Edmonton, AB - Coming into Wednesday's game vs. Dallas and with six games remaining on the Oilers' 2011-12 schedule, the club is putting together a nice string to end the campaign on a high note.
Coming off a 3-0-1 road trip in which wins collected against Nashville, Florida and Columbus propelled them to a 31-36-9 record overall, good vibes reign supreme despite not being in the post-season picture.
The Oilers have already eclipsed last season's win total (25). In 2010-11, their power-play sat 27th in the league while the PK didn't look much better with a rank one spot about the NHL's last-place standing.
This year, the power-play is second-best and the penalty kill has leaped 11 spots to 18th overall. With nine more points than last season and with the possibility of being as many as 21 over their mark one year ago, there's not much to be upset about as the Oilers continue to ride an impressive wave down the stretch.
"Absolutely," Ryan Jones said, who put emphasis on the Oilers' winning ways in order to generate some momentum heading into next season. "The team that's in this room right now is pretty much the same group that's going to be back next year, so we're looking at winning as many games as we can so that we can head into the summer feeling good about our game.
"No one likes to lose, but it's even more disappointing at the end of the year. When you do that, everyone heads into the off-season with a sour taste in their mouth. We're trying to collect as many wins as we can, develop our game and build something for next season. We already know we're an improved team, so it's something where we need to use this energy we can gain down the stretch and make sure we apply it."
Jones knows about the Oilers' mid-season struggle all too well. The 27-year-old had recent stretches in which he went scoreless in a game count in the high-teens. But since then, a resurgence has been found and he's been able to bounce back, much in the same way the group has as a whole.
In No. 28's past six games, he's collected three goals and seven points -- including a three-point outing last Sunday in Columbus, which helped vault the visitors to a 6-3 win over the Blue Jackets.
"I'm feeling much better about my game," Jones explained. "I'm playing with some great players and we've been a nice complement to each others' style. "I've said it all season, it's about sticking with it and not getting too high or too low when things aren't going well. Right now things are going well for me and, again, it's a matter of sticking with it to make sure I keep it going."
Jones' game has truly been a microcosm of the team's. Which is the real Oilers? And which is the real Ryan Jones?
The team who collected a dominant early-season record and held the league's No. 1 spot as November hit, and the player whose pace in the same breath had him pegged as a shoo-in to record 20 goals -- or the club whose mid-season stumble caused a tumble to the league's basement alongside the Columbus Blue Jackets?
"You're seeing a good team now and you saw a good team back at the start of the year," Jones said. "We had some injuries to get through, as all teams do, but we didn't handle it very well. Even then, we've put together a nice stretch here and we need to keep it going, because I think everyone in this locker room believes this is the team we are; we should be in the picture contending for a playoff spot.
"We're embracing the role of playing spoiler (like tonight vs. Dallas), but honestly that's not our intention. It's simply a matter of us going out there and getting wins, no matter who they're against. That's all we're focused on in here and it's paid off in the last couple weeks."
"We want to climb [the standings]," added Head Coach Tom Renney. "That might not sound like much to most, but it sounds like a lot to us. We're certainly going to try and do that. It's a lot more fun to win than to lose, there's no question about that. Both can be contagious, but to the best we can, we're going to control our own destiny."
As the Oilers have done so, the Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Wild and others are within reach. A strong end to the season could mean a couple spots leapt, but it would also mean top prospects Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko could (and likely will) land elsewhere.
That's not of concern to the Oilers' rugged winger; or anyone associated with the club's iconic colours inside Rexall Place on game night.
"We've seen what (Ryan) Nugent-Hopkins and (Taylor) Hall can do for a team," Jones said. "But that's not something we think about. I can honestly say that where we pick isn't a topic discussed in this locker room, ever. We're professionals, it's our job to win hockey games and that's what we set out to do each and every night."
Shawn Horcoff and Lennart Petrell both participated in a full practice yesterday, as well as today's morning skate. Both will play tonight, while recent call-up Chris VandeVelde will likely be the odd-man out (he will draw in for the warm-up, mind you).
Knowing that the Stars have kept a close eye on the Oilers' youngsters this season (targeting on destruction), Renney could potentially add some muscle to the team's top line off the bat tonight in order to set the tone.
Darcy Hordichuk may get the opportunity to play the role of protector, at least to start.
