- With a three-day break to celebrate the season setting the stage to a marathon seven-game road trip beginning next week, the Oilers need a win to keep pace and remain in the post-season discussion in Game 34.
"We put ourselves in a position where they're all big games," said Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff
, who's mired in an 11-game goalless drought; six games without a point, too. "This one's big, the next one will be even bigger and so on. We need to dig ourselves out of it. You want to go into the break feeling good about your game. We played pretty well recently, but we haven't got the results; we've got to make sure we continue that tonight."
It's the fifth meeting between the Oilers and Wild, highlighting the season's unusual schedule; but also making note of the division's ever-important matchups as the orange and blue look to make up ground on the NHL's fourth-best team.
"We don't take [Minnesota] lightly," Horcoff said. "They're a team that we haven't had a very good record against. It's a divisional game; a four-point game and we've got to go into Christmas feeling good about ourselves before the break. It's important for us to get these two points, because that next road trip is going to be a big test.
"It's a real good time for us to break out of this slump against a team we really need to beat. It's a huge game for us."
"They work very, very hard," added Head Coach Tom Renney. "They've got one of the best power centres in the league (Mikko Koivu, who may not be in the lineup tonight), who provides great leadership. They've got other players who are having very good years, too. They've done a real good job of moving pucks north-south in a hurry and having people above the puck to make it more challenging for the opponent to come at them.
"We certainly have to check in. This is big. We have to worry about our game, because we have much to polish in that regard."
In order to do that, the Oilers need some secondary scoring. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
and Jordan Eberle
continue to lead the squad with an above point-per-game pace (Taylor Hall
is right there, too), but the team's counted-upon veterans need to step up to help fill a void on the scoreboard.
"Ales (Hemsky) is an elite player in this league and I'm not too worried about him," the captain said of his linemate. "He's got too much skill not to break out of this, and I'm sure he will soon."
Hemsky's status is still undetermined for tonight's game. The 28-year-old missed yesterday's practice with an illness and was listed as questionable at the time. He did participate in today's morning skate, but Renney insisted that he's not yet sure if his skilled winger will be available to go.
"I met with him and T.D. (Forss, Head Athletic Therapist) following the skate," he said. "I would call him 'doubtful,' he's not feeling well. I think we've got to put a lineup on the ice that feels great. He's under the weather and it's as simple as that. We'll see how he sleeps this afternoon and what he comes back like.
"That's No. 1, you've got to commit to that," Renney added about Hemsky's practice habits. "He's one of those guys, because of his need for treatment, that it's abbreviated for him. The extra stuff is out of the equation because he's got to get his treatment. When he's out there, whatever the practice drill or circumstance might be, you're fully engaged and that's ultimately a choice the player makes."
If Hemsky is unable to play tonight, Sam Gagner
or Lennart Petrell
will slot in on that line. Otherwise, No. 37 will sit as Darcy Hordichuk
will be in to re-engage a season-long battle with Minnesota's Brad Staubitz, policing the ice and providing the willingness to drop the mitts if need be.
will get the start in goal, looking to improve on his 10-8-3 record, 2.05 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com
- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
Minnesota 5-3-2; Edmonton 2-7-1
Fifth of six meetings between these Northwest Division rivals, who won't see each other again following the final matchup on Dec. 29. The Wild have won three times, all via the shootout -- Devin Setoguchi, Matt Cullen and Kyle Brodziak scoring the decisive goals. The Oilers won the only game decided in regulation, 5-2 on Nov. 25, as rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
had a pair of goals.
The surprise story of the 2011-12 NHL season, the Wild have been dealt their first real taste of adversity as they enter on an 0-3-2 stretch in which they have scored only six goals. Minnesota still leads the Northwest, but Vancouver is creeping up, and Chicago has gone ahead in the overall standings. Meanwhile, Edmonton enters on a four-game skid of its own that has dropped the Oilers into last in the division.
This is the finale of a three-game road swing through western Canada for Minnesota, which has fallen to 28th in League scoring (2.31 goals per game) with its recent offensive struggles. The Wild were shut out in Vancouver on Monday night, and 24 hours later in Calgary the only player to solve Miikka Kiprusoff was Pierre-Marc Bouchard, whose goal 6:10 into the first created a 1-1 tie. But Flames captain Jarome Iginla's goal in the second was the difference as the Wild suffered a 2-1 defeat.
"We've had the feeling all year long that we're never out of it, and we had that feeling again," forward Dany Heatley said. "But even though you have that feeling, it doesn't mean you're going to come back every night. We kept coming at them, drew some penalties, created some chances, and we'll have to do the same thing in Edmonton on Thursday night."
Growing pains have started to set in in Edmonton, where the young Oilers have won just twice in their past 11 games. Their two most recent losses, however, have been one-goal defeats to two of the Western Conference's better teams, the Sharks and Red Wings. When Detroit visited Rexall Place on Monday night, Ryan Jones
and Jordan Eberle
wiped out a pair of deficits with second-period goals, Eberle scoring on the power play with 0.5 seconds left in the period. But the Oilers fell 3-2 when they allowed a goal to Drew Miller with 4:15 to play in regulation.
"We played hard and I felt we were with them every step of the way," coach Tom Renney said. "We worked hard and did a lot of good things. We have to stick with it. We can't feel sorry for ourselves. No one is going to hand you points. We have a couple of games to build on now and maybe we can start winning again."
Wild captain Mikko Koivu has 4 goals and 4 assists during a six-game points streak, but has missed the last three games with a leg injury -- the team has scored just two goals in his absence. … Eberle and Jones have both scored in consecutive games for the Oilers. Eberle has 10 goals and 13 assists in the last 17 games, tying Nugent-Hopkins for the team scoring lead. Each has 13 goals and 34 points.
Koivu remains day-to-day for Minnesota, while Setoguchi (ankle) and fellow forwards Casey Wellman (wrist) and Guillaume Latendresse (post-concussion symptoms) are on injured reserve. … Edmonton forward Sam Gagner
(neck) is day-to-day, while defenseman Cam Barker
(ankle) is on injured reserve.
Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom is 3-0-0 against the Oilers this season with a 1.24 goals-against average and .952 save percentage, while at the other end, Nikolai Khabibulin
is 1-0-3 with a 1.41 GAA and .953 save percentage. Nugent-Hopkins has 3 goals in the four games so far, while Eberle has 5 points.
First-year Minnesota coach Mike Yeo told Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star Tribune that he was "very hopeful" Koivu could return to the lineup in Edmonton, but cautioned, "We're not going to put a guy in there that's not ready to go. We have to look at the big picture here." Koivu leads the team with 28 points and had been held off the score sheet just once in his last 15 games prior to being injured.