Toronto, ON - Following a three-game homestand in which the Oilers collected wins in each, the orange and blue now embark on a similar set, with the next three coming on the road against teams battling for a post-season berth.
Tonight, Edmonton goes head-to-head with Toronto to kick it all off in the teams' annual encounter at the Air Canada Centre. While the team took an opportunity to rest and relax on a practice-less travel day Sunday, an 11:30am ET morning skate helped loosen to the legs in preparation for tonight's East-West showdown.
In stringing together a 4-0-1 stretch, help continues to come. Tom Gilbert, who's missed 12 games with a knee/ankle injury, returns to the lineup tonight.
"It's been a new experience for me being out this long," said the 29-year-old who, in four full seasons with the Oilers, missed only three games prior to this year's IR appearance. "It's real exciting to come back, especially with the way the team has been playing. There's been some historical games in the last few, guys have been playing a lot better, the team has been playing a lot better, and we're trying to make a push here. It's nice to be a part of that again."
Although Gilbert had been relegated to the press box, he didn't take the view for granted. The Oilers have played well recently, but the rangy rearguard sees room for improvement.
"I still think there are a lot of holes [in our game]," he explained. "Our system play has been alright. There have been great performances by guys in the past three or four games, but playing a team like Toronto, if we continue to have turnovers in our D zone, teams like Toronto are going to take advantage of that. Our team has got to be patient tonight, it's got to be quick puck movement and avoid the turnovers."
Andy Sutton will, in turn, take a seat as a healthy scratch while Gilbert will be paired alongside Cam Barker.
Associate Coach Ralph Krueger agreed with his blueliner's sentiments and added a note on Gilbert's value to the Oilers' in-need defence core.
"Tommy Gilbert is a leader with this group," he said. "He's a very cerebral player who gives us stability. We'll ease him back in and keep him around 15 minutes, not the 27 he was playing when he went out. He's a great man to have on the team and he gives us some more depth."
T. DOT REDUX
The last time these teams met at the Maple Leafs' home rink, the Oilers trotted away with a dominant 5-0 win back on Dec. 2, 2010. Taylor Hall scored a pair that night, while Jordan Eberle chipped in with a strong performance of his own, netting a goal and three points to help the orange and blue shut out the home side.
"Last year was a fun time," said Hall, who's notched seven points in his last four games, looking back on 2010's triumph. "That was where I really started to get comfortable as a player with the Oilers. [There are] a lot of guys that were a factor in that, along with me scoring two goals, we won a big game there. That was a big trip for us and we look at this trip the same way. We need to come out of this trip with some wins and to be playing well to give ourselves some hope (down the stretch)."
Coming to Toronto should help. Just like Montreal, there's an extra buzz when teams clash in a hockey-mad, metropolitan sports mecca. In addition, Sam Gagner spends his summers in Oakville while Hall hangs out in Kingston, mere hours from the Air Canada Centre.
"We have to contain the enthusiasm from the coaches," Krueger laughed. "It's always exciting to come to Toronto for all of us. It's the Centre of the Universe for hockey in many ways. Bringing this energy to the right place and bringing it to the work ethic and the team game that we need, is what we need to do here and use this enthusiasm that Toronto always brings into our group as a building block for a victory.
"Everybody is watching our group come together, and we're playing as a team as good as we did at the beginning of the season," the coach added. "We want to keep this feeling; nothing replaces winning, so we're happy to be on this track right now and we're going to work hard to stay there."
NO. 89'S 11
With another scoresheet steamroll on Saturday vs. Detroit, Sam Gagner continues to ride a hot hand. The 22-year-old scored 2-1-3, helping the Oilers establish an early lead en route to an eventual 5-4 win in the shootout. In addition to his eight-point outing (four goals and four assists) the previous night, Gagner's hand in 11 straight Oilers goals surpassed Wayne Gretzky's team record.
It's been a bit of a whirlwind, but the 5'11", 195-pound winger remains humble.
