Detroit, MI - The Oilers assembled at the Joe Louis Arena at 11:30am ET this morning, prepping to challenge the Detroit Red Wings for the second time in three games in a unique and broken up home-and-home set.
The Joe has become a place where red and white losses simply don't happen anymore. The Oilers' 6-19-2 road record will be pitted against the Wings' dominant 17-game winning streak on home ice.
The man assigned to the task will be Nikolai Khabibulin, who has yet to win a game since Dec. 22 vs. Minnesota at Rexall Place. Along with a personal eight-game winless skid, the 39-year-old netminder hasn't played a game in his club's last six outings. While it will be a challenge to get back in the groove in such a hostile road environment, the veteran is ready to meet it head-on.
"Since I haven't played in so long, I've had more time in practice to work on a couple things, like working on the technical aspect of the game and keeping it sharp," Khabibulin said. "I like to get in the game right away and get a couple shots, but that's something I cannot control. I've got to be ready for anything.
"From my standpoint, not having played in a while, I'm going to go out and keep it simple."
Keeping it simple ought to be a logical convention. On Saturday when these teams last met – and with the Oilers triumphing by a 5-4 score in a shootout – it was an end-to-end game with odd-man rushes that seemed to spawn at will. In going head-to-head against the league's best team, skill (and opposing danger) is always on display.
"Usually [Detroit has] some skilled guys, but they also have some guys that can play a gritty game," Khabibulin explained. It's usually a game with a lot of shots (Devan Dubnyk was tested with 39 on Saturday) and guys going to the net hard, but also when guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg step on the ice, there's some skill involved and you've got to be ready."
"It's an exciting challenge to play against the Wings," added Sam Gagner, who's potted 12 points in his last three games. "They've been a great team in this league for a lot of years and it's a team you want to emulate. When you play against them, it's an extra level that you want to get to. Hopefully we can do it again tonight and come out with a win."
Helping the Oilers' cause in hoping to disrupt Detroit's dominant home surge, call-up Magnus Paajarvi has arrived back with the orange and blue is looking to "make an impact" tonight.
"You can always bring up goals, assists and points," he said, looking at what needs to improve in his game. "It's good hockey, good things and good details. I think that I've been doing that this year when I've been up here, but I haven't really gotten the production that I've wanted. It's been a disappointment in that way, but it's not going to work out every time. You can't dig down too deep; instead, keep working and be better. That's what I'm doing right now, is to not get down and to keep believing."
The 20-year-old sophomore has scored only one pro goal this season, but it came with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons. Regardless, he'll get an opportunity to skate in the Top 6 as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' 7-10 shoulder injury opens up a spot.
"I don't expect anything," Paajarvi said. "I play where the coach puts me. I'm glad to be back here. I really want to make an impact and really want to be a lot better than I have been; to show myself and others that I can play good hockey. Even though I've done that before, I want to be better.
"It will be awesome," he added about the challenge vs. Detroit. "They're the most exciting team to play against. There are a lot of Swedes there, and that's always a special thing for Swedes that play in this league. They're a great team. They're a really, really good transition team. They're really strong with the puck and they've got really skilled players from the D to their forwards."
It was that balanced attack that helped the Wings overcome a pair of two-goal Oilers leads (2-0 and 3-1) on Saturday, escalating to a 4-3 advantage prior to the home side's last-minute comeback.
Gagner, who notched a pair and added an assist in that game, believes there's room to pen improvement against their talented opponent.
"We need to play harder a little longer," he explained. "It's the 60-minute cliche. There were parts in that game where we got outplayed, but ultimately we were able to come out with the win. If we can continue to work on being consistent throughout the whole game, it should help us a lot."
Going into tonight, building on the weekend's edgy contest will pay dividends, too. The game was highlighted with eight non-obstruction penalties, with mitts draped across the ice in an emotionally-tilted Hockey Night in Canada appearance. Head Coach Tom Renney agrees that will be a necessary component heading into tonight, again on national TV.
"We all like edge," he said. "It's good, it keeps us all competitive and keeps you engaged. If you don't expect it and promote it, then you probably shouldn't be playing at this level.
"I think our start will be important," Renney added. "We've got to make sure that we're competitive right away. We need to alleviate the problems that we presented ourselves in Toronto by managing the puck better and not giving it away. I think special teams will be a key feature tonight, however many on each side that might be. We have to be a good penalty-killing team tonight and our power-play has to click."
