Edmonton, AB - Coaches don't necessarily want to make changes to a winning lineup, but when you're prepared to welcome back the league's top Rookie of the Year candidate in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, you make room.
No. 93 passed Head Coach Tom Renney's ‘U Test' at Friday's practice, meaning the Oilers' prized young superstar will be back in the lineup as his club takes on the Phoenix Coyotes in tomorrow's matinee at Rexall Place.
Anton Lander was doing extra work as the squad parted ways at Millennium Place in Sherwood Park, indicating that he'll be odd-man out as a healthy scratch, alongside Ryan Jones and Cam Barker in the press box.
"I feel really good," said Nugent-Hopkins, who's missed the past six games, totaling 18 this season. "I haven't tweaked it in a long time, so that's a really positive thing. It's not getting sore after I shoot or anything like that. Tomorrow it might take a couple shifts to get my legs going, but I don't want to have that happen. I want to get into the game right away if I can.
"I've had some direct contact on it and it's felt fine."
Associate Coach Ralph Krueger said sternly in the week's post-practice press conferences that RNH wouldn't return until his shoulder was completely healed and at 100-percent.
"97-percent won't cut it," he said yesterday.
"Anybody watching the skate today, he was putting a lot of pucks in the net," he laughed, noting Nugent-Hopkins' seamless integration back. "He feels very strong. He feels better than he did coming off a similar injury last time. He feels 100-percent, whereas last time he had this feeling that he wasn't quite there yet. His mind is in a good space and we're excited to see him back in the lineup."
While there may be some trepidation when it comes to physical contact among the 16,839 in attendance, the coach isn't concerned.
"There's nothing that takes the place of getting into a game," he said. "You can practice as hard as you want."
While Nugent-Hopkins is returning, another was close to replacing the rookie's spot on the Oilers' injury list. In last night's 2-0 win over the Flyers, Magnus Paajarvi was dangerously (and dirtily) kneed by Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell, causing the sophomore to limp to the locker room in obvious pain.
But there he was, back at Oilers practice and looking no worse for wear.
"I can't remember too much, but I felt instant pain on my knee, of course," he said. "We couldn't get the x-ray [last night], so we waited until this morning and there's nothing, no ligaments are broken or cracked. It's just a matter of pain tolerance, so it's nice to have that.
"Very surprised," Paajarvi added, admitted that it could have been much worse. "I felt very bad for 10-15 minutes, but then I started walking a little bit on it and it started to get a little bit better. I caught a lucky break for sure."
It doesn't sound as though there will be any supplementary discipline for the collision, but Krueger was hoping there would be.
"It was a dirty hit and hopefully that's being looked it. It was away from the play and we could have lost a player for a while. Magnus got away with one, as did we."
"It's all up to them," Paajarvi said. "I couldn't care less."
SHORING IT UP
While the Oilers did come away with a blanking over the league's highest scoring team in yesterday's matchup, it much closer than the score indicated. The Oilers had trouble containing the Flyers' high-octane attack, giving up numerous odd-man rushes and high-quality scoring opportunities, all of which (35 shots) were turned aside by Devan Dubnyk en route to his third career shutout.
"When they got possession in the D zone, we knew that they were going to send guys up and try to get them going behind us," said Jeff Petry who, once again, led his team in ice time with 22:43, highlighted by an even rating and three blocked shots. "It was something that they did quite well and we needed to be aware of it as the game went on. We had the two goals, so it was enough to win the game at the time, but we did our best not to give up anything. They came hard, but we didn't back down either.
"We got the puck going up the ice and that was the key early on," he added. "They didn't generate too much down low and us, as a D core, said before the game that they'd be coming hard with two guys, so we needed to get it past them and up-ice as quick as we could."
Petry had another solid outing last night, which included a highlight-reel play that stemmed from a bumble at the opposition's blueline. The 24-year-old lost his footing and could have sprung the Flyers on a breakaway, but a last-ditch on-his-butt reaction play saved the day as the appreciative Rexall crowd erupted in cheers.
With a laugh and subtle smile, Petry played it off; all part of the game, he said. But even so, it was a microcosm of the youngster's season, as he's improved leaps and bounds from the beginning, establishing himself as one of the team's go-to rearguards.
It's evolved into leadership, too, as he still sees room to improve – both as an individual, and on a game-by-game basis, even though the orange and blue are playing as well as they have all season in the past week.
"There's always something that you can do better," he said. "It's a matter of sticking to the game plan and continuing to chip pucks in when there aren't any plays. We love to get a cycle game going and wear down their D. That's something we're going to key on tomorrow as well.
"We know [Phoenix is] going to come hard. It's been a while since we've seen them, so we're not going to worry too much about them. We need to worry about ourselves and make sure we're sticking to what's made us have success over the past week."
The Coyotes are coming in hot, winning four straight including an emotional, come-from-behind 4-3 shootout win over the Flames last night in Calgary. Given that the Oilers have played well against post-season bound teams this year, the home side will be looking to continue riding this positive wave.
