has been vital to the team's success, but was quick to point out that the Oilers' change in philosophy, in addition to a brave four-man unit, has been the group's greatest improvement.
"The group of guys we've got going are showing a lot of character and willingness to block shots," he said, referencing the Oilers' eighth-ranked slot in blocked shots with 495 on the season. (Ladislav Smid leads the Oilers with 81, which is also ranks eighth in the NHL.) "The biggest part is goaltending, too, and both [Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk] have been stellar. It really is a matter of us, as a group, working harder and smarter this season.
"Sure, the system has changed a little," Jones added, "but when it comes to the character and the things that need to be done on the ice, it's about the group we have out there. The coaches help break down individual plays and show us what we need to do better against certain teams that attack in certain ways, and that allows us to be better prepared to go against them as well.
"It's a collective process."
And at the very least, it's giving the Oilers a chance in these recent one-goal (dropped) decisions.
It's that neutral-zone pressure that has allowed the Oilers to become such a dangerous shorthanded club. In total, they've scored three down-a-man tallies, including Jones' pair to lead the squad; both were scored under similar circumstances, too, as No. 28 stepped up to force the opponent.
"It's the role the coaches gave me and both times I happened to be in the right spot," he said. "I was lucky enough to step up on one; and on the other, I saw the guy bobble the puck, so I thought it was a good time to attack. When you can pick off a pass or disturb a guy in the neutral zone, it's hard for the opponent to stop, turn around and catch up when we're all going the other way."
"[Jones is] a very good communicator and he reads the ice well," Renney added. "He continues to work hard and do the things that we ask of him. He's all about the second and third effort. One-off players don't last too long in this league, and if they do, they usually play for eight or 10 different teams."
It wasn't of the shorthanded variety, but Jones added to his total with another goal in Monday's clash with the Red Wings. Not surprisingly, it came on a breakaway when Sam Gagner pitched a well-placed chip pass across the opponent's line, allowing Jones to slide in on goal and beat the netminder with a simple shot through the wickets.
"Just carry speed," said Jones, describing his repertoire. "In college, I had so many breakaways; it was obnoxious, I probably had 20-25 a year and maybe scored on three or four. What I noticed looking back is when I had a little space between me and the guy chasing, I tended to slow down, which allowed the goalie to attack a little more.
"I don't do that anymore. It's full-speed ahead and when I do that, it forces the goalie to back up. That gives me more space and more net to shoot at."
Sam Gagner missed yesterday's practice with a sore neck/back, but returned to the ice today and participated in all the contact drills, showing no distress.
"It's good," he said. "I got hit last game and was put in a weird position. It was a good day (Monday) to let it heal up, and it feels better today."
Ales Hemsky missed practice this morning; and, as Renney explained, No. 83 is "under the weather." His status is still undetermined for tomorrow's game against the Minnesota Wild.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
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