In search of the team's seventh straight win, the Oilers bussed 30-minutes to the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale to begin the second game day morning of a marathon six-game road trip.
The Oilers' 20-minute skate saw little in the way of surprises, as Cam Barker
and Ales Hemsky
, who pondered a return tonight, remain out; but Nikolai Khabibulin
, who's posted a 0.98 goals-against average and .963 save percentage, will sit as Devan Dubnyk
makes his fifth start of the season.
Since returning to the lineup on Oct. 22 vs. New York, Sam Gagner
has been the Oilers' good luck charm. The team has yet to lose a game and, in the same stretch, he's increased his ice-time in each outing, extending to a season-high 18:48 played at Staples Center in the most recent win.
Having recorded two assists in his last three games, the 22-year-old [natural] centre is pleased with his six-game start.
"The last three games, I feel like I've played a lot better," Gagner said. "I feel better out there, I've been creating chances, I've been in the right spots and I've been getting my timing and legs back. I want to continue to grow from here."
Gagner, alongside Eric Belanger
and Magnus Paajarvi
, is his unit's leading scorer in a time when production across all four lines has become crucial. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
, Taylor Hall
and Jordan Eberle
can't do it alone.
"The last couple games, [our line has] created a lot. Especially in LA we had some chances and we've just got to continue to have our foot on the gas. We're going to need some secondary scoring going forward here, and it's important for us if we're going to win.
"It's got to be on all four lines and I think for our line, we've got to keep developing that chemistry and we'll go from there."
PRESSURE TO PERFORM
No. 91 has some extra incentive to perform tonight, as his mother, who's seen her son play in about 10 NHL games back in Edmonton, will be up in the stands watching along with nine other Oilers moms.
"She doesn't know how it is on the road, and how we live on the road and how fortunate we are with all the things around us," Paajarvi said. "It's really neat to share that with them. Thanks to the Oilers for giving us an opportunity to really show them how it is, because they're the biggest reason why a lot of players are in this dressing room and play for this team. You can't forget that."
Head Coach Tom Renney agreed, added that the moms have been a nice addition to an otherwise challenging six-game trip.
"They're worse," he laughed when referencing the dads' trip from a year ago. "It's really good. We had a really nice night with them last night, a little reception with them and had a good visit. All the players spoke a little bit about their moms and what they mean to them.
"It takes you back. It makes you understand why you're here and how you got here. It's really good to have them, they're enthusiastic and energetic."
EXTENDING THE STREAK
The Oilers will be up against one of the league's most-improved PK units in tonight's matchup. The Coyotes have secured an 87-percent success-rate through 12 games, but have killed 37 of the opponents' last 40 chances.
As Renney explains, it's a matter of "working harder."
"Some nights your power-play has those tendencies not to work hard, and I thought the other night we tried to force things; we started standing around and we got a little frustrated instead of working harder."
"We were a little disorganized last game," Tom Gilbert
added. "I think the support wasn't as good as it has been in the past few games; supporting each other better, moving the puck in small areas and the simplest thing is getting pucks to the net as much as you can, and we weren't doing that enough."
has averaged 24:50 in TOI this season, continuing last season's mean (24:30), in the absence of Ryan Whitney
and others. The 28-year-old has excelled in this role and is thrilled with how he's been able to help the team.
"You've got to make the most of it," he said. [Ladislav Smid
and I] have been doing great. We're out there communicating well and working well together."
Gilbert, who's racked up one goal and four points in the team's 12 games, is also heating up. A pair of assists by No. 77 in the Oilers' last two games (and wins) has helped the team overcome some middling scoring concerns.
Still, it's a team game and one that the Oilers are keen to massage.
"Last game we played a really good road game," Gilbert said. "It was simple, our turnovers were pretty low and we got pucks deep, which is so huge when you're on the road; you don't get the changes you want, so you've got to keep the game as simple as possible."
"We can't take a single opponent lightly," Renney added in regards to tonight's game against a Phoenix squad that sits 6-4-2, ninth in the west. "We were the 30th-placed team last season and these guys weren't. I think [Phoenix is] better than their record and we better be ready for it."
Gagner, who will be looking to shoulder (at least part of) the load tonight at evens and on the power-play, is ready to go in what promises to be an exciting clash on Hockey Night in Canada.