"Anytime you can string some wins together, the attitude in the locker room can change completely," Petry said. "It's something that we want to keep going, because it's a great feeling to have. It's a matter of buying in and working diligently to play the system. We're doing that right now."
NEED-TO-KNOWS:Nikolai Khabibulin was back at practice today and was looking sharp. He says he's feeling good and his status has been upgraded to day-to-day. It's possible that he could be back in the lineup on Monday night in Winnipeg.
Head Coach Tom Renney was also back in action; and, while he's staying away from duties regarding media availabilities, he's targeting to be back behind the bench for tomorrow's game.
"Tom is planning to be on the bench tomorrow and run everything as usual," Krueger explained. "He's phasing back into things. They don't want him to do everything, that's why I'm standing here today. He's planning to come back in and it's good to see him back. He's got good energy and he seems to be doing well."
Season Series: Third of four meetings. The two prior matchups were both played in Phoenix and won by the Coyotes with identical 4-2 scores. Eight different players have scored goals for Phoenix, while Taylor Hall leads Edmonton in the series with 2 goals.
Big Story: In a matter of weeks the Coyotes have gone from a team that it didn't appear was going to make the playoffs to one that nobody in the Western Conference wants to face in a best-of-seven series. Phoenix is still a long ways from having anything locked up, but having gone 10 in a row without a regulation loss to tie San Jose for first in the Pacific Division, the team is firing on all cylinders. The Oilers, on a two-game winning streak of their own, will try to slow the Coyotes down.
Coyotes: If a three-goal first-period deficit against Los Angeles earlier in the week wasn't enough to deny Phoenix, then falling behind 2-0 in the opening period at Calgary on Thursday didn't figure to faze the Coyotes much, either. They chipped away, getting goals in the second by Daymond Langkow and Shane Doan, then went ahead midway through the third courtesy of the ageless Ray Whitney. The Flames tied things up late, but for the second game in a row the Coyotes prevailed in a shootout, 4-3, as Whitney struck again for the decisive goal.
"We're all smiles and happy right now because we keep finding ways to win," Doan said. "It might not be pretty and it might not be the way coaches have it drawn up at the beginning, but we've found ways to come back. It gives us a belief system in your game that you know you can do it."
Oilers: A groin strain that has veteran Nikolai Khabibulin sidelined means Devan Dubnyk gets an opportunity to show Edmonton he's their man of the future in goal. Dubnyk made his statement loud and clear Thursday by stopping all 35 shots Philadelphia put on him in leading the Oilers to a 2-0 victory at Rexall Place. Jordan Eberle helped set up Hall's power-play goal 3:26 into the second period that was all the offense Dubnyk would need, and then he added an unassisted tally at the 8:04 mark for some breathing room.
"Tonight when they got some chances late, you just thought he was going to make the saves," defenseman Ryan Whitney said of Dubnyk. "You can just tell he had so much confidence in there on nights like that. He just looks so big in net, and it's great for us."
Who's Hot: Doan has 3 goals in the Coyotes' last two games. Whitney has 1 goal and 4 assists during a four-game points streak. Mike Smith now has a career-high nine-game winning streak in net. … Dubnyk has stopped 56 of 57 shots in the Oilers' last two games for a .982 save percentage. Eberle has 2 goals and 3 assists in the back-to-back victories. Hall also has goals in consecutive games.
Injury Report: Phoenix forward Gilbert Brule (head) is doubtful to face his former team after being injured against Los Angeles. Defenseman Derek Morris (personal) is out indefinitely. Defenseman Rostislav Klesla (upper body) and forward Kyle Chipchura (wrist) are on injured reserve. … Khabibulin's groin strain is expected to keep him out another week to 10 days, while forward Magnus Paajarvi's status is up in the air after he left Thursday's game with a knee injury. Defenseman Theo Peckham (face) and forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (shoulder) are on injured reserve.
Stat Pack: Antoine Vermette didn't record an official shot in 17:12 of ice time in his debut for the Coyotes, but he hit a pair of posts and won 60 percent of his faceoffs. … The Oilers as a team won 67 percent of their draws against the Flyers, with Eric Belanger almost unbeatable, winning 12 of 14 (86 percent).
Puck Drop: Edmonton may have owned the second period Thursday, outshooting Philadelphia by a 15-6 margin and scoring both of the game's goals, but Hall credited Dubnyk for keeping the team in the game early -- a pair of penalties in the first and another late in the third gave the Flyers some opportunities, and they outshot the Oilers 29-15 over those periods.
"This is a team that is going to score goals on most nights if you give them a chance," Hall said in the Edmonton Sun. "With the power play at the end and two power plays in the first, he let us settle in, he didn't give up a goal and then we kind of took the game over with our special teams.
"He was a really calming influence for us." -- Brian Hunter, NHL.com