Edmonton, AB - Now's the time. The schedule's cruel intentions have come and gone, and now the Edmonton Oilers have an opportunity to climb back into better days with a three-game homestand beginning tonight at Rexall Place.
The Oilers' upcoming trio doesn't see an easy counterpart (although none ever are), but with the New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings being assigned three hours south at Scotiabank Saddledome one night prior in each, there's a chance to take advantage of an exhausted enemy.
It's one game and one night at a time, mind you, and tonight's Garden State opponent will be looking to exact revenge following a 6-3 drubbing at the hands of the Flames. While the Devils kept pace, cashing three to the Flames pair in the remaining 40 minutes, New Jersey trailed 4-0 through the opening period to set the losing stage.
THE VETERAN INFLUENCE
"Sometimes it's hard to say on the other side of it when you're on the second night; some teams are good and some teams are average," said Ryan Smyth, who's notched 15 goals and 32 points this season. "That's why we play these games, that's why it's exciting. We're going to use the advantage of home ice, and we're going to use the advantage of, 'Okay, they played last night,' so let's get on them early and let them play catch up from the start."
The orange and blue's mindset remains the same. Don't look at the standings (and if you do, make it a quick glance). Otherwise, attack each opponent with unrelenting vigor in a complete, 60-minute battle. Having the veterans step up wouldn't hurt, either.
"I put pressure on every night," Smyth said, noting that he wants to be a counted-upon scorer. "I want to be the best player every night, and obviously that doesn't happen; but I want to challenge myself and be the best teammate I can be for everybody.
"Anytime you lose bodies, you're going to have more ice-time dispersed, but you've got to step up. Us, as veterans in here, we need and want to contribute."
"I think [the veterans] always positioned themselves to be that and be responsible that way," Head Coach Tom Renney said. "We need results from everyone, of course, and your veteran players, no matter what the circumstance, should do that for you. From an experience perspective, they can add a lot. We need them. We need everybody, and especially now."
In total, the NHL's leader in wins among active goaltenders, Martin Brodeur with 637, combined with backup Johan Hedberg to stone a mere seven of the Flames' 14 three-period attempts last night.
Although Martin Brodeur will watch tonight's game from the bench, Nikolai Khabibulin will get the call for the orange and blue; he's posted a career 9-3-3 record, along with a 2.01 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 15 starts vs. New Jersey, and is one spot behind Brodeur on the active wins list with 327.
"I think overall we're pretty positive," said the Oilers' 38-year-old veteran. "Although we had a pretty tough road trip to say the least, most of those games were tied or better in the third period. If we can somehow manage to play a full 60 minutes, we'll have more success. It didn't happen on the road and we paid for it.
"We can't get down," Khabibulin added. "We have to do the things that work and, when we do that, we'll start to convert those third period ties into leads and wins."
With a chance to pull one win closer to Brodeur's historic mark, Khabibulin is driven to get back to .500 and continue his bounce back season.
"I feel pretty good," he said. "I didn't play all that well on the [seven-game] trip, but in the last game I was playing a lot better and it was a step in the right direction, too. I'll try to build on it and get a win tonight."
The Devils' threat goes beyond the battle between the pipes, of course. Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias have all established paces beyond a point-per-game and aren't looking to slow anytime soon. Complementing the veterans' savvy is rookie and now Calder front-runner Adam Henrique, who notched a Gordie Howe hat trick in yesterday's loss (he's scored 13 goals and 34 points in 39 games this season).
"I think Adam is a really, really good player," Renney explained. "I like the way he navigates the game, the intensity that we plays with, his work habits. He seems to know and understand both sides of the puck, I think he's a +9 or something like that, which I think is pretty impressive. He's a very good young player.
"And maybe he'll get sick, too," he added with a chuckle.
ANOTHER MAN DOWN?
