Ottawa, ON - With a 2:00pm ET start on CBC's Hockey Day in Canada on Saturday, the Oilers' morning skate took place 18 hours earlier and lasted 30 minutes longer than usual, as the club practiced at Scotiabank Place in Kanata.
Win and you're in, says Head Coach Tom Renney. So when you lose and are skidding on an eight-game road winless streak, changes are expected. Having made 26 saves on 30 shots and looking sharp throughout on Wednesday in Detroit, Nikolai Khabibulin will get another opportunity between the pipes.
But on the backend, where some have emerged and others have shown weakness in recent games, moves will be made. Andy Sutton, who has missed the team's last pair as a healthy scratch, will be re-inserted. Cam Barker will likely be the odd-man out, as the 25-year-old has notched a collective -6 rating on the Oilers' current trip.
"Guys were coming back," Sutton said, describing the reason for his demotion to the press box. "I'm 36 and I understand my role. If my role happens to be to sit out a couple games so someone else can play, that's probably the way it's going to be. I'm going to control what I can control, be a good teammate and try to keep things positive around here, talk to the guys and be ready to play."
"He's got a good presence, of course. He's got leadership in him. His size and reach and strength and those types of things are certainly something that we need," Renney added of Sutton. "When he's on his game, we seem to be a little bit more poised in our own end. He needs to come in and provide that for us.
"He needs [to play physical]. You hope that it's contagious and that others provide the same thing. It can't be incumbent on one person to do that and we have others capable of it. That's very much a part of [Sutton's] DNA and we need it."
Sutton, who has 55 hits this season, is hoping to provide that and more as the Oilers look to snap the skid. The 6'6", 245-pound rearguard ranks second on the team in plus-minus with a +3 rating and is one of only three plus players gracing the orange and blue's roster.
"Hopefully I can provide some stability back there, some leadership, get the goals-against down and give us a chance to win," he said. "It's really difficult to watch, especially when the team's losing and not losing well. We didn't look strong in parts of those games (in Toronto and Detroit), so it'll be good for us to get back and be more stable defensively."
Tomorrow's game will be a bit of a homecoming for Sutton, who spent part of the 2009-10 season with the Senators, notching a goal in 18 games. He's also from Kingston, a mere 2.5-hour drive from Scotiabank Place in southern Ontario.
He and his mom, Linda, had a slumber party last night while is dad and nephew will be in attendance to take in the Hockey Day in Canada atmosphere tomorrow.
The same(ish) can be said for Jordan Eberle, too. Just over a week ago, the 20-year-old sophomore took part in the NHL All-Star game in the very same rink; and it would be impossible to forget the young superstar's dramatic goal vs. Russia at the 2009 World Junior Championship.
Scotiabank Place. Hockey Day in Canada. Jordan Eberle. All seem to fit in a Canadian-as-can-be, grassroots matchup in Ottawa.
"Yeah, it's a big day," he said, smiling. "On Hockey Day and Canada and everything, we're really excited."
In order to overcome the Senators' skill and seventh-place ranking in the NHL's Eastern Conference, success in a matinee is vital. The Oilers have amassed a 1-2-0 record in midday contests this season, winning in Minnesota but dropping games to the New York Islanders and Dallas Stars.
"It's just a different routine," Eberle explained. "I think you're used to doing something at night all the time and napping during the day, whereas with this one you wake up, go eat breakfast and go play. In some ways it's nice, in some ways it's difficult, but I've done a few now so I know how to prepare for it.
"They've got a lot of skill over there," he added about the Senators. "They can shoot the puck, they've got a very good D core. I remember the last time we played them in our rink (5-2 loss on Nov. 17), we were outshooting them, but we couldn't score and all of a sudden they got two.
"It's the same story for us. If we can manage the puck the right way and do the right things with it and not turn it over, we'll give ourselves a better opportunity to win."
The Oilers' brass utilized a rare night off to catch the Senators' 4-3 win over Nashville last night. With some extra knowledge in tow, Renney feels as though his club is well prepared for tomorrow's challenge.
"We have to take our game to them," he said, adding particular attention to special teams, which hurt in the Oilers in Wednesday's 4-2 loss to the Red Wings. "You can either have your power-play on the ice or your penalty kill on the ice and you have that choice, depending on how hard you want to work."
THIS & THAT
Having scored eight goals and 14 points in his last four games, Sam Gagner's spectacular turnaround has garnered extra attention. The 22-year-old will get another promotion, moving up to play pivot on the team's top power-play unit. As a result, Shawn Horcoff will move down.
"They're playing well as a trio," Renney said. "Putting them on the ice as a power-play unit, with the extra attacker and extra room, makes sense."
