The Edmonton Oilers wrap up a three-game home stand looking to extend their successful stretch but it will have to come against a difficult opponent - the Detroit Red Wings.
The team has picked up points in each of its last four games with regulation victories in the first two on this home stand, including an 8-4 shellacking of the Chicago Blackhawks last time out. The Red Wings, meanwhile, continue to roll on with wins in nine of its last 10.
"The big thing against these guys, they're just a smart team. They play two-and-a-half hours every single time they come to the rink," said Oilers head coach Tom Renney. "We can't beat ourselves but we can't stand around in awe, either. We want to play the game in their end and not give them anything."
Renney added that if the Oilers play the game their way, it might simply come down to who has the best power play tonight.
"It might be a game of specialty teams. It might be that one power play that might make the difference -- if we're doing our job. We can't give them too much."
The good news with that scenario is that the Oilers have the best power play in the NHL on home ice at 24.0% and third-best overall at 21.4% but the Red Wings are the second-least penalized team in the League, averaging only 8.6 minutes per game.
"We have things that other teams have difficulty with and we want to make sure we bring those to the forefront," Renney continued. "It's a great challenge to play these teams. I like it because it forces us to be as good as we possibly can in every aspect of our game."
The defence pairings are expected to be the same as last game (Smid/Petry, Whitney/Potter, Barker/Sutton). Theo Peckham is still recovering after taking a puck to the face on Tuesday against Colorado and will sit this one out.
Devan Dubnyk makes his career-high fifth consecutive start between the pipes.
After missing 12 games with a shoulder injury suffered on January 3 in Chicago, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins finally makes his much-anticipated return to the Oilers lineup.
"I'm very excited. I can't wait to get out there. It's been a long time," said Nugent-Hopkins following the morning skate. "I can't let my emotions get too high or it'll take over my game."
The rookie centre, who still leads all NHL freshmen with 35 points, added that he may not be sharp to begin with but he won't be hesitant to get back in it.
"My timing might be a little off at the start. I just need to try and get into the game in some way, whether it's taking a hit, giving a hit or getting a shot on goal. The biggest thing is I want to get right into it. I don't want to feel my way into it."
RNH added that he feels the shoulder is strong enough and will be able to withstand any impact an NHL game might throw at him.
"I've been taking some hits in practice over the past few days so it feels good."
Coach Renney talked about not being completely sure how Nugent-Hopkins' integration into the lineup will go.
"When you talk about players, you just want to make sure they're on the right side of the pucks, pucks are getting in deep, those types of things. With Nuge, I'm not sure. This is new territory for me, too, seeing how he works his way back into an NHL game coming off an injury. Safe to say he'll be smart enough. We all know that."
Playing with Horcoff on the wing gives Nugent-Hopkins someone to help him with draws, with Renney unsure about how his shoulder injury might have affected that part of his game.
"If we needed the help there we thought we could use Horc. And Horc can play both sides of the wings, too. We'll start with that and if required he'll take the draws but we'll try to get the Nuge going."
Taylor Hall added that he's excited to see what RNH's return will do for the team's power play.
"We know that he's going to help our power play and five-on-five. He's so smart and is such a dangerous player. I have a feeling it's not going to take him long to find his bearings and play well," said Hall.
The final word goes to Renney, who wanted to make sure that the expectation wasn't there that the 18-year-old was going to step in and dominate immediately.
"The biggest thing is keeping our expectations realistic. I don't know what to expect from Nuge and how he comes back from something like this. I expect him to think the game fine. Whether the pace is something he's got to get reacquainted with or the physicality of it, I'm not sure. I think the potential is to have something special there. No matter who he plays with, they're okay. I don't know if it'll take a game or two or a couple shifts."
THE SAM STORY
Coming off an incredible eight-point night on Thursday against Chicago, the storyline is that the NHL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league and Sam Gagner knows that when the puck drops tonight it's a clean slate.
Gagner was also quick to compliment his linemates and their role in his big night. Eberle and Hall had four points apiece.
"Jordan and Taylor had a great night as well. A few more bounces and they could have had eight, too," he said. "I'm happy with the chemistry. It's just a matter of keeping it going. We've got another big game here tonight and we've got to continue to play the same way."
