VANCOUVER, BC - The Oilers face off against the Vancouver Canucks tonight in their first game after the Christmas break.
“It’s always an interesting day. You really don’t know what to expect. You don’t know if they’re engaged, where their energy levels are, how rusty they’ll be,” said Oilers head coach Todd McLellan about his team's performance coming off an extended layoff. “But both teams are in that situation so I think the word ‘simple’ will come out of Willie’s mouth (Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins). I know it’ll come out of my mouth. Try to get everybody up and running as quick as possible.”
Teams are not allowed to travel on Christmas Day so for the only time all season long, the Oilers had to depart from Edmonton this morning on the same day as a game. The plane took off at around 9:30 AM and landed in Vancouver shortly before 10 before the club headed straight to the rink for morning skate.
“If you can jump out on a team and establish your game before they do, maybe it’s to your advantage. But I never know. I’ve been doing it for many, many years. Junior, pro and it’s something different every season,” McLellan continued.
“I think it varies from team to team and what you’ve got going on in your worlds. The players are professional. They’re prepared. I don’t know if it varies home versus road. Obviously our record is better at home so we’d like that but I don’t think it makes a huge difference.”
The Oilers are 10-5-1 at home and 5-13-1 on the road. They're facing a Canucks team that hasn't been great at home so far this season with a record of 5-6-3 at Rogers Arena. Tonight's game does kick off seven straight on home ice for Vancouver, however. Also, with the Oilers only three points behind Vancouver for the final playoff spot in the Pacific Division, that makes this a key game. But McLellan said he did not want to hear the 'P' word in his dressing room.
“We haven’t talked a lot about playoffs. Nor will we. We talk about getting better — and in fact I challenged our group today to take the plateau out of our game. I think we’ve reached a level where we went into the break on cruise control a little bit and we can’t afford that,” he began.
“We have to be a team that improves nightly and there’s a number of ways to do that: individual performance, group performance, special teams, getting players healthy will help us. But we play some important games between now and the new year that we’re going to have to be prepared for.
“I want to see the learning curve go up. Things that we did early in the year and had trouble with should come to us naturally now. There shouldn’t be a lot of questions. Maybe we can grow our game. Maybe we can introduce some things if we’re polished.”
LOOKING FOR SUCCESS ON THE ROAD
The Oilers only have five wins on the road this season and it appears a daunting task to have to go back-to-back against both Vancouver and Calgary immediately after Christmas but the Oilers can draw on the fact that back in October they did take four out of a possible four points against these same two teams in back-to-back situations.
"It's a quick back-to-back here after the break, but at the same time everybody gets that break so we've got to try and bounce back as quick as possible. There won't be any excuses for us tonight," said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. "We know that we can do it. It's just a matter of going out and doing it. This season, we've done really well against our conference and our division. That's something we need to keep doing and it's going to start tonight."
The Oilers are 4-4-0 against the Pacific Division this season. Last year, they were 4-21-4 against their own division.
SCHULTZ SHOWS IMPROVEMENT
After an admittedly tough road trip, Justin Schultz bounced back with a strong performance on Monday against the Jets. Schultz had a goal and was +2 in 21:24 of ice time.
“I thought that Schultzie accepted the challenge that was thrown at him internally in the locker room, but also externally," said Coach McLellan. "There was some pressure on Schultzie coming back from our road trip and I thought he played one of his better games against Winnipeg. He even got caught out a couple times — as did we all — and he was pretty positionally sound in those situations. We were happy for him and looking forward to seeing him but a number of those games, back-to-back, together here as we go into the New Year.”
Cam Talbot gets the start in goal tonight. Up front, no real surprises:
Players who skated but are unlikely to suit up are Jujhar Khaira and Rob Klinkhammer, though Coach McLellan hinted that Khaira could get in if one of the other skaters can't go due to some nagging injuries.
Defence pairings were jumbled but these were the combinations most often used:
Nurse-Schultz Sekera-Fayne Nikitin-Gryba
-- Marc Ciampa, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS (15-18-2) at CANUCKS (13-14-9)
Season series: Lauri Korpikoski scored at 1:46 of overtime and the Edmonton Oilers beat the Vancouver Canucks 2-1 on Oct. 18. Nail Yakupov scored in regulation for the Oilers, and goaltender Anders Nilsson made 33 saves. Matt Bartkowski scored for the Canucks and goalie Ryan Miller made 22 saves.
Oilers team scope: Edmonton is 9-6-1 since Nov. 20 in part because of a 2.75 goals-against average in that span, which is below their season average of 3.03. Nilsson has a 2.47 GAA and .919 save percentage in 12 games during that span. Cam Talbot has played four games in that stretch but had 44 saves in a 3-1 victory against the Winnipeg Jets on Monday. Coach Todd McLellan said no one has lost faith in Talbot despite the disparity in playing time. "Because [Nilsson] had that run doesn't mean that the group in the room or the coaching staff or anybody else didn't believe in Cam," McLellan told the Oilers website Tuesday. "We just ran a hot goalie for a while, and maybe we'll do that again because obviously Cam played tremendous." The Oilers play back-to-back games on the road coming out of the break; they have lost four of their past five away from Rexall Place.
Canucks team scope: Vancouver comes out of the break with seven straight home games. Their 14 home games are the second-fewest in the Western Conference, and their five home wins are tied for the fewest in the League. Part of having success at home will be staying out of the penalty box; the Canucks have been shorthanded 125 times, second-most in the League. That includes giving the Tampa Bay Lightning 10 power plays in a 2-1 victory Tuesday. "If the [penalty kill] wasn't on, that was going to be a 5-1 game or something like that," forward Jannik Hansen told the Vancouver Province. The Canucks killed nine of 10 Lightning power plays, but for the season they're 22nd on the penalty kill at 79.2 percent.