Saint Paul, MN -
In some ways it seems like it's a case of deja vu for the Edmonton Oilers as they take on the Minnesota Wild tonight at the Xcel Energy Center.
This is game 36 for the Oilers but it's also game six against the Minnesota Wild, meaning they've faced off against their divisional rivals one out of every six games this season.
"You feel like you're back to the original six when you played the same teams all the time," Eric Belanger
Tonight, they play the Wild during the holiday season, much like their last encounter in Saint Paul the day after Thanksgiving. Also similar to the last meeting, the Oilers face the Wild following a Minnesota game against the Nashville Predators - the Wild lost 2-1 in a shootout to the Preds in Nashville last night.
"They're a good team. They play us well and I think we play them well. Outcomes may suggestion otherwise, but certainly we've played them well," said Oilers head coach Tom Renney.
One major difference from the last meeting in Minnesota is that the WIld are reeling. The team is injury-plagued, though getting healthier with Mikko Koivu now back in the lineup, and have lost eight in a row.
"It's always good to play a team that is this good but also trying to find itself again because you know that they're going to bring the intensity that we need to see," said Renney.
WINNING VS. THE WILD
The Oilers have struggled against the Wild over the last number of years, finally ending their 17-game drought here a month ago.
Quietly, this season they've had a measure of success, however, having picked up at least a point in each of the five previous meetings.
"Because you know there's no easy opponents in this league at any time, whether you play them six times or 16 times it just doesn't matter. I think they're a well-coached team, I think they're well-organized. I think they have a style of play that they really embrace and play well to," Renney began.
"That being said, it's really about our game. I think we really haven't had traction for awhile in our own game. It's so important to do that and identify with what we want to be and how we want to play and what we look like and hope that the opponent has to adjust to us."
Renney was also quick to point out the importance of the road trip as a whole - a trip which includes opponents from five of the NHL's six divisions.
"I think the most important thing for us is just to pay attention that we're in the front of a very important road trip here and it happens to be starting with Minnesota. The bottom line is that their circumstances are what they are, ours are what they are and we're the only ones that can do anything about it, either."
Incredibly, the Oilers and Wild are very similar stats-wise -- Minnesota with 89 goals for, 88 against and Edmonton with 96 for and against -- despite the fact the Wild are 13 points ahead in the standings. That was a fact not lost on Eric Belanger
"We have to make sure we play well defensively. We know we have the skills in front to take chacnes and score goals. When we're playing well, we're taking care of our own zone and everything else will take care of itself," said the Oilers pivot.
LINEUP CHANGES HEMSKY DEPENDENT
Whether or not the Oilers make any lineup changes aside from the obvious of inserting the recently-called-up Colten Teubert
in place of the recently-injured Alex Plante
is completely dependent on whether or not Ales Hemsky
makes his return.
Out since December 22 with a sinus infection, Hemsky will be a gametime decision.
"I think he felt good. He'll have a nap this afternoon and we'll see how he's doing when we get to the rink. I'll listen to him and see what he's thinking," said Renney.
"He's skated the last three days and again this morning. He's really feeling like it's settling down. Whether or not it's at the point where he can play tonight, we'll find out this afternoon."
If Hemsky draws in, Renney hinted that either Ben Eager
or Darcy Hordichuk
could potentially be sitting out.
"(Whether both Eager and Hordichuk play) hinges on Ales and how he feels when he comes back this afternoon. I think both guys give us size, strength that we need in our lineup. They're not afraid of too many people in this league so that's always a good thing."
gets the start in goal for Edmonton while Nik Backstrom starts for the Wild.
-- Marc Ciampa, edmontonoilers.com
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
LAST 10: Edmonton 3-7-0; Minnesota 2-5-3
Season Series: It's the sixth and final meeting of the season between the Northwest Division rivals. Minnesota has won three of the five games, but the Oilers have points in all five -- all three Edmonton losses have come in shootouts.
Big Story: The Oilers started a two-week road trip with a thud in Vancouver, losing 5-3 on Monday night. But the Wild are mired in an eight-game losing streak -- loss No. 8 came Wednesday night when Minnesota lost 2-1 in a shootout at Nashville.
Oilers: With Rexall Place and their practice facility both being used for the World Junior Championship, the Oilers spent Tuesday and Wednesday practicing in Leduc, Alta., before heading East. Their next six games are on the road, where they are just 5-11-1.
Part of the reason for the Oilers' road struggles is a lack of secondary scoring. They miss Ales Hemsky, who skated with a non-contact jersey in Wednesday. He's battling a sinus infection after overcoming shoulder surgery that slowed him earlier in the season. In 22 games, Hemsky has just three goals and 11 points.
"I'm feeling a little better, it's not 100 percent I still have some symptoms I don't really like but finally I feel better in the practice so it's coming," Hemsky told the team's website. "I just got an infection in my sinus and I'm losing my balance, and I don't see straight sometimes. I skated in Vancouver and couldn't see on the ice once I got going, it's not pleasant.
Wild: There hasn't been much to smile about for the last couple of weeks in Wild country, so getting a point on Wednesday was an optimistic sign. Dany Heatley's wraparound with 3:59 left in regulation earned Minnesota a point in Nashville, though the shootout loss kept the Wild winless in eight games.
"For sure it was important, and not just for the sake of getting a point," coach Mike Yeo said. "It was a reminder that if we stay with things, if we play our game for 60 minutes, then we are going to have a great chance to win the game. We didn't win the game today, but I believe we deserved to win it."
Who's Hot: Edmonton's Jordan Eberle has scored five times during a four-game goal-scoring streak and has seven points in his last five games. … Heatley has two goals and four points in his last three games.
Injury Report: In addition to Hemsky, who's likely to be a game-time decision, the Oilers are still without top defenseman Ryan Whitney, who's still sidelined with an ankle injury but may return before the trip ends. Defenseman Cam Barker is still recovering from ankle surgery, and rookie d-man Alex Plante suffered a concussion in Vancouver. … Clayton Stoner (groin), Guillaume Latendresse (post-concussion symptoms), Casey Wellman (wrist) and Devin Setoguchi (left ankle) are all on injured reserve are on IR for Minnesota, and defenseman Jared Spurgeon didn't play Wednesday with a lower-body injury.
Stat Pack: Minnesota has scored just twice in its last 24 power plays. … The Wild have allowed just eight power-play goals (on 66 attempts) in their 18 home games. … Edmonton averages a League-low 26.0 shots per game; the Wild is 28th at 26.6.
Puck Drop: The Oilers are in the top 10 in both special teams. It's their play at even strength that's been the problem as they head out of town for their next six games.
One of the few Oilers who's had some success outside of special teams is Ryan Smyth, one of the NHL's top crease-crashers. Coach Tom Renney would like some of his younger players to emulate Smyth.
"Five-on-five we have a few guys that are struggling offensively," Renney said. "But isn't it interesting the way (Smyth) plays and where he goes to get his goals five-on-five? So I'm hoping that others will note that."
-- John Kreiser, NHL.com