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AT THE MORNING SKATE
COLUMBUS - Following a 2-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings Saturday afternoon, the Oilers participated in an optional morning skate at Columbus' Nationwide Arena in preparation for tonight's clash with the Blue Jackets.
"It was a tough one, but we have a chance to rebound tonight against a good Columbus team that works hard," said Jordan Eberle, who picked up an assist on Justin Schultz's power-play goal vs. Detroit. "We have to bring our best tonight.
"The season's so tight and there aren't many games, so we need to get as many points as we can in every situation."
In order to do that tonight and snap the their winless skid, Head Coach Ralph Krueger will be unveiling some new line combinations. Nail Yakupov will be bumped up to play alongside Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Taylor Hall will play the left side on a line with Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky.
Chris VandeVelde was reassigned to the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons Sunday and, as a result, Eric Belanger will slot back into the lineup (most likely on a line with Magnus Paajarvi and Teemu Hartikainen) after breaking his second and third toes in last Saturday's game against the Colorado Avalanche.
With a 52.7 percent success rate, Belanger is the Oilers' best faceoff man. With Shawn Horcoff (broken knuckle) and Anton Lander (broken foot) now on the shelf, the 35-year-old's return couldn't have come at a better time. Again in last night's loss, the Oilers were only successful on a paltry 34 percent of their draws.
"It feels pretty good," said the veteran, who was outfitted with some special padding on his right foot courtesy of the club's head equipment manager, Jeff Lang. "It's not going to be 100 percent for a little while, but I can fit it in my skate and we have some pretty good padding going on. Hopefully the bad luck is behind and I won't get hit there in the next couple games.
"The schedule is good (only three games, including tonight's, in the next nine days) and I hope it gets better each day. I can skate the way I'm used to. When you're out there during a game the adrenaline kicks in, so I won't even notice it. You've got to pay the price to win games and good teams that go far in the playoffs have guys [blocking shots]. It's a good sign for the group that we have so many guys stepping up."
On defence, Ryan Whitney will once again be a healthy scratch as Mark Fistric is ready to return. The 26-year-old tweaked his back on Monday vs. Vancouver when he attempted a hit on Canucks rookie Jordan Schroeder. Fistric will be paired with Jeff Petry.
"The back feels really good," said Fistric, who compared the collision with the boards as slipping at falling on a patch of ice in snowy Edmonton. "I've had a couple days rest so I could give it a chance to loosen up. I'm ready to go tonight.
"It's real hard (to watch). You want to be out there every night helping your team."
Eleventh place, 11 games in and with 11 points earned: For the first time this season, the Oilers are on the outside looking in when it comes to the Western Conference playoff picture.
The Oilers had their chances one day ago, but struggled to produce when it mattered most. The club scored only once on eight separate power-play opportunities. And when they had the chance to net the go-ahead tally early in the third with a lengthy 5-on-3, the Oilers didn't even get a shot.
It's a reoccurring theme.
"Ours shots on goal are unacceptable at the moment," Krueger explained. "We need to raise that number dramatically and it's one of the things we're working on."
When the Oilers outshoot their opponent, they're 2-0-1. When they're outshot, the record drops to 2-4-1. More shots = more goals? Seems like a fundamental formula.
"We need to [educate] through video, through conversations and through board chalk talks because we have limited practice time," Krueger said. "There are fundamentals in the NHL of bringing pucks to the net -- we haven't been shooting enough.
"You can teach the fundamentals of stopping in front of the net and sticking around for second chances, which we haven't been getting. You can teach the fundamentals of facing shots to create deflections and rebounds, which we haven't been doing enough of. These are things that are coachable and that the players understand. I really believe that's going to be an area we're going to improve on dramatically in the next little while."
"For the most part, special teams have been good for our team. Penalty kill has been great and the power-play was Top 5 in the League," added Eberle. "Yesterday, when we needed it, it didn't step up. But really the focus for us is 5-on-5. We need to simplify that a little bit to generate some offence. And we need to start shooting the puck."
With an opportunity to get back in the Top 8 in the Western Conference with a win, the Oilers are viewing tonight's game as a must-win.
"With such a shortened season, we have to look at every game like that," said Fistric. "There's no room to go into slumps and not to get points with only 48 games. We've been fortunate to get points in a lot of our games lately, but it's the win that counts."
Devan Dubnyk will return to the crease tonight, making his 11th start of the season and looking to improve on his 4-3-3 record, 2.60 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. At the other end, Sergei Bobrovsky will get the nod for the Blue Jackets.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
OILERS (4-4-3) at BLUE JACKETS (3-6-2)
TV: SNET-W, FS-O
Season series: This is the first meeting. The Edmonton Oilers won three of four last season, outscoring the Columbus Blue Jackets 17-10.
Last 10: Edmonton 3-4-3; Columbus 2-6-2
Big story: These teams, which finished at the bottom of the Western Conference last season, have struggled of late and are looking to snap out of a slump.
Oilers: Edmonton's hot start has dissipated as the injuries have mounted and the offense has dried up. The Oilers got top center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings but couldn't provide enough offense in a 2-1 loss. They have scored 10 goals in the past six games and have lost five straight (0-2-3).
Rookies Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz have combined for nine goals, though Yakupov was demoted to the fourth line at the start of the game against the Red Wings. Schultz leads all rookies with four power-play goals.
"We're in the pack and in the games with an opportunity to win, we just need to get a healthy lineup together," Edmonton coach Ralph Krueger said. "We want to get back deep into our lineup again and to the four lines we were rolling earlier in the season."
Blue Jackets: Columbus' season started strong with a win at the Nashville Predators and an overtime loss to Detroit, but the Blue Jackets, like the Oilers, have struggled to score. They have 17 goals in the past nine games, and more than two twice.
Ryan Johansen was demoted to the American Hockey League with no goals and two assists in 10 games, but he wasn't alone. R.J. Umberger doesn't have a goal in 11 games, Nick Foligno has one, and top center Derick Brassard has two.
''We have to figure it out,'' coach Todd Richards said after Columbus' third loss in the first four of a six-game homestand. ''For 20 minutes it's good and then we lose our game. And when it's gone, it's gone. It's not one shift or two shifts; it's for an extended period of time.''
Who's hot: Oilers forward Sam Gagner had his NHL-leading 10-game point streak broken Saturday; he leads the team with 11 points (three goals). … Blue Jackets forward Mark Letestu has two goals and four points in the past three games.
Injuries: Edmonton will be without forwards Ryan Jones (eye), Shawn Horcoff (hand) and Anton Lander (foot). Center Eric Belanger (toe) could be make his return. Defenseman Mark Fistric (back) is questionable. .. Columbus will be short defensemen Adrian Aucoin (lower body) and James Wisniewski (concussion) and forward Cam Atkinson (lower body). Defenseman John Moore (lower body) is questionable.