"We've got to stick to our game," he said. "They're a pretty systematic team and they play the right way. We have to continue having our good habits and continue growing as a group and if we do that, we'll hopefully come out with a win."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com
- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
Season Series: It's the first meeting of the season between the Western Conference rivals. The Coyotes have taken three of four in each of the last two seasons after the Oilers won seven of eight in the two previous seasons. The Oilers scored a total of eight goals in four games last season, half of those coming in their lone win, 4-3 at Jobing.com Arena on Jan. 25.
Big story: The Oilers are one of the biggest stories League-wide -- they are off to their best start since 1986-87, when they won the third of their five Stanley Cup championships in seven years. They've won six in a row, Nikolai Khabibulin is stopping shots at a career-high pace and the top two scorers are their youngest and second-oldest players, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Ryan Smyth. They've also benefited from playing eight of their first 12 games at home. This is the second game of a six-game road trip that takes them to Montreal, Boston, Detroit and Chicago. The Coyotes have been playing pretty solid hockey as well, winning three in a row and going 4-0-1 in five games before getting stoned by Pekka Rinne and the Predators on Thursday -- hours after Rinne signed a lucrative seven-year contract extension.
Oilers: No team wins eight of 12 on goaltending alone, though Khabibulin has had a lot to do with extending his team's winning streak. He's now 6-0-2 and leads the NHL with a 0.98 goals-against average and .963 save percentage. He stopped 19 shots in the Oilers 3-0 win in Los Angeles on Thursday, his second shutout of the season, but he's had a lot of help in front of him as well -- his teammates blocked 22 shots.
"There's a reason why we're winning a lot of hockey games," Jordan Eberle told the Oilers website. "One is Khabibulin and the other is [Ladislav Smid and Tom Gilbert]."
More precisely, Smid and Gilbert have each been averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game, and Smid has a League-leading 45 blocked shots to his credit.
Coyotes: One hot goalie to another. No doubt Rinne was happy about his seven-year, $49 million extension, and he played like it Thursday, making 35 saves in the Preds' 3-0 win. The Coyotes had played the previous night in Colorado, but the back-to-back was much less of a concern than Martin Hanzal sitting out with a lower-back injury incurred in the third period of the Colorado game.
"Hanz does a lot of things for our team both sides, special teams and big minutes," coach Dave Tippett told the Arizona Republic. "He was a guy we missed but with that being said, everybody has injuries. You have to find a way to win. If we could have jumped out and got a lead tonight, that would have helped a lot and it didn't happen.
"Once we get down, our energy levels weren't where they needed to be and you're chasing the game and chasing all night," Tippett said.
Who's Hot: Oilers defenseman Corey Potter has also been eating up minutes and racking up points, going 20-plus in six of his last eight games and picking up eight points in his last 10. Nugent-Hopkins, the NHL's Rookie of the Month for October, had 11 points in his first 11 games before being held off the board in L.A. Smyth has seven points in his last five games, as does Hanzal. The line Hanzal plays on with Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata had scored seven goals and logged 17 points during the three-game winning streak.
Injury Report: The best news coming out of Phoenix is that Hanzal should be ready to play. Coyotes forward Cal O'Reilly (groin) may be able to make his Phoenix debut as well after being acquired from Nashville last week. Michal Rozsival (facial injury) has yet to return to practice. … Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney (knee) is expected to return to Edmonton for evaluation, when he hopes to be cleared to resume skating. Forward Ales Hemsky (shoulder) is looking to come back soon, leaving some tough choices for coach Tom Renney. Forward Darcy Hordichuk (knee) is not expected back till mid-November.
Stat Pack: Don't expect a lot of power-play goals -- both teams have been strong on the penalty kill, The Coyotes have allowed just three goals on their last 40 chances after surrendering three PPGs in six tries to San Jose on opening night. The Oilers are fifth in the League themselves at 89.6 percent (5-for-48). … The Coyotes are a frustrating 3-3-1 at home this season with two shutout losses, but 3-1-1 on the road and 3-0-1 since that season-opening loss to the Sharks.
Puck Drop: "It's awesome. It's so much better coming to the rink when you're winning hockey games; the atmosphere is great. We haven't got too high and we haven't got too low. We've got a little swagger; and I think that's good, you bring it into your game." -- Eberle on the Oilers' site discussing the team's winning attitude.