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AT THE MORNING SKATE
Tonight the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames engage in the latest installment of the Battle of Alberta as 2011 ignites in style. The Oilers took to the ice this morning at Rexall Place for one final tune-up before the late evening battle commences.
Although the team’s current injury situation has been a disappointing addition to five-game losing streak, a battered blueliner was present for this morning’s session despite missing yesterday’s practice. Tom Gilbert emerged from the locker room and participated, as did Jim Vandermeer and recent call-up Shawn Belle.
Even with the attendance of these three defencemen, Head Coach Tom Renney was non-committal about his decisions regarding his team’s lineup on the backend.
"I’ve still got some roster decisions to make there," said Renney. "Quite honestly, it depends. It depends on who’s in. I’m still making a couple of decisions there."
Defenceman Shawn Belle, who was recalled from the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons Friday afternoon, will be a game-time decision with the nightly assignments still in the minds of the coaching staff.
"When you’re up here, you want to make an impression and get the coaches’ confidence so you can play more," Belle said of the opportunity.
Belle will likely take part in the warm-up before the final lineup decision is made.
While there was some uncertainty with the rearguards, there was confirmation of change in another area. Rookie forward Magnus Paajarvi will be watching tonight’s game from the press box, as he will become a healthy scratch for the first time in his young NHL career.
Paajarvi, while disappointed, was professional in his comments as he sees the situation as a challenge moving forward.
"I’m just going to work harder and do the things I need to do to get back into the lineup," said a soft-spoken Paajarvi. "I definitely think you can learn from looking upstairs; just to see the game from a whole different perspective for sure. If you get that opportunity, you can learn a lot."
"You deserve your ice-time and I guess I don’t deserve it today. I’m going to work harder we’ll go from there."
Paajarvi also commented on the support and open lines of communication provided by his coach.
"Tom is reasonable. I think he makes good coaching decisions. I trust him and hopefully he trusts me."
Renney believes that the decision to scratch Paajarvi will have a positive effect, both on the team and for the skilled Swede moving forward.
"For a rookie it is [a benefit], to see this game from up above," Renney said of Paajarvi’s lineup exclusion. "Especially with some of the things – and I’m not going to get into the details – some of the little things that we think he needs to do to apply himself with more success at this level. So I think it gives him a chance to look at that and see how it functions with other people and invite that from him moving forward."
"He’s had to try and overcome a couple of things from the get-go, really, and now we’re going to deal with it."
EXTINGUISHING THE FLAMES
Following a tussle with the flu bug, forward Gilbert Brule returned to the lineup Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche after missing four games. Brule performed well in his return and is looking forward to carrying his solid performance into tonight’s matchup with the Flames.
"I thought I was moving my legs well. I think that’s what I need to do. It’s key for me to keep my feet moving all the time, protecting the puck and playing the body, playing mean."
Brule, who scored the Oilers’ first goal of the season back when the Flames made their previous visit to Rexall place on October 7th, is looking forward to another battle.
"They’ve (Calgary) been playing better as of late, so we’re expecting a very hard game from them," Brule explained. "They have four solid lines who play a heavy checking game, so we’re going to have to get on the body tonight and be prepared for a physical game"
"They played a tough game last night and they got in late here, so we’re definitely going to have to get on right away. The first 10 minutes is going to be key for us. If we’re getting pucks deep and making them work and getting their d-men turning, it’s going to be a hard night for them."
Jordan Eberle agreed, but cautioned that the group needs to remain focused and not get caught up in the atmosphere.
"We’ve got to stick to our game and get pucks in and try to wear down their team," Eberle said. "But for us, this is more of a game where we have to worry about ourselves. Obviously it’s a pretty big rivalry between the two teams, and there’s going to be a lot of energy, but we have to try and stick to our own game try and full a full 60 minutes."
KEYS TO THE GAME
With the Oilers currently mired in a five-game losing skid, Head Coach Tom Renney says that his group needs to to be aggressor on this night, as the Flames’ upbeat confidence will have to be shelved by the home side.
"I think we’ve got to come out strong here," said Renney. "They played last night. Obviously they played well and they feel good about themselves. If we allow them to come out and sort of control the game and feel good again, then we might have a tiger by the tail, so we’ve got to have a really good start."
"I think we’re going to have to go through four lines of forwards in order to have success, so we have to make sure that we’re efficient, that we push the issue and press the envelope from that point of view, naturally, and that we really out-change this team and continue to push the pace off the bench."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com
Tonight's game is presented by TELUS.
Last 10 -- Calgary 5-4-1, Edmonton 2-5-3
Season series -- It's the fourth installment of this season's Battle of Alberta. The home team has won each of the first three, with the Oilers winning 4-0 on opening night and the Flames winning 5-3 on Oct. 16 and 5-4 10 days later.
Big story -- The bottom two teams in the West start the new year by renewing one of the NHL's traditional rivalries. The Flames have had much the better of their provincial rivals during the last couple of years, winning nine of the last 10 meetings.
Flames -- The Flames come to Rexall Place on a bit of a roll -- they're won three in a row for the second time this season. Calgary got a boost from its fourth line in Friday's win against Colorado, with both Tim Jackman and Tom Kostopoulos scoring a goal and adding an assist.
"They played extremely well again," coach Brent Sutter said. "They have just carried on the way they have been playing and that was just two huge goals for us tonight. I was very pleased with their play. It's an energy line that works and competes hard and does it to the details. They play the way we want them to play, and they were rewarded for it."
Oilers -- The Oilers were upbeat at Friday's practice despite losing their fifth in a row on Thursday night. That's what can happen when you lose 4-3 in a shootout, as the Oilers did to Colorado, after overcoming a 3-0 deficit to get a point.
"We felt like we battled pretty hard last night and could have come out with the win," center Sam Gagner told the Oilers' website. "At the end of the day, it's about winning and we want to stay focused and stay on the job. But I think part of turning this around is about being positive and making sure we're focusing on the right things."
Who's hot -- Flames captain Jarome Iginla has goals in his last two games and a point in his last five. After a slow start to the season, Iginla leads the Flames in goals (15) and points (34). … Gagner has 13 points in his last 15 games.
Injury report -- Calgary defenseman Steve Staios is still out with cracked ribs. … The Oilers are without their best defenseman, Ryan Whitney, who went down with an ankle injury this week and won't be back any time soon. Another defenseman, James Vandermeer, has also been sidelined with an ankle injury but is skating.
Stat pack -- This could be an interesting goaltending matchup. Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff 7-1-0 is with a 2.58 goals-against average in his last eight against the Oilers. Edmonton goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin has a 23-8-2-2 career mark against the Flames with a 2.26 GAA.
Puck drop -- Forward Linus Omark, author of one of the most spectacular shootout goals of the season was a casualty of the Oilers' battered blue line. Edmonton sent him back to Oklahoma City of the AHL on Friday and recalled defenseman Shawn Belle.
"He certainly took it as a professional and as an Oiler -- and as a guy that cares about this organization," coach Tom Renney told the Oilers website. "I think the dialogue that we had made it very clear that we care about him, too."
"Often times when you're sent to the minors or whatever, you don't get an opportunity to make sure that's in place; that there's a genuine care and appreciation for what a guy's all about and what he's trying to do. Certainly today we were able to describe that to him and I think that helped things."
-- John Kreiser - NHL.com Columnist