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AT THE MORNING SKATE
Following a road trip that many couldn’t wait to put behind them, the Oilers return to the friendly confines of Rexall Place this evening to battle, once again, with the reigning Stanley Cup champions.
After losing the 2009-10 season series to the Blackhawks 4-0, the Oilers have responded well this year, recording half of the season’s wins against one of the league’s most dynamic and complete rosters. Perhaps even more impressively, both wins have come on the road at the United Center, which bodes well for a young Oilers team in search of confidence as they return home.
CHI TOWN PARADIGM
“We seem to be a little bit more alert to our system and more desperate to do the right thing as opposed to freelancing,” Head Coach Tom Renney said of the matchup vs. Chicago.
“Maybe it's been a function of us getting a good start early there two games ago, and then certainly being very close for the second game; we didn't want to make any mistakes. “
While the coach is aware of the team’s confidence against a very good Blackhawks team, he cautions that the group needs to stay focused and stick to the system.
“That's all good, but we have to make sure that in the interest of energy and the spontaneity of playing that we don't stand around and watch a real good team play, too.”
THE BELLE TOLLS
With Ladislav Smid currently out of the lineup as he continues to suffer the effects of a Sean Avery punch, rugged defenceman Shawn Belle will be getting his first taste of NHL action this season.
Belle arrives in Edmonton having put up incredible offensive numbers (two goals, 15 points in 17 games) for the Oklahoma City Barons early in this young season. With the opportunity to play solid defensive minutes in addition to some time on the powerplay, Belle says he’s excited about the chance.
“It's a lifelong dream. Getting back in the NHL, first game at home -- it's going to be something special,” Belle said with a smile.
“I think I just played with more confidence (in Oklahoma City). I used my skills to my advantage. I tried to be a little bit more patient instead of just jumping the gun. I started shooting the puck a little bit more, and there were some pretty good guys down there to play with.”
With the possibility of getting some additional time on the powerplay, Belle says his confidence continues to grow with the increase in opportunities.
“A little bit last year with Hamilton I played quite a bit on the powerplay. Not so much on the first unit, but the guys that I'm playing with are helping quite a bit.”
The influx of new ability didn’t stop at the addition of Belle. Physical forward J-F Jacques will be making his 2010-11 debut after starting the season on the injured reserve. When asked about how he’s feeling, Jacques insists that his injury is now a non-issue.
“Things are going well. I played four games there and it was perfect timing. It was good to get a day off in between to see how my back would respond. It went really well. It's probably better now than when I left, so it's great news.”
With some new faces and the need for a shake-up, the line combinations are as follows for tonight’s game:
Eberle – Horcoff – Hemsky
Hall – Gagner - Penner
Paajarvi – Cogliano – Brule
Jacques – Fraser – Jones
Whitney – Gilbert
Peckham – Foster
Belle – Vandermeer
Both Jordan Eberle and Dustin Penner will be taking on a different role tonight, as they will be playing on their opposite wings to help bring a spark to the offensive combinations.
“I get a chance to play left wing. I've never really played much left wing, a little bit in junior, but I like it,” Eberle said of the change.
“Just from the practices it's kind of nice to come in on your off-side to get a little bit of a better look on your shot -- and I've always been pretty good on my backhand, so I've got an opportunity to play with some pretty good players.”
Head Coach Tom Renney is confident that the players will be able to handle the change and looks forward to the new look.
“The biggest challenge of all is just what your job is defensively; paying attention to the needs of the off-wing now, and I think that they're both intelligent players to overcome that, no question about that. It makes it a lot easier if your biggest decision is what to do in their end.”
THE STRUGGLE WITHIN
With the team currently searching for confidence and ways to improve, captain Shawn Horcoff was helping to diffuse the pressure and help provide some confidence for the younger players.
“It's a fine line. It's tough as a young player. You can't just hear it, you have to go through it yourself. You have to go through tough times, you have to go through situations where your game isn't where it needs to be and you have to find ways to dig deep and overcome that; and find ways to find out what makes you successful at this level,” said Horcoff.
