CALGARY, AB - If the Oilers are going to continue their stretch of strong performances and earn a fourth win in their last five games, they’re going to have to do it against a team they’ve yet to solve this season, the provincial rival Calgary Flames.
Tonight’s Battle of Alberta at the Saddledome is the fourth of five meetings between the Wild Rose squads this season, with the Oil holding a 0-2-1 record in the series thus far. Calgary spoiled Edmonton’s home opener with a 5-2 win on Oct. 9, following that up with a 4-1 win on Dec. 27 in Cowtown. Just four nights later on New Year’s Eve back at the ‘Dome, the Oilers held 2-0 and 3-2 leads only to fall 4-3 in overtime.
Edmonton’s game has evolved lately, however, and the team is enjoying some success with three wins in their last four games, including a 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in their last action on Thursday at Rexall Place. They’re hoping that momentum will be the tipping point in the struggle against the Flames.
“You can see with the past seven or eight games, we’re starting to do some things that we haven’t done in the past,” Oilers interim head coach Todd Nelson said following Saturday’s morning skate. “The guys are playing hard for each other right now, and that always has to improve. That’s what we’re striving for here.”
Simplicity will be the key to Edmonton’s success tonight against a Calgary squad led by Coach Bob Hartley that currently sits in the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot with a 26-20-3 record. The Flames’ hard-working, grind-it-out mentality is something the Oilers want to emulate.
“We have to keep it simple,” right-winger Matt Fraser said. “We’re a north-south hockey team. We do have a lot of skill in this room, but we feel we’re at our best when we’re making our plays at both blue lines. As soon as we get ahead of ourselves and try to be too cute and fancy is when we get into trouble.”
Hall skates, won’t play
If the Oilers are going to beat the Flames for the first time this season, they’re going to have to do it without one of their top forwards. Taylor Hall, who has a bone bruise on his leg after a practice shot hit him on Monday, will miss his third straight games as he recovers from the injury.
The left-winger did, however, skate with the team for this first time since the injury on Saturday morning. He said the on-ice workout was a big step in the right direction and he hopes to be return to the lineup when the Oilers play the Sharks in San Jose on Monday,
“It was nice to be out there with the guys again,” said Hall, who’s tied for the Oilers scoring lead with 29 points (11G, 18A) in 41 games. “It was positive to be able to skate and put a skate on and start moving again. It felt pretty good. Hopefully I can get a good practice in tomorrow and be ready for San Jose.”
The forward line of Luke Gazdic, Anton Lander and Fraser accounted for all three of the Oilers goals during Thursday’s win over Buffalo, with Lander and Fraser each leading the way with three points.
“We’ve had them together for quite some time now,” Nelson said. “When we had Teddy Purcell on that line, they did some really good things. And I thought Luke did a great job last game by going to the net hard. Right now, Anton and Matt have some pretty good chemistry, and Luke played well with them last game.”
As Oilers Radio Network play-by-play announcer Jack Michaels tweeted recently, Lander in particular has thrived under Coach Nelson. In 95 NHL games with the team’s previous three bench bosses, the Swedish centre scored eight points. With Nelson, he has seven points in 11 games.
Fraser, meanwhile, has also been putting up big numbers, with four goals and three assists in 12 games since he was picked up from the Boston Bruins. In 51 previous NHL games with the Bruins and Dallas Stars, Fraser only had eight points, so he’s also enjoying his current setup with the Oil.
“Lander and I felt like we were getting our chances and it was only a matter of time until they went in, so it was nice to be rewarded,” Fraser said. “Even just getting the one goal and having me, Gaz and Lands all getting touches on it showed us we can breathe again and play our game. All three of us work hard, and now it’s a matter of translating it to all three of us working together.”
Lineup vs. Calgary
With Hall still out of the lineup, Benoit Pouliot remains on the left side of the Oilers top line with Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Purcell is with Derek Roy and Nail Yakupov, while Gazdic-Lander-Fraser and the trio of Matt Hendricks, Boyd Gordon and Rob Klinkhammer round out the crew up front.
On the back end, Nikita Nikitin suffered a shoulder injury last game and is expected to miss four to six weeks, so Keith Aulie returns to the lineup and will be paired with Mark Fayne. Oscar Klefbom and Justin Schultz remain together, as do Jeff Petry and Andrew Ference. Between the pipes, Ben Scrivens will make his second straight start after getting the win on Thursday.
Aulie’s last action came against the Flames on New Year’s Eve and he received a match penalty that night on a hit to the head against Matt Stajan. The d-man also received a two-game suspension for his actions, but he said he won’t let the incident affect his role on the ice now that he’s back in action.
“I can’t let that affect my game, and if I do I’m probably not going to be around anymore,” Aulie said. “I’ve got to play the game hard. It’s obviously not what I wanted to happen with that hit. Looking back at it, there's not a whole bunch different that I’d do except for a few small details. I have to play the game the way I can.”
-- Ryan Frankson, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS (13-27-9) at FLAMES (26-20-3)
TV: CBC, TVA SPORTS
Season series: The Calgary Flames are 3-0-0 against the Edmonton Oilers, with the most recent win 4-3 in overtime at Scotiabank Saddledome on Dec. 31. Flames forward Joe Colborne has three goals and three assists. Oilers goalie Ben Scrivens is 0-1-1 with a 3.52 goals-against average and .867 save percentage.
Oilers team scope: Edmonton has won three of its past four games and is 5-5-1 in January after a 3-2 victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. "We're ready to try to keep things going. We're on a bit of a run here, collected a few points over the last four or five games. It's a good test for our hockey team," coach Todd Nelson told the Oilers website Friday. Nelson said he doesn't expect defenseman Nikita Nikitin back for "quite some time" after leaving the game Thursday because of a shoulder injury. Keith Aulie, who has missed the past 11 games, will replace Nikitin in the lineup paired with Mark Fayne. Forward Taylor Hall, who is tied for the Oilers lead with 29 points, remains day-to-day because of a leg injury but will travel to Calgary. Forward Anton Lander has seven points in 11 games since being recalled from Oklahoma City of the American Hockey League on Jan. 1. The Oilers play eight of their next nine games on the road.
Flames team scope: Calgary is one point ahead of the Los Angeles Kings (55-54) for the second wild-card spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. "It's a dogfight right now and we're in playoff mode. We just have to go out there and win as many seven-game series as we can," forward Paul Byron told the Flames website Friday. A 1-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday completed what coach Bob Hartley called "Segment No. 7" of the season. "We have five wins and two losses," Hartley said. "It's already behind us. We're starting another very important segment. We have five home games, two road games. That's where we're at. We always look at seven games. Tomorrow night we're starting against the Oilers. It's another big game." Goaltender Jonas Hiller will start. In two starts out of the All-Star break, Hiller has made 48 saves on 50 shots. The Flames play the fourth game of a six-game homestand Monday against the Winnipeg Jets.