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AT THE MORNING SKATE
The Oilers started their final game-day of 2010 with morning skate at Rexall Place. After skipping Wednesday's practice, defenceman Jim Vandermeer participated in the drills but is not ready to participate in the match.
Forwards Linus Omark, Jean-Francois Jacques, and Steve MacIntyre will also watch from the press box as healthy scratches. To fill the forward gaps, Zack Stortini will return to action, skating with Ryan Jones and Colin Fraser.
"It's great to be back in the line-up," Stortini said. "You always hate sitting out, and I'll just try to make the most of this opportunity."
Gilbert Brule has also recovered from the flu and will be paired with Ryan O'Marra and Magnus Paajarvi.
"I had a couple of days of sickness the first two days and after that I was just wiped out basically, dehydrated, so I had to get some fluids back in me," Brule explained.
Although Brule has come off the injured reserve, the spot was quickly filled by defenceman Ryan Whitney, who injured his ankle Tuesday night vs. Buffalo.
"It was a pivot," he recalled. "I just felt something kind of almost pop a little bit. It was an innocent play. I think I might have maybe caught a rut."
Unfortunately, it will take two weeks before a proper assessment can be done on the injury, Whitney explained.
"I had obviously an MRI yesterday and there's some damage obviously in my ankle," he said. "Talking to the ankle specialist last night, I've got to wait about two weeks just to see swelling to go down. There's so much inflammation, he really can't say for sure yet what's going on."
Head coach Tom Renney said "only time will tell" how the team adapts to the absence of its leading scorer, but that adaptation must begin immediately.
"We can't sit back feeling sorry for ourselves under these circumstances," he said. "We just have to understand it as game-on and go play hard for a teammate."
BIG SKATES TO FILL
The Oilers will be looking to the rest of their defensive corps to step up in Whitney's absence, but Renney admits he's unsure who can match the veteran's contributions, especially on the power-play.
"At this point in time, after having spoken about it last night and again this morning, we're not sure exactly who that might be and whether or not we've got anyone capable of that, quite honestly," he said candidly.
"At this point in time, we think we've got some pieces to move around to give us some success. We brought a young guy (Jeff Petry) up from Oklahoma City that I think will give us a chance to have a look at him on the power-play as well, so we'll see what we've got."
Although Petry has only one NHL game on his resume, Renney said he wouldn't hesitate to test him in key situations.
"Bring him in, play him -- that's what he's here for. We're not going to protect guys from playing hockey. That's what they've been doing all their lives.
"It's a tough situation, we all get that, but it's an opportunity now to look at our defencemen, for example, in the organization. And Pete, it's a good opportunity for him to have a look at it, and we'll just see if he can contribute on our power-play and how he does on our penalty-kill and what type of a hockey player he is and how close he is to being a regular NHLer," Renney said.
Taylor Hall hopes the team responds well to Whitney's absence, as they did earlier in this month when Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky were both out of the line-up due to injury.
"It's unfortunate that we've had some injuries this year with Hemmer, Horc and now Whits," the rookie said. "We're not sure how long it is or what the circumstances are, but we have to play well. We did play well when Hemmer and Horc were out, we had a good streak going there, and we've got to kind of fight through it."
The fight starts tonight as the Oilers host the Avalanche. Renney is ready for an exciting match.
"They're an energetic team, they certainly believe in their game plan, they play the game on their toes, they're relentless, they don't quit by any stretch, and they're a team that really believes in who and what they're all about," the coach said.
"We have to be very, very good defensively, we need all hands on deck. We have a back end that's gotten a little bit younger again and our forwards need to step up and help them with that. That said, transition is paramount in this league for the teams that are very successful, and we hope to be able to capitalize on that."
After Nikolai Khabibulin manned the pipes for the past two games, Devan Dubnyk gets the start tonight. He comes off a 27-save performance in Los Angeles a week ago that resulted in a 3-2 shootout loss.
