Edmonton, AB - Don't tell Theo Peckham this game doesn't matter.
Well, it most certainly doesn't in the standings as the 29th- and 30th-place clubs go head-to-head at Rexall Place, but it's another opportunity to pull out a win and reestablish some credibility as season's end looms. It's a chance for the team, no doubt, but also for players to regain their footing if they've lost it.
No. 24 knows the story all too well. He last played on Mar. 8 vs. Montreal on a night when he collected three penalties -- interference, slashing and hooking minors, respectively -- while the Canadiens' two-goal victory was spurred by a pair of power-play goals, both scored while the 24-year-old was sitting in the box.
Peckham will get back in tonight, while Andy Sutton sits as a healthy scratch.
"Chopping a guy away from the play is something that I shouldn't be doing," he said, clearly disappointed with his performance that night. "I know that I made a mistake there and I take it as one of those things where you lose your cool a little bit, cross the line and go a little bit too far. That's something I can't do and I understand that.
"I know what I have to do to help my team win."
Peckham went through a stretch where he hadn't played in over a month, dating back to Jan. 31 vs. Colorado. He eventually got back in when the Oilers were on the road in San Jose, but his contest vs. Montreal was his last before sitting once more.
"It's not the easiest thing to do, but it's part of the business," Peckham explained, citing his long stretches without action. "I'm a professional hockey player and it's my job to make sure that, even when I'm not playing, when I get the call that I'm ready.
"It's tough. The only thing you can do is make sure that you're physically ready. It wears on you mentally a little bit, but at the same time, in this business of hockey, it's not my decision and it's out of my hands. By having a good game tonight, that's what I can control in doing what I can to help my team win."
Peckham's own shortcomings have made it challenging to get back into the lineup, but the Oilers' healthy roster -- with eight blueliners competing for a spot -- has compounded matters.
"Last year and the beginning of this year, you're playing every night and you get into a good groove, and now you're scratching and clawing get some more ice time. It's been tough, but it's almost a good situation for us because it's bringing the best out of the players, and guys are pushing themselves and each other to climb the ladder."
While Head Coach Tom Renney wants to see a resurgence in Peckham's game, he understands that the only way to do so is to see the young rearguard in action.
"There isn't much to dislike, to be honest with you," he said, describing Peckham's recent stretch. "I'd like to see him have a little more precision with the puck, be a little more assertive over top of it, get it to the destination a little quicker. Beyond that, sorting out the game, but you've got to play in order to do that, so that's why he's in tonight."
While there might not be "much to dislike," it was the nice way of saying he needs to be better.
PLAYING WITH PRIDE
The Oilers have six games remaining on the 2011-12 home schedule. The club has sold out 271 straight games and will continue its streak tonight vs. Columbus. Having collected a 1-7-1 record in their past nine at Rexall Place, the orange and blue are determined to give their loyal supporters something to cheer about.
"They're important all the time," Renney said, noting the fans' patience and unrelenting support. "We owe it to them to put something on the ice that they can be proud of. That's consistent with 29 other teams in the league."
"You want to play proud, not only for the sweater and for the organization, but for the fans and everybody that supports the Edmonton Oilers," Peckham added. "That should be motivation enough to go out there, play well and get a win.
"We've proven that we can beat teams that we're not supposed to beat, so tonight should be no exception. We're going out and are battling another NHL team, and we have to prove why we're better than them, or so-called better than them. It's about proving that we can play in the NHL every night and personally, I want to show that I can play in this league and that I want to be an Edmonton Oiler."
It's that attitude, mirrored in Peckham and the other 19 skaters' locker stalls that has instilled the proper attitude, regardless of a difficult period in which the team has struggled to produce wins. As Renney explains, the "give a s---t level," as he so eloquently referenced in his post-game press conference vs. San Jose, is that of a united roster, bad loss (or losses) or not.
"In our case, we're talking about one game at a time as the cliche would suggest, but we are talking about that and building a game tonight and making sure that it's something that we can build off of for our next game," he said. "I'm sure that Columbus (who's won four of its last six games) approaches it the same way.