Season series: This will be the fourth and final game between these Western Conference teams and Detroit has won two of the first three – winning 3-0 on Nov. 11 at Joe Louis Arena and 3-2 on Dec. 14 at Rexall Place. Jimmy Howard was in goal for both of those wins for the Red Wings, but missed the most recent meeting – a 5-4 Oilers shootout win on Feb. 4 at Rexall Place – with a broken finger that could also keep him out for this game.
Big story: Detroit has won a franchise-record 17 straight game at home and keeps setting a new mark with each new win. The NHL record is 20 straight wins at home, but before the Wings start looking that far ahead they'll have to figure out a way to beat the Oilers – who just beat them in Edmonton this past weekend in a shootout. Howard (broken finger) will probably miss the game, but Joey MacDonald looked solid in his first start of the season on Monday in Phoenix. Edmonton, meanwhile, has again lost dynamic rookie center Ryan Nugent Hopkins for up to 10 days because of a new shoulder injury that happened in Toronto on Monday, while Oilers coach Tom Renney might also miss a second straight game after getting hit in the head with a puck at Edmonton's morning skate in Toronto.
Red Wings: They still haven't entirely solved their road struggles, as evidenced by a 3-1 loss on Monday to conclude a five-game road swing, but the trip wasn't terrible. It also concluded Detroit's toughest stretch of the remaining schedule. The Red Wings entered Tuesday's action still on top of the League standings with 72 points and hope to use a two-week homestand to increase that lead even more. Detroit plays 18 of its final 28 games at Joe Louis Arena. The Wings also came back to the Motor City at a good time from a health standpoint – with Howard nursing his broken index finger and forwards Danny Cleary and Tomas Holmstrom battling chronic knee pain. Star center Pavel Datsyuk is also avoiding most faceoffs over the next couple of games because of an apparent wrist ailment. The good news is that since playing 21 of their last 31 games on the road, the Wings are home in their comfort zone.
"You still have to play," Detroit coach Mike Babcock told the Detroit News. "That's our whole key. We have to play and play at a high level."
Oilers: They've had some pretty odd injuries in Edmonton, so having both Nugent-Hopkins and Renney injured on Monday in Toronto shouldn't have come as a huge shock – even with Renney taking a puck to the head in the morning skate. This is the same team that lost star Taylor Hall to a nasty facial cut from a teammate's skate blade after a fall in the-game warm-up and originally lost Nugent-Hopkins for 13 games with a shoulder injury after he fell awkwardly into the boards in Chicago. Now he's got a different injury to the same shoulder after a hit by Toronto's Mike Brown on Monday night. Good thing the line combination of Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner and Taylor Hall remains red hot –accounting for two of the Oilers' three goals against the Maple Leafs.
"I felt like our line, for spurts, was good all night – and it's important that we play a full 60 minutes," said Gagner, who earned the League's top star for his 11 points in two games last weekend, including an 8-point game (4 goals and 4 assists) against Chicago. "It's something we can learn from and hopefully get better as we go on here."
Who's hot: Cleary and Darren Helm have assists in four of the last five games for Detroit, while teammate Henrik Zetterberg has tallied four assists in the past two contests; Take your pick of scorching players on the Oilers' top line, with Gagner still leading the way with 6 goals and 6 assists in the past three games.
Injury report: Patrick Eaves (fractured jaw) is on injured reserve, Cleary (knee) may need a treatment that could sideline and Howard (fractured finger) isn't likely to play for Detroit. Nugent-Hopkins (shoulder) and Renney (struck by puck/possible concussion) could both be missing for Edmonton.
Stat pack: The Red Wings are averaging 4.3 goals a game during their 17-game home winning streak, but have scored just three markers in six of the past seven games at Joe Louis Arena; The Oilers are 1-8-1 in their last 10 road games and rank last in the League overall with a 6-19-2 record away from Rexall Place – good for just 14 points in 27 road games.
Puck drop: Edmonton associate coach Ralph Krueger said that Renney could potentially coach against the Red Wings, but it's not a certainty.
"He was a part of our team meeting earlier," Krueger told the Edmonton Journal. "It's important for him to get some rest. We need to take it day to day with him."