Edmonton, AB - As the Edmonton Oilers' 2011-12 season winds down, opportunity has been presented to the club's strong farmhands. Recalled bright and early Friday morning, Magnus Paajarvi is back in Oil Country on his third trip up, ready to make an impact after a strong showing in Oklahoma City.
The 20-year-old has collected 22 points in 27 games with the AHL's Barons, showing glimpses of what ensconced a productive rookie campaign a season ago; then, he scored 15 goals and 34 points and didn't show any signs of slowing.
He did, but he's back once again.
No. 91 is likely to line up with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle on the Oilers' top unit, adding some much-needed speed and resurged grit to the club's skilled attack.
"Our whole package needs to be speed-oriented, anyway," Head Coach Tom Renney said, citing what the recalled sophomore can add to that line. "Certainly when he's in the lineup, it adds to it. It's a north-south speed that we require, and he can come back as well as anybody can, too."
Lineup changes won't stop there, as the recently recalled Chris VandeVelde -- who scored a goal in his only NHL action of the season last week in Columbus -- will slot back in, pivoting the fourth line alongside Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk.
"Down in Oklahoma, the team as a whole has played very well," he said, looking back it what earned himself a ticket to Edmonton. "My individual game was developing well, too. The last couple months have been very good to me; it's nice to have all the hard work pay off with a call-up. I think I played pretty solid in Columbus, got the goal out of the way, and now I get another chance.
"I need to make the most of it."
VandeVelde had spent all season in OKC, posting seven goals and 22 points in 65 games. It culminated with an incredibly strong showing last weekend against the Texas Stars in which he was named the game's third star, one night before getting the call and a cab ride to Will Rogers World Airport.
"There's a little been of a learning curve, but guys go hard down there (in the AHL) -- they compete. Up here they might be a little bigger or more talented, but you've just got to play the simple game that I've been playing the whole time. When I do that, add the physicality and other elements to my game that make me successful, I think I can help the team quite a bit.
"Up here I want to make sure I get in hard on the forecheck, be a physical guy and be reliable in all three zones -- all the things you need to do to be a good fourth-line centre," VandeVelde added. "I don't know how many minutes I'll get, but it doesn't matter. It's about going out there and making your opportunities count, doing the things that I've done to get to this point."
The 6'2", 190-pound centre hasn't quite seen it all when it comes to the Oilers' role as spoilers. Down in OKC, the Barons lead the AHL's Western Conference and were gearing up for a lengthy post-season run. It's been a unique challenge to adapt to.
"It's a little different," he said. "But we're really embracing the spoiler role. That's what we have to play for and we're going to play hard for it. [Los Angeles is] is really going to be pushing us hard. They're in that playoff hunt, so we're expecting them to be at their best. It's going to be a tough, physical battle out there and I know we're all ready for it."
MOVIN' ON UP
With a win on Wednesday vs. Dallas, the Oilers would have vaulted from 29th to 26th spot in the West. It didn't happen, but with a close race at the bottom still to determine April's lottery order, the orange and blue are most concerned with setting a benchmark heading into next season. Priority No. 1 is competing, night-in and night-out until the season's schedule says you can't anymore.
"It's really important," said Ryan Whitney, who's turned around his game in recent weeks. "Even though training camp next year is a long way away, you can go back on that (success) when you do get in and realize that you were a real, solid team down the stretch and beat some good teams.
"We've got be ready and play a lot better than we did the other night."
"It's valuable," Renney added, noting tonight's big-game mentality. "This is a big, heavy team (Los Angeles) that's battling tooth-and-nail for a playoff spot. I'm sure they'll do everything they possibly can to get the two points. We have to make sure that we're every bit as ready to play hard for those two points as they are. Quite honestly, if we're going to win here, we're going to have to be more ready and more prepared to man up.
"That's important because it's an acid test."
Nikolai Khabibulin, who's posted a 12-19-7 record, 2.62 goals-against average and .911 save percentage, will get the nod between the pipes. The 39-year-old hasn't recorded a win since Feb. 11 in Ottawa.
THE CALDER RACE
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins sits tied with Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog in the NHL's rookie scoring race. The 18-year-old has tallied 18 goals and 49 points in only 57 games. Landeskog has equaled RNH's 49-point output, but it's taken him in additional 22 games to reach his counterpart.
On paper, Nugent-Hopkins should have the edge. But it seems as though Landeskog is a shoo-in to capture the NHL's Calder Trophy as the league's most outstanding rookie, according to various media reports around the league.
