NASHVILLE - The Oilers lineup will get a big boost today as they open a mini two-game road trip against the Nashville Predators, with sophomore centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins making his return after missing the last two games with an illness.
Nugent-Hopkins was slated to play Wednesday night against the San Jose Sharks, but a virus hit him hard that afternoon and he was sent home to rest with Teemu Hartikainen taking his place. On the mend but not fully recovered, the 19-year-old spent Saturday night at home resting as well as the Oilers were defeated 3-0 by the St. Louis Blues.
"He's recovered from his virus and feeling 100% today," Coach Ralph Krueger announced following the team's morning skate at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. "We tested his physicality off the ice yesterday and he was strong. We'll put him back in the lineup and monitor his ice time a bit."
Nugent-Hopkins went into further detail about the illness that kept him on the shelf for a few days and said he's very eager to return to action and help the team earn an important victory against the Predators tonight.
"It was a little bit of a virus that just kind of wiped me right out," Nugent-Hopkins said. "I needed a few days to recover, and I tried to stay as hydrated as possible during that time, but I feel great now. I'm feeling strong and feel like my energy is back. It's nice to get back out there, back into the groove of things and go to work with these guys."
Based on the team's line rushes during morning skate, Nugent-Hopkins will be playing centre on a line with veteran Ryan Smyth and rookie Nail Yakupov. He said he hopes to be able to set up Yakupov for some scoring opportunities, while both players will lean on Smyth for some leadership.
"He's an exciting player, a dynamic player," Nugent-Hopkins said of Yakupov. "He's kind of like Taylor (Hall), you just have to give him the puck in the right situations. And with Smytty, obviously we've got a lot of experience there so he's going to be able to help us out. It should be good tonight."
This is the third meeting of the month and third and final meeting of the season between the Oilers and Predators, with the home team winning the previous two encounters. Nashville blanked the Oil 6-0 back on March 8, but Edmonton rebounded with a 3-2 victory at Rexall Place on March 17.
The Oilers are looking to rebound from Saturday's loss to the Blues and stay in the hunt for a Western Conference playoff spot. Heading into tonight's action, they sit four points back of the Dallas Stars for eighth place, with the Predators also in the mix, currently on a two-game winning streak and tied for ninth place, three points up on Edmonton.
"We're expecting a strong reaction from our team today," Krueger said. "We're excited about this challenge, but we know it's going to be one where we can show our colours after the disappointing overall performance against St. Louis."
DUBNYK GETS THE NOD
Devan Dubnyk will be back between the Oilers pipes tonight after getting the night off on Saturday with Nikolai Khabibulin making 22 saves in the defeat. Dubnyk, 8-9-6-1 on the season, said the team needs a big bounce-back effort after Saturday's blanking to the Blues.
"That was a bit of a setback for us," Dubnyk said. "That's not how we've been playing and that's not how we need to play. We all understand that, and we understand as we go forward each game becomes more and more important. Starting with tonight, we need to get back to the way we have been playing, and I'm sure we will. We know we're close. Every game is like a playoff game, so we need to be focused every single second we're out there."
POTTER IN, WHITNEY OUT
In addition to Dubnyk getting back between the pipes and RNH returning to action, the Oilers are also making a chance on defence, as Corey Potter will be paired with Mark Fistric. Nick and Justin Schultz will be another pairing, as will Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry, meaning Ryan Whitney and Theo Peckham will not see action tonight.
"We feel pretty good about the defencemen we have here," Krueger said. "The Schultz-Schultz pair and the Smid-Petry pair have been stabilizing factors for us the last couple of games. We thought we'd like to bring Potter back into the mix, and Fistric has brought us physicality that we thing is necessary here tonight. It's nothing against Whitney. It's more just keeping everybody in the mix with lots of hockey coming up here."
Potter's last action came on March 15 against the Detroit Red Wings, as he logged 19:16 worth of ice time. He will play his 18th game of the season tonight in Nashville and has yet to record a point. Potter said he hopes to make the most of the opportunity and prove his worth on the back end.
"It's kind of tough going in and out of the lineup, but you can't use it as an excuse for your performance," he said. " You just have to come in and put your best foot forward, prove you deserve to be in the lineup and help the team win the game."
HARTIKAINEN TO OKC
In order to activate Nugent-Hopkins from injured reserve, the Oilers were forced to send a player to the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons and opted for Teemu Hartikainen. The Finnish power forward has three points in 19 games with the Oilers this season, as well as 27 points in 37 games with the Barons. Hartikainen took morning skate, but Coach Krueger informed him towards the end of practice that he would be going to OKC.
-- Ryan Frankson, edmontonoilers.com
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
TV: SNET-W, FS-TN
Last 10: Edmonton 3-4-3; Nashville 4-5-1
Season series: Third and final meeting of the regular season. The home team has taken each of the first two matchups. Colin Wilson had two goals and two assists while Pekka Rinne stopped all 24 shots in a 6-0 rout for Nashville on March 8, but Devan Dubnyk's strong 29-save effort and a goal and an assist for Jordan Eberle paced Edmonton to a 3-2 win on March 17.
Big story: A prolonged win streak late in the season could be enough to put a bubble team over the hump and securely into the top eight in the Western Conference playoff race. The Predators enter Monday looking to capture their third in a row. The Oilers have dropped three of four, and need to get back on track quick.
Oilers: Maybe getting back on the road is what Edmonton needs to prevent its season from fading toward a seventh straight year out of the postseason? After the Oilers ended a nine-game road trip with consecutive wins and went 1-0-1 to start a four-game homestand, there was hope they could be on the verge of cracking the top eight. But they've lost two in a row, including 3-0 at the hands of the Blues on Saturday. They only trailed by a goal entering the third period, but generating offense was an issue all night as they managed just 19 shots on Jaroslav Halak.
"I've been here for the playoffs and I've witnessed what that's like and [the fans are] as loud as they come in this League, as supportive as they come," Shawn Horcoff told the Edmonton Journal. "So, tonight was disappointing with the effort that we gave as players and we're going to need to give them better and we're going to need to give them excuses to cheer for."
Predators: Every time it looks as though Nashville might be in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs for only the second time in nine seasons, the Predators seem to get it together and make another charge. On Saturday night they put an emphatic end to the Blue Jackets' franchise-record run of 12 straight games with at least a point, with Taylor Beck's first in the NHL sparking a four-goal opening period en route to a 5-2 triumph. Beck also set up a goal by David Legwand and Rinne finished with 21 saves.
"He's making a case for himself, and that's what you want young guys to do," coach Barry Trotz told the Tennessean. "The great thing with Beck is he's a big body, and he can do some things offensively off the rush, he can do some things as sort of a grind game with that bigger body."
Who's hot: The Oilers were blanked Saturday, but prior to that Sam Gagner had put together a six-game points streak featuring five goals and two assists. … Predators captain Shea Weber is out of his early-season slump, compiling three goals and eight assists over his past 10 games.
Injury report: Edmonton forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (illness) could be activated off injured reserve for Monday's game. … Nashville defenseman Scott Hannan (upper body) is day-to-day. Wilson and fellow forwards Patric Hornqvist and Paul Gaustad are all on injured reserve with upper-body injuries.