MORNING SKATE REPORT: Oilers vs. Blues
RNH remains out, Belanger is in and Khabibulin starts tonight against St. Louis
|TV: CBC (HD)
RADIO: 630 CHED & Oilers Radio Network
PUCK DROP: 8:10 p.m. MT
AT THE MORNING SKATEEDMONTON - Only three points out of a playoff spot, the Edmonton Oilers could make a big leap from 13th in the Western Conference into a tie for 10th with a win tonight at home over the St. Louis Blues.
"I think we have to focus on our game," said Ryan Jones. "For as long as I could remember, they've had a similar mould to their hockey team. It's a hard, heavy team that could grind you down low. Like any game, the fewer minutes you spend in your own end, the more successful you're going to be so we have to play them hard."
With every game being between teams within the Western Conference, every game has the possibility to have a huge impact on the standings.
"I do look at the standings," Jones stated. "It's hard not to. We all want to make the playoffs. One win puts us right there. That win against San Jose would have been nice, for sure, but that's in the past. All we can do now is move forward and gather all the points that we possibly can."
Jones added that the team's current run of five games gaining at least a point (3-0-2) has helped boost everyone's confidence.
"We built a little bit of momentum coming in. Obviously you want to get two points more than you want to get one but any points are important come the end of the year. You never know which one point will get you in or out. We've built a little bit of momentum here and it's important to carry that through and continue to play the way that we have been."
KHABIBULIN GETS THE CALL
Nikolai Khabibulin gets his first start tonight since February 25 against Chicago. In that game, the Oilers lost in overtime on a Marian Hossa goal, during which Khabibulin got injured.
"We need to come out with a simple game plan and I've got to try and stop the shots I'm supposed to stop and go from there," said Khabibulin following the morning skate.
The veteran netminder added that he is excited about playing meaningful games with the Oilers in a tight playoff race as the season winds down.
"It's always more interesting to play games when they mean something. I think any athlete in any sport wants that. We're in a playoff race right now and it's exciting."
Over his career, Khabibulin has a record of 21-16-4 against the Blues with a .911 save percentage.
"In the five games that he played so far this year, he was very competitive and we have to be smart with how we use him, respecting the fact that he's coming off another injury -- and the age factor, of course," said Krueger.
"He's looked excellent in practice. We've been able to give him high level practices since we returned from the road trip and we really feel that he's ready to give us a high-energy game tonight."
NEW LINE COMBOS WITH BELANGER BACK
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins remains out of the lineup with an illness but Eric Belanger makes his return tonight.
"I'm excited," Belanger exclaimed. "It's been hard watching the games and watching the guys work their bags off, fighting for a playoff spot. You want to be a part of it and I'm excited to be back tonight."
Nugent-Hopkins will be moving to injured reserve as a result of Belanger's activation. The earliest Nugent-Hopkins could be reactivated is Monday but Krueger said he was unsure whether he would be on the team's flight to Nashville tomorrow at this point.
"We're going to have to see how he does," Krueger said, adding that his illness was something along the lines of a minor infection of strep throat. "He's not here today and we're just trying to get him feeling better. It's very questionable whether he'll be able to get on the plane with us tomorrow."
The Oilers will be shuffling up the lines as a result of Belanger's return. Taylor Hall will play with Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky. Jordan Eberle moves onto a line with Sam Gagner and Magnus Paajarvi.
"We just feel for Ebs, with Nuge out of the lineup, it's important to get him in a position with the puck as much as possible and they're playing together on the power play," said Krueger of Eberle's shift to the line with Gagner and Paajarvi. "There's a synergy there we can take from the five-on-five into the PP and we just like the thought of that line."
"Nail's done a great job there. This is nothing against Nail, it's more getting Ebs into that opportunity. We saw in the past, Smytty had spent some time with Nail too and we feel that this gives us three lines, still, that can score."
Yakupov will play with Belanger and Jones while Lennart Petrell, Ryan Smyth and Mike Brown will skate as a unit.
-- Marc Ciampa, edmontonoilers.com
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
TV: CBC, RDS2, FS-MW
Last 10: St. Louis 6-4-0; Edmonton 3-4-3
Season series: Second of three meetings, and the only trip to Rexall Place this season for St. Louis. The Blues won the last meeting on Mar. 1, 4-2 at Scottrade Center, for their fourth straight win over Edmonton. They are 10-1-1 in their last 12 games versus the Oilers.
Big story: While the Blues' steady play has kept them in the top eight of the Western Conference, the Oilers needed a 3-0-2 run to even get a whiff of a playoff spot. They're sitting three points behind eighth-place San Jose, to whom they blew a two-goal third-period lead and ended up with a 4-3 shootout loss on Wednesday. Now they try to close in playing a team against which they have had a dubious history of late.
Blues: Jake Allen's five-game winning streak ended Tuesday as Cory Schneider outdueled the rookie goalie in a 3-2 loss to the Canucks, keeping the Blues from overcoming a 3-0 deficit. It allows coach Ken Hitchcock to let Allen take a breather and give Jaroslav Halak a chance to pad his already lofty numbers against the Oilers. Over the four-game streak, he has a 1.75 goals-against average. For Halak, it's also a chance to try and re-establish himself as the No. 1 goalie in only his third start this month. A groin injury in early February paved the way for Allen to take the top spot with an 8-2 record.
"It's not always easy when a goalie doesn't play," Halak acknowledged in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I don't think I played badly in Anaheim or anything, but you know, it's the way it is. Obviously, anybody would love to play but only one goalie can."
Oilers: The Oilers have a goalie issue themselves. Devan Dubnyk has started 11 games in a row and may have shown some signs of burnout when he allowed a third-period equalizer in the Oilers' 4-3 shootout loss to the Sharks in San Jose. Nikolai Khabibulin has been looking for ice time after recovering from a groin injury sustained in late February, and has a 21-16-4 lifetime record versus the Blues. By contrast, Dubnyk is 0-7-0 against them. Still, coach Ralph Krueger traditionally plays close to the vest, not announcing his starter ahead of time.
"We re-evaluate the lineup after every game. We'll take a look at it. Nikolai is close to 100 percent," Krueger told the Edmonton Journal.
Who's hot: Blues forward Chris Stewart was held off the board Tuesday, but has five goals and two assists in his previous three games, and points in seven of 10, which helped him earn the NHL's First Star last week. … Oilers forward Sam Gagner has five goals and two assists of his own in a five-game point streak.
Injury report: Blues forward T.J. Oshie (ribs) should be back in the lineup after missing three games. … The Oilers will not be welcoming Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back in the lineup Saturday as originally expected because his flu symptoms persist. Forward Eric Belanger (groin) should be ready to go, however, after missing two weeks. Ales Hemsky and Nick Schultz did not skate Friday, but will play.
-- Matthew Mankiewich - NHL.com Staff Writer