No. 93's teammates don't understand why.
"I think Landeskog is an awesome player," Whitney explained. "But I don't even really understand how it's that close. I know I'm on Nuge's team, but he's got more points than him and he's played 22 less games. I think everyone would choose to have Nuge on their team. He's such a good player and he's dominated at times as the youngest player in the league, and I think that should mean something as well.
"For me to think that he might not win it is mind-boggling."
Renney agreed, adding that his young superstar adds a certain spice to a lethal scoring attack's requirement.
"Without your centre ice men, it's like playing Scrabble without any vowels. It looks great. You've got all these big letters and some nice numbers going with them, but if you don't have somebody there that can connect all that, it's useless. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is way beyond useless. He's hugely important to this team and he has been all year long, and he should be.
"For my money, he's the Calder Trophy winner. No question."
How about Jordan Eberle for the Lady Byng? He's the club's leading scorer (11th-best in the NHL), notching a point-per-game pace through 73 (including 32 goals) and he's taken a mere four minor penalties all season long.
"Sure," Renney said. "Look at what these kids are doing. These kids are outstanding hockey players and the league is lucky they've got them. So, recognize that -- early, so they've got them for a long time."
Last 10: Los Angeles 7-3-0; Edmonton 5-2-3
Season Series: This is the third of four meetings, with the final to come on April 2. Edmonton won both previous meetings; Taylor Hall scored in overtime in the most recent encounter, on Jan. 15, to give the Oilers a 2-1 win.
Big Story: Los Angeles will try to maintain, if not improve upon, its standing in the hyper-competitive Pacific Division on Friday in Edmonton. The Kings began Thursday second in the Pacific and seventh overall, but with the Coyotes hosting the Sharks at night, the winner was set to pass them in the standings. They head to Edmonton for the third game of a four-game northwestern trip to face the Oilers, a team already eliminated from the postseason but one that is 5-1-2 over its last eight.
Kings: In early March, Los Angeles finally found its offensive touch and surged in the standings. Though they have cooled of late, the Kings remain right in the hunt. With just six goals over their last four games, the Kings have struggled to a 1-2-1 mark. Following a 1-0 loss to Vancouver on Monday, the Kings rebounded on Wednesday with a 3-0 win over the Flames. After suffering yet another 1-0 loss to the Canucks, goalie Jonathan Quick roared back with a 19-save gem against a Calgary team desperate for points. Much of that credit goes to the guys in front of Quick, who held the Flames to just four shots for the entire third period.
"You always expect a little more than four shots," Quick said. "It's a credit to the way the guys played in front of me. They were solid all night long as far as defensively goes."
Oilers: Despite all of the teams jockeying for the final playoff spots, it's actually Edmonton -- a team with nothing to play for this season -- which has shown the greatest sense of urgency down the stretch. The Oilers have spent much of March dealing blows to various playoff hopes, including those of Calgary, Nashville and Florida. Heading into Wednesday's game at home against Dallas, Edmonton had taken points from four straight games. But the Oilers could never find their groove against the Stars, conceding a goal in each period before Ales Hemsky finally scored midway through the third. The Oilers, and goalie Devan Dubnyk, wound up losing, 3-1.
"It seemed like the game was there for the taking all night for us, but we just couldn't get into the game," Eberle said. "Teams should be scared to come into our building and play us with the speed and puck movement we have."
Who's Hot: Anze Kopitar, whose offensive outburst in early March spurred the Kings, has sputtered of late. He snapped a three-game pointless streak Wednesday with 2 assists, and he has 6 goals and 12 assist over 20 career games against the Oilers.
Injury Report: For Los Angeles, only Simon Gagne is sidelined. Gagne has a concussion and is out indefinitely. … Two Oilers played through injuries on Wednesday: Shawn Horcoff (sore back) and Lennart Petrell (strained groin) both took full shifts against the Stars. Theo Peckham missed the game with a concussion. Taylor Hall (shoulder surgery) will miss the remainder of the season.
Stat Pack: Judging by his career marks against the Oilers, Quick shows no signs of slowing down in Rexall Place. The Kings goalie is 5-1-0 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. He'll face a stiff test in Edmonton's power play, which ranks second League-wide with a 21 percent conversion rate.
Puck Drop: After Wednesday's game, Kings coach Darryl Sutter said his team now controls its own destiny.
"It's so tight," Sutter said. "What's the difference between six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11? One inch. That's the way it is.
"It's in your own hands. That's the way we want it."