"I've thought of that," Renney said as he addressed the media post-practice at Rexall Place. "The other way [to send a message] is to say, if you're going to take a run at our skilled guy(s), we know you've got a couple too."
Do the Oilers have the personnel with the necessary gamesmanship to do it?
"Through a couple people. I'm not sure if it's throughout our lineup, but I think they've been reminded enough of it to understand that's what we're looking for."
Devan Dubnyk will get the nod between the pipes, looking to capture his fourth straight victory. The 25-year-old sophomore hasn't lost in regulation since Mar. 12 in San Jose, posting a 5-0-1 record overall in his past six games.
With an above .500 record (19-17-2) on a sub-.500 club, Dubnyk appears to have grabbed hold of the team's starting role. In total, he's notched a 2.70 goals-against average and .914 save percentage in 42 games this season.
"I'm hoping so," Renney said, referencing his young netminder's arrival. "He'll play more in these last six games and we'll see. I think he's met the challenge now, whereas earlier in the year he may not have. To me that's a good sign. He's matured now, he's accepted the responsibility and the battle it needs to be to want that net and ultimately keep it. I'm not sure he was there three months ago."
Season Series: The Stars are looking for a season sweep of the Oilers, having won the first three games this season by a combined margin of 11-3. Edmonton has one goal in each of the three contests.
Big Story: Dallas could end Wednesday night atop the Pacific Division and in third place in the Western Conference, or the Stars could end up in seventh, eighth or ninth place with five games to play.
Stars: This is the second of a four-game road trip and the middle stop in Western Canada. Dallas missed out on a chance for a home-and-home sweep Monday against the Calgary Flames, but the Stars are currently inside the top eight in the West with 87 points.
The schedule is going to get much tougher after this contest -- Dallas has five games remaining and they are all against teams currently in the top five of the conference. Dallas has two more games against current Pacific Division leader San Jose, as well as one against St. Louis, Vancouver and Nashville.
"Well, you've got to learn how to win," coach Glen Gulutzan told reporters after the 5-4 loss to Calgary. "The way we went about it, it doesn't look like we want to win. It really doesn't. They got to figure that out for themselves. They either want in or they don't."
Oilers: Budding star Taylor Hall will be out for 5-to-6 months because he needs shoulder surgery, the Oilers announced Monday. Both of Hall's first two seasons have now been cut short by injury, and he also had two head injuries this season -- a concussion and a scary incident when his forehead was cut open by a wayward skate.
When healthy, Hall has been very productive and could be one of the League's top power forwards in short order. There will be increased expectations in Edmonton next season, and the Oilers will need a healthy Hall to help fulfill them.
Who's Hot: Jamie Benn had 2 goals for the Stars in each of the games against the Flames and now has 13 goals in 22 games since the All-Star break. … Edmonton defenseman Ladislav Smid went 124 games without a goal before scoring Nov. 26. He now has 5 goals in his past 54 contests after scoring twice in the past three contests. He leads Edmonton's defense corps with 5 tallies this season.
Injury Report: Forwards Eric Nystrom and Radek Dvorak and defenseman Mark Fistric all either missed the game Monday or left it early, but all three could play against the Oilers for Dallas. … Hall is out for the Oilers, along with defenseman Theo Peckham (concussion). Forwards Shawn Horcoff (back) and Lennart Petrell (groin) are day-to-day.
Stat Pack: Stars forward Loui Eriksson needs two points to reach 70 for the third straight season. Currently, there are only three NHL players who have reached 70 points in the past three seasons -- Henrik Sedin, Steven Stamkos and Joe Thornton. Six other guys, including Eriksson, have a realistic chance of joining that trio with 70-plus points each of the past three years. Henrik Zetterberg, Anze Kopitar, Martin St. Louis, Eric Staal and Daniel Sedin, if he can return in time from a concussion, are the others.
Puck Drop: There is plenty of history between these two franchises dating back to Dallas' days in Minnesota, but when it comes to the postseason there aren't a lot of good memories for the Oilers. The Minnesota North Stars defeated the defending-champion Oilers in the 1991 Stanley Cup Playoffs en route to the Cup Final.
After Edmonton defeated the Stars in 1997, Dallas began an amazing run of dominance against Edmonton in the postseason. The Stars defeated the Oilers in the postseason in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2003, losing only six times in five series.