They're a good team. They won the NHL's Presidents' Trophy last season and came within a game of a Stanley Cup Championship.
They've earned respect as one of the league's elite, and perhaps that's why they're seen as a hated bunch in and around Oil Country. Following the Oilers' 20-minute morning skate, that much became clear.
"I don't know," Ryan Whitney
laughed when asked about why the Canucks aren't liked in the Oilers locker room. "I think it has something to do with the Canucks being a really good team. Nobody really likes a good team. Everyone gets pissed off when we lose to these guys.
"They've got some guys that try to get under your skin, play hard and walk that edge out there. Obviously there's some rivalry between players that gets going, too. It's a team that you like beating because they win and they're a good team."
Head Coach Tom Renney, who spent two seasons as the Canucks bench boss from 1996-98, agreed with his team's assessment but understood the challenge the visitors present as the NHL's reigning Western Conference champions.
"They're a very good team; they're well put together, they play the game at a very high pace, I think they're well-coached and they make you bring your ‘A' game," he explained. "We need to get well-acquainted with ‘A' as much as we possibly can if we want to be considered one of those teams down the road."
Vancouver certainly brought that back on Oct. 15 when the Canucks escaped Rexall Place with a 4-3 triumph. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
scored three times to record a hatty, but it wasn't enough.
"Yeah," Renney deadpanned. "They've upped the anti a little bit with a couple additions since then, too.
"We don't like any of our opponents. If we do, we're playing the wrong game."
SINKING THE WHALE
Overcoming the odds this time around will require a dedicated game plan. Whitney, 28, was still rehabbing his hobbled ankle when the teams last met 10 days ago, but fully expects to see a hungry Canucks squad again tonight.
"I think it's all about getting pucks in and not letting them get so much speed in the neutral zone," he said. "If we can make them come 200 feet, it's tough for them to get speed going. We want to not turn the puck mover and we'll be in solid shape."
Indeed. The Oilers have allowed only 10 goals this season and are rolling into tonight's contest with a 2-0 shutout in the not-too-distant past. Spirits are high and the group has stepped up as a unit to dismantle some talented squads early in 2011-12.
"The D has been playing great," Whitney added. "Sutton's been great and Potter's been awesome. It's a good group here.
"It's obviously still a little bit of a struggle for me. When you come back, you battle with minor stuff that you haven't had to for some time. You're sore and it's tough to get the speed of the game down, but I feel pretty good. Considering I didn't play for pretty much a year, it's been really good."
has averaged 24:54 in ice-time this season, almost three minutes more than anyone else and four minutes higher than the next closest rearguard, Cam Barker
, who's averaged 20:35 this season.
He, too, has seen an increase in the team's commitment to own-zone play.
"I think we're more responsible [this season]," he said. "We're playing better and it obviously helps that our goalies are playing phenomenal, so it's a combination of a couple things."
Gilbert also sees an incredible challenge on the evening's horizon.
"You've got to be aware when they're on the ice, but you've got to focus more on the way your team is going to play," he explained. "It's more of how we want to play. We've had a couple games that we've let get away, so we've just got to learn from that."
That's particularly important, considering the Oilers' record this season against Northwest Division counterparts is 0-4. With 26 more games to come, wins are imperative to help anchor a potential post-season berth.
"These are obviously huge games," Gilbert said. "Against your division, you need these points. It separates you from being on the top of the division to the bottom. We need a win tonight and that's our main focus."
38-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin
gets the start in net tonight; his third straight call between the pipes.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com
- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
-- This is the second of six games this season between these Western Canadian rivals. In their first matchup on Oct. 15 in Edmonton, Sami Salo's second goal of the game gave the Canucks a 4-3 come-from-behind victory. But the real story of the night was Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
notching his first NHL hat trick, which he achieved in only his third NHL game.
– Since starting a three-game homestand with a humbling 4-0 loss to the Rangers in which they outshot New York 40-19, the Canucks have won two straight. They rebounded nicely with a 5-1 win over Nashville before beating Minnesota 3-2 on another Salo winner, this time in overtime. … Playing their third match in a four-game homestand, Edmonton is enjoying an October in which they'll play nine of their 11 games in the province of Alberta -- eight home games and a road test in Calgary. They split the first two games of this stand, losing to the Wild in a shootout before beating the Rangers.
– Tuesday night in Edmonton will likely see the first appearance by David Booth in a Canucks uniform. He was acquired over the weekend from Florida, along with Steve Reinprecht and a 2013 Draft pick, in exchange for Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm, who played only six games with Vancouver before being shipped to Florida – his fifth NHL squad in the last 18 months. Vancouver immediately shipped Reinprecht to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL.
There remains a goalie controversy in Vancouver, where Roberto Luongo was widely criticized after porous keeping in the Rangers loss. He saved 25 in the drubbing of Nashville days later, but Cory Schneider made his first start in goal Saturday against the Wild, stopping 21 shots in the win.
– Entering the season, it was the Oilers' defense and goaltending that was considered the glaring weakness on the team's roster. But Edmonton's defense has been the surprise of this young season. The Oilers have allowed one goal or less in five of their seven games this season, ranking them second in the NHL behind Los Angeles in goals allowed per game.
The young trio of Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall
and Jordan Eberle
has combined for 17 points to lead the Oilers, but it has been the veteran goaltending duo of Nikolai Khabibulin
and Devan Dubnyk
that have defied all expectations in the Edmonton crease. In four starts, Khabibbulin leads the League with a 0.72 GAA while and still has yet to lose in regulation. In his last start on Saturday night, Khabibulin stopped 19 Rangers shots while the young three up front combined for five points to lead the Oilers to a 2-0 win.
– Sami Salo has been leading the Vancouver blue line with five points in his last four games, a stretch that includes two game-winning goals. While the Sedin brothers have paced the Canucks offense, winger Daniel has been scorching, with five points in his last two games. … With only four goals allowed in their last three games, the Oilers' best player has been Khabibulin. On offense, Hall has led the way with four points in four games.
– For the Canucks, Mason Raymond (fractured vertebrae), Byron Bitz (groin surgery), and Aaron Rome (broken hand) are all on IR. … For the Oilers, Ales Hemsky
(shoulder) and Darcy Hordichuk
is out with a knee injury.
– The elder statesman Khabibulin's sudden resurgence in Edmonton was unexpected, especially considering the age of some of the forwards providing the offense in front of him. Khabibulin was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 1992. At the time, Hall was seven months old and Nugent-Hopkins wouldn't even be born for another ten months.
– Booth is expected to play on a line alongside Ryan Kesler and Christopher Higgins. The linemates share more than one common thread. The three Americans were selected early in consecutive Drafts (Higgins in 2002, Kesler in 2003, Booth in 2004) and each has enjoyed at least three 20-goal seasons.