That's in reference to the Oilers' growing patient list. Ryan O'Marra was unable to skate this morning and is questionable for tonight's game as he battles an illness. As such, Milan Kytnar has been recalled from the ECHL's Stockton Thunder on an emergency basis.
"We've had [Kytnar] for three camps now and I think he's a very smart player," Renney said. "I think he sees the ice well, is very responsible, I think his giddy-up is okay.
"Generally speaking, I think he's got NHL attributes. But he's got to crack OK-City before he can crack it here. It's a good opportunity."
While O'Marra was told to say home and away from the locker room, there's still a chance that he'll be available to play tonight. Only time will tell.
"We've got him on medicine now. We won't know for a few hours."
Season Series: The teams are meeting for the only time this season. They haven't seen each other since the Devils won 4-3 in overtime at the Prudential Center on Nov. 12, 2010. This is just the third trip to Rexall Place by the Devils since the end of 2001.
Big Story: To say the Oilers are glad to be home would be an understatement. With the World Junior Championship taking over Rexall Place, the Oilers haven't been home since Dec. 22 -- and they won just once in seven games during their marathon road trip, though they've been off since losing 4-1 in Dallas on Saturday afternoon. The Devils are playing on back-to-back nights and will try to make up for Tuesday's 6-3 loss at Calgary.
Devils: New Jersey dominated the Flames for most of the night on Tuesday, but a rare bad night by goaltenders Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg was too much to overcome. Brodeur was beaten twice on five shots before being lifted, and Hedberg surrendered four on just nine shots as the Devils lost by three despite outshooting Calgary 38-14.
Brodeur wasn't happy about being lifted by coach Peter DeBoer just 7:14 into the game after allowing long-distance goals to Jay Bouwmeester and Cory Sarich.
"He makes his own decision on it," Brodeur said. I'm definitely not going to sit here and say I deserved it or whatever. … In a game like that, you've got to give me a chance to play. Seven minutes into the game, it's not over, yet."
Oilers: Edmonton was seven points out of eighth place in the West when it hit the road last month. The Oilers came home 15 points in arrears and minus its top two scorers -- Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins -- due to injury. With half a season to go, coach Tom Renney has to make sure his young team doesn't start feeling sorry for itself.
"With the exception of a couple of periods I thought we played pretty well on this trip," Renney said. "We didn't get rewarded for it and sometimes a team that lacks the experience and wherewithal to deal with it might feel 'What else can we do? What else can happen to us?' We can't fell into that trap. We have to press on.
"We can't have a 'woe is me, we didn't get what we deserved' because most of the time you do.
"Sometimes circumstances are a little bit beyond your control, but it's amazing what you can accomplish if you just knuckle down together."
Who's Hot: New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk has scored four times during a three-game goal-scoring streak. He's now tops on the team with 16. Linemates Zach Parise and Adam Henrique both have three straight multipoint games. … Taylor Hall is starting to show why the Oilers made him the first player picked in the 2010 NHL Draft. He has goals in each of his last four games.
Stat Pack: The Devils scored their League-leading 10th shorthanded goal in the loss at Calgary. They also lead the League in shorthanded goals allowed with 12. … New Jersey is 5-1-1 in its last seven visits to Rexall Place and is 10-10 with five ties in 25 visits since moving from Colorado in 1982.
Puck Drop: Magnus Paajarvi, the 10th player taken in the 2009 NHL Draft, often gets lost in the shuffle among the Oilers' young talent. Paajarvi had 15 goals and 34 points as a rookie last season, but was demoted to Oklahoma City of the AHL after managing just three assists in 25 games in 2011-12.
The Oilers' rash of injuries and some solid play with the Barons has earned the 20-year-old a recall -- and he feels the trip to the minors was good for him.
"I embraced it," Paajarvi told the Oilers' website. "I'm 20 years old and was watching from the press box. That doesn't do a lot. At the time it was the best thing to go down and play a lot, not think too much and get that rhythm back. I proved last year that I can play on the top lines and I played 80 games last year.