“That takes time. That's the same for every player. I think for us, more so than anything, we just have to make sure that their spirits are high when they come to the rink and that they're willing to put the work in.”
The Oilers will do their best to the rise the spirits and create some good vibes when they take on the Blackhawks tonight at 7:30p.m.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com
Last 10 -- Chicago 4-5-1; Edmonton 2-5-3
Season Series -- Edmonton has taken both meetings with Chicago this season, the most recent a 2-1 victory in Chicago on Nov. 7.
Big Story -- As the Blackhawks sit five points back of first, they open what will prove a crucial six-game road trip in Edmonton Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Oilers will try to get a third win against the defending champs to jumpstart what has been an otherwise difficult opening month of the season.
Blackhawks -- Anyone looking for Bulls and Blackhawks at the United Center over the next weeks would do well to save themselves the trip to 1901 W. Madison St. As is the case every November, the Hawks will spend the next two weeks away from home on their annual circus trip, while Barnum and Bailey run elephants around the Madhouse, but for a team that typically defends its home ice gallantly, this six-game trek may be coming at the right time. Chicago's overtime win against Anaheim Sunday was its first at the UC in five games, and first in four games overall. A tour through Western Canada and California may be an appropriate break from the Windy City.
Getting their offense back into shape would be a good start, and Sunday's win might be a sign that the team is coming around. Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa each tallied two points after going three and seven games, respectively, without finding their way to the scoresheet, but the recent funk of Jonathan Toews, who has gone four games without a goal or assist continues to loom large. The spotty play in net of Marty Turco hasn't helped matters either. Turco has just one win in his last five starts wth a 2.96 goals-against average over that stretch.
Oilers -- If there is any team that might be set to give the Hawks fits as they start their trip, however, it just might be Edmonton. The Oilers' start, which has netted them 11 points and last place in the Western standings, has been far from ideal. But in a bizarre twist, Edmonton seems to have Chicago's number. Only twice in the last 14 games have the Oilers been on the long side of the ledger, but each time was in the not-so-friendly confines of the United Center.
Of course, Edmonton will have to overcome a significant amount of negative momentum to get win No. 3 against the Hawks this season. The Oilers dropped their last game 8-2 Sunday afternoon in New York, and while there was good news with Shawn Horcoff scoring in his return after missing three games due to injury, the rest of the story provides little optimism. Starting goalie Nikolai Khabibulin has lost his last three starts and given up 18 goals in that span, and backup Devan Dubnyk, who is 0-0-2 with a 2.98 GAA in three appearances this year, hasn't fared much better.
Who's Hot -- After getting some recent playing time on the Hawks' top line, Viktor Stalberg has goals in two straight games. Sam Gagner has been pulling his weight for the Oil, tallying four points in five games.
Injury Report -- Ladislav Smid (head), Magnus Paajarvi (stomach virus) and Theo Peckham (sore wrist) are all listed as questionable for Edmonton, while Chicago should have a full lineup.
Stat Pack -- Edmonton's two wins in Chicago this year are surprising not just because of their respective recent histories, but because the Hawks had won seven of their previous eight games against the Oilers. In fact, Chicago might be more comfortable in Alberta when it faces the Oil. The Hawks haven't lost at Rexall Place since Feb. 6, 2008, which was also the last time Edmonton beat Chicago in regulation.
Puck Drop -- Typically a six-game road trip is a difficult and exhausting part of any schedule, but for a team that needs wins to climb back into its division race, the Hawks are hoping a November visit to Alberta will be the boost they need. Chicago will have to start winning in bunches to make a move up the standings. First-place Detroit only has a three-point edge in the Central over Chicago, but the Red Wings have five games in hand. As the Circus Trip starts, Chicago's hurdles might be significantly bigger than they look.
-- David Kalan - NHL.com Staff Writer