Vancouver, BC - For one last time in the 2011-12 season, Head Coach Tom Renney assembled his club at centre ice, addressed them with a quick pep talk and slammed his stick down to end the morning skate.
His message was simple. Tonight's game is not the end; it's the beginning. The 2012-13 season may not actually begin for another six months, but the bench boss wants Saturday's division battle to be the starter.
Led by Jordan Eberle and his near point-per-game pace as he sets his sights (sort of) on the Lady Byng Trophy, the Oilers are up for it.
"That goes without saying," Eberle said. "This leads into next year and where we want to be, so as professionals and as competitive people, we're going out with the intention of winning. I think we're getting better at limiting our turnovers and not letting teams capitalize as much. It goes to show that we're getting better and we're becoming a better team when we start to play like that."
With 34 goals and 76 points in 77 games this year, No. 14 is one off a point-per-game pace. He'll need a multi-point night to record it and doing so will be tough, given the Canucks' penchant to match up and shut down other teams' top scorers.
It's a delicate balance, too, considering Eberle has had such a great season amid another disappointing one, team-wise. Linemate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is in the same boat, as he's right in the middle of a Calder Trophy race and could put another stamp on an impressive rookie resume tonight.
"It's tough," he said. "I'm a strong believer that as long as your team has success, you're going to have individual success. Most of the games where I've put up points, it's always been against teams that we've beat. I've found that if I play well and score, I'm going to help give my team a chance to win. It's tough when you have personal success and your team's not doing well, but you've got to focus on the little things.
"I've been getting used to it all year," Eberle added about the tough assignments and matchups. "Over the last 10 games or so, we've been playing against the other teams' top lines and we've done pretty well, so that's a good sign."
Another good sign that will surely carry into next season.
"For all of us, we're trying to build toward something better and to be in that (post-season) picture down the stretch," said 37-year-old Andy Sutton, who's an 11-game playoff veteran and a body that will be back in orange and blue next season to help compete for it. "It's such a great feeling and I want more than anything for our guys to feel it. It makes the games a lot of fun and it's somewhere we want to get to, so it starts with ending on a good note tonight."
In 51 games this season, Sutton has scored three goals and 10 points, along with nasty edge mirrored in 78 penalty minutes. Promoted to a much larger role since Ladislav Smid, Corey Potter (and at the time, Jeff Petry) went down, he's also in a three-way tie with Eberle and Sam Gagner for the Oilers' plus-minus lead with a +5 rating.
The monstrous and intimidating 6'6", 245-pound rearguard knows it will be challenged vs. Vancouver. Even though Daniel Sedin has missed the Canucks' past eight games with an upper body issue, Henrik hasn't slowed. While he hasn't scored a goal since Feb. 19 against the Oilers at Rexall Place, ironically enough, he's potted 10 assists in his brother's absence.
No matter what, the Canucks' all-encompassing push is a lethal one that requires attention.
"Henrik has done so well and their team has so much depth, so we need to have a balanced defence against an attack like that," Sutton said. "It's not like they're putting in some kind of hack in his position, either -- they've got great players to step in, so it's going to be the same types of threats and we've got to play the same hard-nosed defence.
"We've played these guys well for the most part (this season)," he added, noting that the Oilers have lost all but one in the season series, but the scores have been close. "That won't change. It's our last game and they're trying to ramp up to get their post-season ready to go. They might have a lot to play for tonight, so it's a great chance for us to upset them and to go out on a strong note."
With 109 points on the season, the Canucks are currently tied with the New York Rangers for the league's top spot overall. Vancouver badly wants to end its season on a high note, too, which would include capturing their second straight Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best regular season squad.
"We want to make sure that we get in their way of that," Head Coach Tom Renney said. "We've got to make sure that they get the message that we're here to compete; we're not here as spectators. I believe we'll have to play the bench and play it hard, manage the puck really well and don't give Vancouver the feeling of being able to do what they want, at will, because we've turned it over to them."
The Oilers started the season with a nearly unstoppable home record, but struggled to produce wins on the road. In recent weeks, it's been the opposite. An 8-2-2 road record in the club's last 12 is proof of that.
"Our special teams continue to do well, our penalty kill has been good," Renney said. "I think we've also been relatively healthy, which helps in our depth and with our ability to match up or, if nothing else, disguise what we might have for our opponent on the road.
"And our goaltending has been consistent. That's all helped, but we have to make sure we continue it tonight."
Devan Dubnyk will get the start in goal, looking to improve on his 20-19-3 record, 2.66 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. In other lineup news, Ben Eager will also draw back in, replacing Lennart Petrell on the fourth line.
"We have to sit down and do some soul searching here and understand what we need to do better and how best to attack that," Renney said of Eager's (and others') seasons, and why they've been healthy scratches at certain points.
