GAME DAY: Oilers drop tightly-checked 3-1 decision to Coyotes
COYOTES 3 - OILERS 1First period goals by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Ray Whitney put the home side in a 2-0 hole and, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins brought his club a little closer with a third-period tally, Shane Doan ended the Oilers' comeback try with a late goal to seal a 3-1 Phoenix victory on Saturday afternoon at Rexall Place.
AT FRIDAY'S PRACTICEEdmonton, AB - Coaches don't necessarily want to make changes to a winning lineup, but when you're prepared to welcome back the league's top Rookie of the Year candidate in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, you make room.
No. 93 passed Head Coach Tom Renney's ‘U Test' at Friday's practice, meaning the Oilers' prized young superstar will be back in the lineup as his club takes on the Phoenix Coyotes in tomorrow's matinee at Rexall Place.
Anton Lander was doing extra work as the squad parted ways at Millennium Place in Sherwood Park, indicating that he'll be odd-man out as a healthy scratch, alongside Ryan Jones and Cam Barker in the press box.
"I feel really good," said Nugent-Hopkins, who's missed the past six games, totaling 18 this season. "I haven't tweaked it in a long time, so that's a really positive thing. It's not getting sore after I shoot or anything like that. Tomorrow it might take a couple shifts to get my legs going, but I don't want to have that happen. I want to get into the game right away if I can.
"I've had some direct contact on it and it's felt fine."
Associate Coach Ralph Krueger said sternly in the week's post-practice press conferences that RNH wouldn't return until his shoulder was completely healed and at 100-percent.
"97-percent won't cut it," he said yesterday.
"Anybody watching the skate today, he was putting a lot of pucks in the net," he laughed, noting Nugent-Hopkins' seamless integration back. "He feels very strong. He feels better than he did coming off a similar injury last time. He feels 100-percent, whereas last time he had this feeling that he wasn't quite there yet. His mind is in a good space and we're excited to see him back in the lineup."
While there may be some trepidation when it comes to physical contact among the 16,839 in attendance, the coach isn't concerned.
"There's nothing that takes the place of getting into a game," he said. "You can practice as hard as you want."
While Nugent-Hopkins is returning, another was close to replacing the rookie's spot on the Oilers' injury list. In last night's 2-0 win over the Flyers, Magnus Paajarvi was dangerously (and dirtily) kneed by Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell, causing the sophomore to limp to the locker room in obvious pain.
But there he was, back at Oilers practice and looking no worse for wear.
"I can't remember too much, but I felt instant pain on my knee, of course," he said. "We couldn't get the x-ray [last night], so we waited until this morning and there's nothing, no ligaments are broken or cracked. It's just a matter of pain tolerance, so it's nice to have that.
"Very surprised," Paajarvi added, admitted that it could have been much worse. "I felt very bad for 10-15 minutes, but then I started walking a little bit on it and it started to get a little bit better. I caught a lucky break for sure."
It doesn't sound as though there will be any supplementary discipline for the collision, but Krueger was hoping there would be.
"It was a dirty hit and hopefully that's being looked it. It was away from the play and we could have lost a player for a while. Magnus got away with one, as did we."
"It's all up to them," Paajarvi said. "I couldn't care less."
SHORING IT UP
While the Oilers did come away with a blanking over the league's highest scoring team in yesterday's matchup, it much closer than the score indicated. The Oilers had trouble containing the Flyers' high-octane attack, giving up numerous odd-man rushes and high-quality scoring opportunities, all of which (35 shots) were turned aside by Devan Dubnyk en route to his third career shutout.
"When they got possession in the D zone, we knew that they were going to send guys up and try to get them going behind us," said Jeff Petry who, once again, led his team in ice time with 22:43, highlighted by an even rating and three blocked shots. "It was something that they did quite well and we needed to be aware of it as the game went on. We had the two goals, so it was enough to win the game at the time, but we did our best not to give up anything. They came hard, but we didn't back down either.
"We got the puck going up the ice and that was the key early on," he added. "They didn't generate too much down low and us, as a D core, said before the game that they'd be coming hard with two guys, so we needed to get it past them and up-ice as quick as we could."
Petry had another solid outing last night, which included a highlight-reel play that stemmed from a bumble at the opposition's blueline. The 24-year-old lost his footing and could have sprung the Flyers on a breakaway, but a last-ditch on-his-butt reaction play saved the day as the appreciative Rexall crowd erupted in cheers.
With a laugh and subtle smile, Petry played it off; all part of the game, he said. But even so, it was a microcosm of the youngster's season, as he's improved leaps and bounds from the beginning, establishing himself as one of the team's go-to rearguards.
It's evolved into leadership, too, as he still sees room to improve – both as an individual, and on a game-by-game basis, even though the orange and blue are playing as well as they have all season in the past week.
"There's always something that you can do better," he said. "It's a matter of sticking to the game plan and continuing to chip pucks in when there aren't any plays. We love to get a cycle game going and wear down their D. That's something we're going to key on tomorrow as well.
"We know [Phoenix is] going to come hard. It's been a while since we've seen them, so we're not going to worry too much about them. We need to worry about ourselves and make sure we're sticking to what's made us have success over the past week."
The Coyotes are coming in hot, winning four straight including an emotional, come-from-behind 4-3 shootout win over the Flames last night in Calgary. Given that the Oilers have played well against post-season bound teams this year, the home side will be looking to continue riding this positive wave.
"Anytime you can string some wins together, the attitude in the locker room can change completely," Petry said. "It's something that we want to keep going, because it's a great feeling to have. It's a matter of buying in and working diligently to play the system. We're doing that right now."
NEED-TO-KNOWS: Nikolai Khabibulin was back at practice today and was looking sharp. He says he's feeling good and his status has been upgraded to day-to-day. It's possible that he could be back in the lineup on Monday night in Winnipeg.
Head Coach Tom Renney was also back in action; and, while he's staying away from duties regarding media availabilities, he's targeting to be back behind the bench for tomorrow's game.
"Tom is planning to be on the bench tomorrow and run everything as usual," Krueger explained. "He's phasing back into things. They don't want him to do everything, that's why I'm standing here today. He's planning to come back in and it's good to see him back. He's got good energy and he seems to be doing well."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick