Leduc, AB – The morning after their 5-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on home ice at Rexall Place, the Oilers practiced at the Leduc Rec Centre on Friday before flying to Denver in preparation for Saturday's afternoon affair at the Pepsi Center against the Northwest Division rival Colorado Avalanche.
The 1:00 p.m. puck-drop marks the sixth and final meeting of 2011-12 between the Oilers and Avs, and the familiar foes have been very evenly matched this season, with Edmonton holding a 3-2 series advantage and a slim 13-12 edge in goals. Colorado was victorious 3-1 in their last meeting on Feb. 17 at Rexall.
After starting the season red-hot in the friendly confines of their home rink, the Oilers have been thriving on the road recently, winners of four of their past five games away from Edmonton, beating Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg and San Jose. They'll look to keep that momentum going against the Avs, who currently sit in 10th place in the Western Conference, one point back of eighth-place San Jose.
"I like our perseverance," Head Coach Tom Renney said of the Oilers' recent road warrior mentality. "You don't always get the line matches you want, and it's always a hostile environment, but we seem to compete well on the road. (Colorado) needs the points, so we need to make sure we gain credibility and respectability by playing hard and getting those points away from them."
The afternoon affair provides the Oilers with another opportunity to take two points away from a Western Conference squad battling for a post-season berth. Of Edmonton's 19 games in March and April, 12 are against teams currently with 68 to 79 points who are battling for the lower-seed positions in the West. The Oilers, therefore, have ample opportunities to provide a road block.
"Obviously, when we play against Colorado or Anaheim or Calgary and teams needing points, we want to make it hard on them to get into the playoffs," defenceman Ladislav Smid said. "But we also just want to win as many games as we can and build some momentum to carry into next year."
Despite short-comings in the win column this season, the Oilers continue to be one of the best special teams squads in the NHL. Edmonton is maintaining the distinction of having the league's top power play with a 22.0% conversion rate — well ahead of Nashville, Vancouver, San Jose and Philadelphia, who round out the top five with percentages between 20 and 21.
"It speaks to our skill level and our ability to move pucks and make things happen offensively," Renney said. "Our power play has confidence. But at the same time, it might also speak volumes about other areas of our game that we need to improve on."
"It's weird … it doesn't really make much sense," centre Shawn Horcoff added. "If you look at years past, teams with good PPs and good penalty killing usually have a better record. But it tells us something … our five-on-five play needs to improve."
Horcoff has been a major beneficiary of the Oilers' power-play efficiency, picking up five of his 13 goals on the man advantage, including deflecting Corey Potter's point shot past Montreal goalie Peter Budaj on Thursday night. He's tied with Sam Gagner for third in team power-play goals behind Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, who have notched 12 and nine, respectively.
Horcoff, Hall, Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and either Potter or Ryan Whitney have comprised Edmonton's top PP unit for most of the season. That personnel consistency has allowed the group to develop a comfort level, which Horcoff attributes to their success.
"Everybody is really comfortable in their roles out there," the captain said. "There's no questioning of who does what. We keep it simple, we support really well and we're as aggressive as we can be in the zone to really create some traffic in front. Nothing changes in our mentality each time we're out there. We've been able to create some chaos and score goals that way."
The Oilers penalty kill ranking has dropped off a bit lately, but they were in the top 10 during the first half of the season, and they're currently tied for 17th at 81.7%.
Left-winger Ben Eager and defenceman Corey Potter did not skate in Leduc on Friday, as Eager is still battling a virus and Potter had a sore foot. The power forward did not accompany the team to Denver, but the blueliner made the trip though his status is unconfirmed for the matinee tilt with the Avs.
-- Ryan Frankson, edmontonoilers.com
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
Last 10: Edmonton 4-6-0; Colorado 6-4-0
Season Series: Sixth and final meeting of the season between these Northwest Division rivals. The Oilers hold the edge, 3-2, but the Avalanche took the most recent matchup by a 3-1 score on Feb. 17 in Edmonton. Ryan O'Reilly (1-6-7) leads the Avs in scoring, while Sam Gagner (2-5-7) paces the Oilers.
Big Story: This is the start of a brief, two-game homestand for Colorado, after which seven of its final 11 games will be played away from Pepsi Center. The Avalanche could really use a sweep of the four points available Saturday against the Oilers and Monday against the Ducks to stay as close as possible to the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth.
Oilers: A recent surge by Columbus has narrowed its deficit to seven points as Edmonton attempts to avoid finishing 30th in the standings for a third straight season. With 58 points and 15 games still remaining, the Oilers seem a lock to better the 62 points they posted in each of the last two seasons. They've dropped four of their last five, though, including a 5-3 defeat on home ice Thursday at the hands of the equally struggling Canadiens. Taylor Hall continued to build on his strong sophomore season by scoring his 24th goal.
"We were flat tonight. A little undisciplined," coach Tom Renney said in the Edmonton Journal. "We could have been a smarter team tonight.
"It was one of those games where we were strong over top of our sticks, over top of the puck, over top of our checks. We weren't particularly strong at either net and we paid the price for it."
Avalanche: The red-hot goaltending of Semyon Varlamov has given Colorado hope heading down the stretch. He entered Thursday's game in Nashville on an eight-start stretch in which he had a pair of shutouts and gave up just a single goal four times. Varlamov stopped 27 shots against the Predators, but the Avalanche still suffered a tough 4-2 defeat sealed by a late empty-netter. Jamie McGinn opened the scoring 74 seconds into the first period, but the Avs surrendered the next three before Paul Stastny got them closer 4:58 into the third.
"We gave up a late goal there in the second that kind of set us back there a little bit," forward Cody McLeod said. "We had a great start, then let it get away from us and it's hard to play catch-up hockey in this league. It's tough to swallow."
Who's Hot:Shawn Horcoff and Jordan Eberle each have a pair of goals in the last three games for the Oilers. … McGinn has 4 goals and 2 assists during a three-game points streak for the Avalanche. Peter Mueller has 4 assists over the last three games.
Injury Report: Edmonton forward Ben Eager was out of the lineup Thursday due to flu-like symptoms. … Colorado forward Matt Duchene is out 3-4 weeks with a sprained right ankle. Forward Chuck Kobasew has missed the last five games with a back injury.
Stat Pack:Nikolai Khabibulin stopped 29 of 30 shots in winning his only start against the Avalanche this season, while Devan Dubnyk has a 2-2 mark with a 2.51 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. … Varlamov has started all five games against the Oilers, posting a 2.64 GAA and .905 save percentage.
Puck Drop: Concern over how Duchene's injury will impact Colorado's playoff hopes only grew after Thursday's performance in Nashville, which drew sharp criticism from coach Joe Sacco.
"The effort was inconsistent for me," he said. "I thought in a game like this that had such meaning, I thought we didn't have enough guys that really dug in for the whole 60 minutes tonight. That's not acceptable."