"From a player's perspective, as they should, they take responsibility for their own season and own performance. But we don't have to evaluate that tonight. We need to bring our 'A' game and understand that this is a good way to leave the season behind us by putting in the required effort."
Season Series: Final meeting in a Northwest Division battle dominated by the Canucks this season. Vancouver has won four of five, including both meetings at home, with the Oilers' only victory way back in late October, and only other point from a shootout loss in Edmonton in late January. The Canucks won the other three - Oct. 15, Dec. 26, and Feb. 19 - and scored 14 goals in the process.
Big Story: The Canucks lost control of their own fate atop both the Western Conference and overall NHL standings with a sloppy 3-2 loss in Calgary on Thursday that snapped a seven-game winning streak. Vancouver still has a shot at a second-straight Presidents' Trophy and home ice throughout the playoffs if it can beat an Edmonton team locked into 14th place in the West and again looking at a lottery pick in the draft. But the Canucks need to finish at least a point ahead of the New York Rangers, who also had 109 points heading into their final game, and St. Louis Blues, who were at 107 with two games left to play, because they don't have the tiebreaker against either of those teams.
"We still have something to play for," goalie Cory Schneider said. "You look at some of those teams and their home records, teams like St. Louis, Detroit, Nashville, Chicago, they're pretty unbeatable at home. If it comes down to a Game 7 in your building that makes a huge difference."
Oilers: The Oilers may not have anything left to play in a season that has for the most part been over for months, but that hasn't prevented coach Tom Renney from starting to send messages for next year. The targets have often been veterans, including defenseman Cam Barker, who was a healthy scratch for 15straight games before playing for the first time in more than a month on Thursday night - and only after injuries to three regulars. Renney also sat veteran center Eric Belanger, a free agent addition last summer, just last week.
"The timing was to make sure he understood where I was coming from and what I needed from him," Renney told the Calgary Sun. "But more importantly, quite honestly, is the timing for everybody else to recognize that we don't discriminate. Players are going to have to be held accountable moving forward."
Canucks: Saturday's game is a big one for goaltender Roberto Luongo, who was pulled from his last start on Tuesday after giving up four goals on 15 shots against Anaheim. Coach Alain Vigneault made it clear afterwards that the move was more to spark a team that played porously in front of Luongo, and teammates apologized to their No. 1 goaltender for leaving him hung out to dry and facing grade-A scoring chances most of the night. But with Schneider on a roll - he was 12-1-1 since Christmas before giving up three third-period goals in Calgary on Thursday night - another off night for Luongo going into the playoffs will only increase the calls to start the backup ahead of him.
"People just need to take a deep breath and relax," Schneider said after fans in Vancouver cheered when Luongo was pulled on Tuesday. "They need to understand that Roberto has been there before for them and I'm sure he will again. Every time something doesn't go right, it becomes an issue … everything gets over-analyzed and picked apart. But it's part of the territory. If you want to play like a starting goalie, you have to be able to handle that adversity and pressure."
Who's Hot: The Canucks' checking line. Jannik Hansen scored late in a 3-2 loss in Calgary on Thursday, and Chris Higgins had five goals in the previous six games. Not bad for a line, anchored by shutdown center Samuel Pahlsson, that goes up against the opposition's best forwards on most nights.
Injury Report: Vancouver is expected to be without top goal scorer Daniel Sedin (concussion) for a ninth straight game but got top-four defensemen Kevin Bieksa, who missed four games to rest an undisclosed ailment, and Aaron Rome (knee) back in Calgary on Thursday. Defenseman Keith Ballard (concussion) is also close to returning, and defender Chris Tanev, who rested Thursday, is expected to be available to return Saturday. Forward Zack Kassian is out with an upper-body injury, replaced by call-up Byron Bitz. … Edmonton defenseman Jeff Petry returned Thursday against Anaheim after taking a puck in the face last week. But fellow defenders Ladislav Smid (neck), Theo Peckham and Corey Potter (concussions) are all still out. Bryan Rodney was sent back to the AHL with Petry back, but prospect Colten Teubert remains on emergency recall.
Stat Pack: Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins returns to his hometown with a share of the NHL rookie scoring lead after recording his 52nd point on Jordan Eberle's 34th goal Thursday against Anaheim. Nugent-Hopkins is tied with Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog despite playing 20 fewer games because of injury. … Edmonton veteran Ryan Smyth has been stuck on 19 goals for the last 12 games, while captain Shawn Horcoff has just four points in the last 20 games.
Puck Drop: Vancouver's power play is just 2-for-35 after a costly 0-for-6 outing in Calgary that included failing to build on a 1-0 lead during a 23-second 5-on-3, and being unable to convert 6-on-4 after pulling Schneider late. The Canucks' power play has dropped below 20 percent, more than five points below its midseason peak atop the League, while going 11-for-96 over the last 34 games, failing to score in 25 of those contests.