AT THE MORNING SKATE
After holding two consecutive days of hard practices, the Oilers opted to go with an optional morning skate as the Florida Panthers get set to prowl into Rexall Place Sunday night.
While the skate was optional, most of the team participated in the session and brought the same intensity that we’ve seen over the past few days of practice.
There were a few notable absentees, including newly-named captain Shawn Horcoff, so the few line rushes that were run were generally a mix of all the offensive lines. Gilbert Brule skated with his regular linemates in Magnus Paajarvi and Andrew Cogliano, while Ryan Jones found himself in a familiar spot on the fourth line.
The common theme this morning was about maintaining the intensity that made the team so successful the other night against the division rival Flames. Tom Gilbert noted that the team needs to take that seriously and keep pushing to improve.
“We did a lot of things right but you got to look at that it's just one game of 82. We can't be anywhere near satisfied with the way that we want to play our game. We have to come out the exact same way, we got to play just as well as we did last game at home; and we got to use this energy we that we've got in this rink to our advantage.”
Assistant Coach Steve Smith agreed and expanded further on Gilbert's thoughts of executing battles.
"I think, again, the key is the start for us. We've got to get on them quickly; we've got to make them pay the price early, and I think we did a real nice job of just creating battles all over the ice and winning battles all over the ice. That was a really critical thing the other night and I think we've got to get back to the same again tonight."
Forward Sam Gagner agreed with the assessment and says that the team needs to put an even greater emphasis on system play in order to continue their hot start.
"Just try to stay on the same type of things. We got to get off to a good start and keep the intensity up, but the biggest thing for us is making sure our system play is good and we're on the same page; and I think that's what was so good against Calgary."
While this morning’s skate was more of a warm-up for tonight’s game, the past few days of practice have, indeed, put that emphasis on system play that Gagner had alluded to. The bulk of yesterday’s session focused on special teams positioning and breakouts, while the previous day saw the team work extensively on offensive zone creativity.
The two combined should give the Oilers a good idea of what they want to accomplish tonight on special teams. Head Coach Tom Renney says the opportunities and possibilities are nearly endless with his group of offensively gifted players.
"The bottom line is if you're performing, if it's going, that you'll get that chance. There's certainly a possibility of having three combinations of people that can do some things. There's also a possibility of really loading up and maybe even doing something on the backend, for example, with a forward that might change the look a little bit; so I don't want to get too far ahead of myself."
While the Oilers will be playing in their second game of this young season, the visiting Florida Panthers will be getting their first taste of the 2010-11 season after waiting for over a week since their last pre-season game.
Renney confirmed this morning that there will be a few minor changes to tonight's lineup despite the opening night success. While the bulk of the lines will remain the same, Zack Stortini will draw in for heavyweight Steve MacIntyre on the fourth line. In addition, Jeff Deslauriers will be getting the backup role tonight as Devan Dubnyk will be regulated to pressbox duty.
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-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com
Season series: This is the only meeting of the 2010-11 season between these clubs. Edmonton won the most recent matchup, 3-2 in Florida on Dec. 7, 2009, as Robert Nilsson and Shawn Horcoff connected in the shootout. Horcoff also scored in regulation for the Oilers and Dustin Penner forced overtime with a third-period goal. Jeff Deslauriers finished with 21 saves and also denied two of three shootout attempts by the Panthers.
Big story: Edmonton will be gunning for a sweep of its season-opening, two-game homestand. Coming off a last-place finish in the overall NHL standings, the Oilers couldn't have asked for a better start than shutting out the rival Flames, 4-0, on opening night Thursday. It isn't time to start planning the Stanley Cup parade just yet, but the team definitely made a statement to its fans that this season is going to be different.
Panthers: The wait is finally over, as Florida will become the final NHL team to open its season -- the other 29 had all played at least one game entering Sunday. The Panthers finished 15 points ahead of the Oilers in the standings last season, but they're sitting on a much longer playoff drought that dates all the way back to 2000. This is the start of a three-game swing through western Canada, and goaltender Tomas Vokoun is determined his team come out of it with some victories.
"We were focused on getting off to good starts before, and it hasn't worked out," he told the Miami Herald. "We have to get a better start because we're not the kind of team that can chase teams down by getting eight-game winning streaks going. Everyone realizes that. We have to be consistent throughout the year."
Oilers: Taylor Hall may yet go on to win the Calder Trophy -- there are still 81 games remaining in the regular season for Edmonton, after all -- but it was another rookie on the ice at Rexall Place who stole the No. 1 pick's thunder on Thursday. Jordan Eberle, the Oilers' first-round selection in the 2008 Entry Draft, also made his NHL debut and scored a spectacular shorthanded goal to spark a three-goal third period against the Flames. Eberle also picked up the primary assist on a power-play strike by Horcoff, the new captain. A healthy Nikolai Khabibulin turned aside all 37 shots he faced.
"Unbelievable," Eberle said of Khabibulin. "It was amazing. You feel so comfortable with him back there. You can afford to give up a shot and you just know it's not going to go in."
Who's hot: The Panthers' penalty-killing unit was perfect through 33 shorthanded situations during the preseason before allowing a pair of power-play goals against the Lightning in their finale. … Khabibulin is coming off his 42nd career shutout and first since the 2008-09 season when he was with the Blackhawks.
Injury report: Florida placed forward Byron Bitz (groin) on injured reserve. Forward Marty Reasoner (knee) is questionable for Sunday's game, while forward Christopher Higgins (groin) and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (foot) are expected to play. … Edmonton forward Jean-Francois Jacques is on injured reserve following back surgery.
Stat pack: Since the 2005-06 season, the Panthers have gone 46-64-17 in the first two months, underscoring Vokoun's warning that the team must find a way to start stronger. … Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney finished with a pair of assists while seeing a game-high 24:47 of ice time in their opener.
Puck drop: Hall impressed during training camp with his maturity as much as his offensive ability, and it showed Friday in his comments following the season-opening win.
"I think we've just got to stay humble and realize that it's just one out of 82 games; there's going to be ups, there's going to be downs, but if we can stay on an even keel -- but carry confidence into the next game knowing that we can be a good team," Hall said.
-- Brian Hunter NHL.com