With the trade deadline quickly approaching, the rumour winds continue to swirl. While Ales Hemsky's name is brought up most, another is hearing more than he'd like.
"It's always on your mind," Sutton said. "Everyone wants to know where they're going to be tomorrow, right? At the same time, I'm not the general manager, I'm the player. The worst thing I can do is think about it to where it affects my performance negatively. That doesn't get you re-signed here and that doesn't make anybody else want you, either. You have to control your own destiny and try to stay calm, not really think about it too much and focus on playing well."
Season Series: The second of the annual home-and-home series; the Senators won 5-2 in Edmonton back in November and have a chance to sweep the Oilers for the third time in the last four seasons they have met since the lockout.
Big Story: At least the Senators can breathe a bit, having snapped their seven-game losing streak Thursday with a 4-3 win over the Predators and offensive help from an unlikely source. Chris Phillips celebrated his 1,000th NHL game with a pair of goals, the first for the stay-at-home defenseman in almost a year. The Oilers' road struggles continue -- they've lost at Toronto and Detroit this week, leaving them desperate to salvage something in Ottawa before returning home.
Oilers: The gap between the Oilers' performance at Rexall Place and away from it is drastic. At 6-20-2, their road record is the worst in the NHL, and they've won only one of 16 away games since Nov. 26. Given their respectable 15-8-3 home record, it's more than enough to be the major difference between contending for a playoff spot and their current 14th-place position in the Western Conference, 13 points behind eighth-seeded Phoenix.
"I don't know if it's the comfort of being at home or what it is," Ryan Jones said to the National Post. "We just haven't played very well on the road. It's not that we're playing the same game and winning at home, but losing on the road. We're playing great at home and playing like junk on the road.
"I don't have an explanation for it, but if we'd just duplicate what we do at home we'd be in a whole different position."
Senators: Home or away, the Senators have been streaky this season. Before the seven-game slide that ended Thursday, Ottawa had gone 8-1-1 to work their way back into the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Considering that they only picked up one point in those seven losses, the Senators' seventh seed and five-point deficit to the Northeast Division-leading Bruins are very fortunate positions indeed.
Still, coach Paul MacLean knew their luck wouldn't last, so a line shuffle was in order. Bobby Butler went from three straight games as a healthy scratch to the top line and came up with a pair of assists against Nashville. Craig Anderson got a rest after 18 consecutive starts and the defense rallied around backup Alex Auld. For Phillips, it was pure karma as far as his teammates were concerned.
"I think (Phillips) scoring two goals proves there are hockey gods and rewarding a great person," center Jason Spezza said in the Ottawa Citizen. "He's a great teammate. He's a guy that's highly regarded in this dressing room and I don't think there's a guy in this room that isn't happy for him. To see him have the night he had is a pretty special moment for our team."
Who's Hot:Sam Gagner has kept his solid play going after his epic eight-point night last Thursday. He's had eight goals and seven assists during a five-game points streak and has had a hand in 14 of the Oilers' last 17 goals. Jordan Eberle's four-game goal-scoring streak was stopped in Detroit on Wednesday, but he and Gagner have scored 13 of Edmonton's last 16. … Butler probably earned a second try at the top line Saturday as he, Spezza and Milan Michalek combined for seven points Thursday. Spezza's two goals ended an eight-game drought.
Injury Report: All eyes in Edmonton are on Calder contender Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who reinjured his left shoulder in Toronto on Monday in only his second game back after missing the previous 13. He's expected to be out 10 more days. … Senators forward Jesse Winchester, out since Dec. 21 with a concussion, is practicing with the team and remains day-to-day.
Stat Pack : Gagner's eight goals over a four-game span is the most productive stretch by an Oiler since Petr Klima did the same in 1991. His 14 points in that span match a Mark Messier run between Jan, 17-27, 1990. … In 28 road games, the Oilers have scored 64 goals, 12 fewer than at Rexall Place, while allowing 92, 26 more than they've allowed at home. … Before Thursday, Phillips' last goal was on Feb. 26, 2011 -- 74 games ago. That goal ended a 72-game drought. At the time, his future with the Senators was in doubt as the trade deadline approached. … Milan Michalek has now gone 12 games without a goal, but had two assists and was robbed twice by All-Star goalie Pekka Rinne.
Puck Drop: "I'm just happy to be the guy who is flanking him right now. He's got the hot hand. The biggest thing for him is that he's going to the net. He's got really good timing and he's getting open and putting it in." -- Taylor Hall in the National Post on linemate Gagner. Aside from Gagner and Eberle, Hall has one of the Oilers' last 16 goals; the other two were scored by defensemen