"Don't underestimate how much [the players] care and where those good intentions really and truly are. It's not easy. When you're trying to get traction and create an identity, over the long haul it can be frustrating. There can be those moments, for sure. But the one thing we've always been is together. Together. No question about that. That's not going to change."
With Ben Eager out with back spasms, Teemu Hartikainen has been recalled from the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons. The 21-year-old has notched 14 goals and 30 points in 48 games this season in OKC. It's unclear whether or not the feisty Finn will make it in time for the game, or if he'll be used regardless, but he's on his way.
In the meantime and with the line-dance in full swing, Ryan Jones has moved up to play alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle on the top line. It's unlikely that they'll stay together, but it was the mixture run at this morning's practice.
Devan Dubnyk, who recorded 30 saves in Monday's 3-2 loss to the Sharks, will get the start in net tonight. The sophomore has notched a 14-17-1 record, along with a 2.90 goals-against average and .908 save percentage this season.
Season Series: The Jackets and Oilers have split two games this season, with Columbus taking the most recent meeting, 4-2 on Jan. 17 at Nationwide Arena.
Big Story: For both of these teams, the final few weeks of the season will largely be an attempt to play spoiler against playoff hopefuls. With both Columbus and Edmonton well out of the race, Wednesday night's game will serve as a barometer for each team of where they are, as well as an attempt by the Jackets to dig out of their place in the League cellar.
Blue Jackets: There are 30 teams in the NHL and while, realistically, several teams are likely out of contention for the postseason only Columbus has been mathematically eliminated from the playoff chase. It has been a very difficult season in Ohio, one in which the Jackets dealt with high expectations, injuries, a coaching change and the Rick Nash trade deadline saga. As they near the end of the season, however, there is reason for optimism. The Jackets have played markedly better of late, winning a season-high four games in a row before being swept in a home-and-home by conference-leading St. Louis last weekend.
Even in those two games Columbus appeared to acquit itself fairly well, particularly in Sunday night's 2-1 loss in which the Jackets outshot the Blues 34-26, but were stymied by an impressive performance from St. Louis' Jaroslav Halak. As the team opens a three-game road trip through Western Canada, it will try to build on its recent stretch of solid play in hopes that it could carry over to next season.
Oilers: The Jackets are the only team to have been eliminated from postseason contention so far, but the Oilers are not far behind. A promising start has devolved into a disappointing campaign that will likely send Edmonton to its sixth consecutive early spring row. The Oilers currently sit in 14th place in the West and are closer in the standings to 15th-place Columbus than they are to 13th-place Minnesota.
The team suffered a particularly rough loss Monday night against San Jose, its sixth in the last seven games, which prompted a strong reaction from its typically relaxed coach Tom Renney. Even with the Oil likely headed for a last-place finish in the Northwest Division for a third straight season, Renney has made it plain that he expects to see a stronger performance Wednesday night.
Who's Hot:Taylor Hall, who has already bested his rookie season output by 10 points in six fewer games, has scored in his last three outings. ... Mark Letestu has three goals and two assists in his last four games for Columbus.
Injury Report: Both Derek Dorsett (upper-body injury) and Steve Mason (lacerated left hand) are considered doubtful for Columbus, which is also missing Derek MacKenzie (concussion) and Fedor Tyutin (broken right hand), who went down with injuries last week.
Stat Pack: Renney cited the Oilers' lackluster penalty kill when he highlighted issues from Monday's loss to the Sharks -- and for good reason. Edmonton has killed just 13 of the last 21 power plays its faced, good for just 61.9 percent. That's good news for Columbus, which has struggled with the extra man lately -- they Jackets are in an 0-for-24 slump.
Puck Drop: It is easy to say that both Edmonton and Columbus are simply playing out the string at this point, but the Jackets have shown improvement in recent weeks that will be important for the team to build on as it looks toward 2012-13. As for the Oilers, look no further than their coach. After a lackluster performance Monday night, Edmonton will have plenty to prove Wednesday.