With the team 12 points out of a playoff spot, the team is looking at the schedule in small increments as they look for good outings to build on and grow with.
"Our goal is playing our best hockey and pushing right to the end. It's a great learning experience for us going down the stretch and we have to treat it as such."
-- Marc Ciampa, edmontonoilers.com
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
LAST 10: Detroit 9-1-0, Edmonton 4-4-2
Season Series: Third meeting of four, the first two both Detroit wins, and both on goals by Drew Miller. He scored the opening tally in a 3-0 shutout at the Joe on Nov. 11 and the tiebreaker late in the third period of a 3-2 win at Rexall Place on Dec. 19. That extended the Wings' winning streak against the Oilers to seven dating back to the 2009-10 season; the last Oiler win came on March 19, 2010, a 3-2 shootout victory at home. In their last 21 meetings, the Red Wings are 14-1-6 against the Oilers.
Big Story:Sam Gagner made history on Thursday with his eight-point performance and the Oilers are playing well with a 3-0-1 record in their last four games. Trouble is, the Red Wings come in winners of nine of their last 10 games and the only break the Oilers get is not having to face goalie Jimmy Howard, who's out for at least the next two games with a broken right index finger. The Wings have begun to narrow the yawning gap between their home play and away, having won four of five on the road to bring their record to 15-14-0. A 4-3 shootout win in Vancouver on Thursday extended their lead in the Western Conference to four points.
Red Wings : Basically, the Wings played Thursday's road game like a home game, where they've won 17 in a row. They dominated the Canucks for the first two periods at Rogers Arena, outshooting them 30-11 and taking a 2-1 lead into the intermission, with only Roberto Luongo's strong play keeping it close. The Canucks came back in the third, forcing overtime with a late Mason Raymond goal, but Detroit solved Luongo in the shootout, beating him twice to seal the 4-3 win and extend their record in the post-game skills competition to 6-0. Five of the Wings' last nine wins have come in similar fashion.
"When you've won a few in a shootout you're a confident bunch," captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "We've been switching it up a little bit, having different guys go but guys have been very confident going in there."
Lidstrom did add, however, that the confidence starts with Howard, who they'll be doing without for hopefully a short while.
Oilers: At age 22, Gagner is looking forward to a long NHL career. Thanks to what he did on Thursday, he can now be mentioned in the same breath as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Maurice Richard and Bryan Trottier. The amazing part of his big night: Going into Thursday, the Oilers had managed only 15 goals in their previous 10 games.
Right now, though, Gagner is living in the moment.
"I had 60 (texts and emails) last night and another 50 when I got up this morning, so it's been a lot of work writing everyone back," Gagner told the Oilers' website. "It's nice to see that support from everyone.
"I got a couple really big ones too … Wayne Gretzky texted me, and Paul Coffey as well. To be mentioned in a record with those guys is a pretty special feeling … really an honor."
Who's Hot: Gagner had plenty of help on Thursday; Jordan Eberle had a four-point night and has scored goals in three of his last four games. Taylor Hall also had four points and has scored in three straight. … Jiri Hudler has four goals in his last three games for the Wings, while Danny Cleary has four points in his last three.
Injury Report: Detroit forward Patrick Eaves (fractured jaw) is still weeks away. … For the Oilers, rookie forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, out since Jan. 2 with a shoulder injury, is expected back in the lineup Saturday.
Stat Pack: With Howard out of commission, Ty Conklin will likely get the start with Joey McDonald coming up from the AHL to back him up. He's 4-2-0 with a 3.02 goals-against average versus the Oilers. It would be the first anniversary of the last time he faced Edmonton, beating them 5-3 in a St. Louis Blues uniform. The Red Wings have outscored the Oilers 22-9 in their last six matchups.
Puck Drop: Gagner was a first-round pick by the Oilers in 2007 but has never become the big scorer they hoped he'd be. Coach Tom Renney hopes the eight-point explosion is a sign of bigger things to come for Gagner and some of the other youngsters in the organization.
"That's what you can look forward to here," he said Friday. "I'm not saying we're going to be doing extraordinary things offensively every time we play, but this team is going to be special. It's got kids who are deeply committed to where this thing can go with their help."