Tonight's Oilers-Avalanche game starts at 7:30pm MT and will be broadcast on TSN. Single and standing tickets are available.
CLICK HERE TO PURCHASE TICKETS
-- Jen Sharpe, edmontonoilers.com
Last 10: Colorado 6-2-2; Edmonton 3-5-2
Season series: Second of six meetings between these Northwest Division rivals. The first matchup also took place in Edmonton, where the Oilers beat the Avalanche 3-2 on Nov. 25 on top draft pick Taylor Hall's goal with 29 seconds left in regulation. Gilbert Brule and Andrew Cogliano also scored. Colorado's tallies came from Kevin Shattenkirk and Matt Duchene.
Big story: The Avalanche finished off a five-game homestand in disappointing fashion with three straight losses and have fallen six points behind the Canucks for the lead in the Northwest. They finish off 2010 with a pair of games in western Canada, traveling after this one to face the Flames on New Year's Eve.
"We had some success the last time we were on the road," defenseman Matt Hunwick said. "It'll be good to get away. It's two in two nights, so we'll have to be ready, and it's against division opponents. With all those things coming together, we need to be prepared."
Avalanche: Although the final result wasn't what Colorado had hoped for, a lot of good came from Monday night's 4-3 overtime loss to Detroit. It was a much better overall effort for the Avalanche after they were outscored by a combined 8-1 in previous defeats to the Kings and Wild. Duchene's power-play goal with 2:36 remaining forced the extra period and ensured they came away with a point. On the down side, all four scores by the Red Wings came when they had the extra man.
"I think 5-on-5 we played really well," Hunwick said. "It's pretty obvious that special teams is where we faltered, and that was the difference in the game. We had chances with our power play that we didn't capitalize on as well. We have to take the positives from it and move on."
Oilers: A young Edmonton squad continues to experience its ups and downs, as the Oilers carry a four-game losing streak into Thursday. In the opener of a five-game homestand, they got goals from Dustin Penner and Ryan Jones, but surrendered a pair to Mike Weber in a 4-2 defeat to the Sabres. Even bigger than losing the game may have been the ankle injury suffered by defenseman and leading scorer Ryan Whitney, who was to undergo an MRI on Wednesday.
"We're going to miss a lot of things out of him," fellow blueliner Tom Gilbert said. "He's a really patient guy, he slows the play down really well, and that first pass is great -- he's great on the power play."
Who's hot: Duchene had a pair of goals against the Red Wings and took the lead on the Avalanche with 15 this season. … Ales Hemsky picked right up where he left off after a long injury absence, recording an assist for the Oilers against the Sabres. He had 1 goal and 2 assists in the previous game he'd played, back on Dec. 1.
Injury report: Colorado defenseman Kyle Cumiskey is traveling with the team but not yet ready to return from a concussion. He remains on injured reserve along with defenseman Kyle Quincey, who's out for the season following shoulder surgery, and forwards Peter Mueller (concussion) and Chris Stewart (hand). Shattenkirk took a deflected puck to the face Monday and the blueliner is day-to-day, as is forward David Van Der Gulik (knee).
Whitney is day-to-day for Edmonton pending results of his MRI, while defenseman Jim Vandermeer (ankle) and forwards Brule (illness) and Shawn Horcoff (knee) are on injured reserve.
Stat pack: Special teams could play a huge factor in this one, as the Avalanche are 29th in the NHL at killing penalties (75.9 percent), while the Oilers are dead last (72.3 percent). Colorado's power play, however, has been much more potent at 23.2 percent, fourth in the League, while the Oilers rank 25th at 15.6 percent.
Puck drop: Leaving the Mile High City behind until after the new year, the goal on this trip for the Avs will be keeping it simple.
"It's going to be good to get on the road, have all the guys together for a few days and bring the team back real tight," rookie forward Philippe Dupuis said. "Sometimes at home you try to do too much. We want to put on a good show for the crowd, but we have to play our system and have to play our game. That's the bottom line."
-- Brian Hunter - NHL.com Staff Writer