"It was a good week," he said, noting his announcement of being named the NHL's Star of the Week. "The biggest thing is we were able to play well as a group and that helps individuals exceed a little more. A lot of guys had good weeks. That's really important for us going forward, is that we can string these weeks together and continue to play better and better as the year goes along."
"It doesn't seem like it," laughed Hall when asked about whether or not Gagner is slowing down. "Right now with me and Jordan, it's fun to play on his line."
NEWS & NOTES
Devan Dubnyk who, with a 4-0-1 record since the team's pre-break "metamorphosis," has improved to 10-11-1 on the season. He'll get the call again tonight, looking to advance his 2.92 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.
Head Coach Tom Renney, while conversing with Ales Hemsky prior to today's morning skate, was struck in the head by an errant puck. The bench boss required some stitches to the side of his head, but he was smiling as he vacated the ice this morning and should be ready to go for tonight's game.
Season series: This is the first of two meetings between these cross-conference clubs. Toronto and Edmonton split the 2010-11 season series with each team getting a win on the road.
Big Story: While no player has been hotter than the Oilers' Sam Gagner over the last two games, it's the Maple Leafs that are in better shape as a team. Gagner jumped ahead of Wayne Gretzky on Saturday for the Oilers' team record with his 11th straight point, but Edmonton still has plenty of ground to make up to get back into the Western Conference playoff picture. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs will try to extend their winning streak to three, while maintaining their eighth-place standing in the East. The visiting Oilers will attempt to grab their fourth straight win.
Oilers: An overall three-game winning streak has given the Oilers a spark, but, as of Sunday, the Western Canadian club sat seven points behind the West's 12th-place Phoenix Coyotes. However, coach Tom Renney and company will still try to put on a quality showing down the stretch if only to provide some confidence going into yet another off-season with likely no playoff showing.
A repeat performance of Saturday's 5-4 shootout win over Detroit would be much needed as Edmonton will try to break free of a current six-game road losing streak. Gagner tallied two power-play goals and an assist Saturday, but was not a factor in Jordan Eberle's game-tying fourth goal with just under 40 seconds left in regulation.
"It's a big win for us," Gagner told NHL.com after the game. "Especially the way we did it, coming back at the end. I knew I wasn't going to get another eight-point night. But even after the points kept coming our line was still creating."
Maple Leafs: With an aggregate score of 6-0 over its last two games, Toronto appears to be clicking at just the right moment. But the Leafs are far from in the clear as they will have to fight off the recently upstart 9th-place Washington Capitals as well as continuing to battle with a number of teams all sitting within reach above them in the standings.
Continued strong performances from their goaltenders will need to occur if the Leafs are to maintain their playoff position in the East. James Reimer has been up to the task with 74 points over consecutive shutouts.
"We did what we needed to a couple of nights ago in Pittsburgh and here again tonight," Reimer said following the Leafs' 5-0 win over Ottawa on Saturday. "Right from the get-go I thought we played real smart, honest hockey."
Who's Hot: Gagner is in the midst of a three-game point streak with 6 goals and 6 assists over that span. ... Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak both had a goal and 2 assists in the win at Ottawa on Saturday.
Injury Report: The Leafs' Darryl Boyce (back spasms) has missed the last eight games. ... Now that forward Ryan-Nugent Hopkins (shoulder) returned to the lineup Saturday, the Oilers should boast a fully healthy lineup Monday (minus Tom Gilbert).
Stat Pack: Gagner's 11 points over the last two games jumped him from 200th place on this season's NHL scoring leaders list to 90, as of Sunday night's games.
Puck Drop: It's always a time to celebrate when a player totals 11 points over two games, but it couldn't have come at a better time for the struggling Gagner. The fifth-year forward had just 22 points through 43 games before the hot streak.
"I'm just feeling way better about how I am playing. I want the puck. I want to be the guy," Gagner told reporters after Saturday's shootout win.