EDMONTON - The Oilers returned to Rexall Place on Wednesday for their morning skate prior to tonight's crucial match-up against the Phoenix Coyotes.
Edmonton currently sits four points back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with nine games to play. Phoenix is one point ahead of them.
"We're still in it," said Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff following the skate. "Obviously we're going to have to go on a good run here but we just came off a five-game streak and we feel like if we can get a big win tonight we can start something going forward here. We have a lot of games at home."
Of those final nine games, the Oilers have seven at home which is quite a bit more than any other team they're trying to chase down -- Detroit (4), Dallas (4), Columbus (2) and Phoenix (3).
"There's two-and-a-half weeks left," Horcoff stated. "We win tonight and we're right back in there again. It gives us new life. We've got some rest coming up here and most of our games are at home down the stretch. It starts with tonight, it's going to be a huge game for us."
Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger agreed with his captain but added that the team can't be looking at the fact they have seven home games down the stretch.
"We see a lot of opportunity here. There's 18 points on the table and 14 of those potentially here at home. The spirit was really good. I thought we had a lull there and recovered from that on our last homestand," said Krueger. "We all know the opportunity that's there if we can be a strong home team but it's gotta stay small. We all know we have seven in nine but right now it's one in one and that's Phoenix today."
The Coyotes are a team that the Oilers have played twice previously this season. Both games were very tight battles.
"When you look at our two games that we had, they both went into overtime. We were able to win the one in OT and the other one in penalty shots. They were very tight games. Whether in our building or in ours they play a very stifling defensive system where they're really committed. The importance of this game is monstrous. It's all we're thinking about. We're not trying to look beyond it. We're really trying not to look past what just happened on the road trip."
Krueger added that a win in regulation would be huge for the team tonight but that goes without saying.
"We want to focus on getting these points and waking up tomorrow with 41. Anybody that's getting in has to catch somebody now. It's about getting those two points today that we're focusing on."
The Oilers will be getting some help returning to the lineup tonight as Ales Hemsky is expected to draw back in after missing Monday's game with a foot injury.
"A couple of days rest seemed to do him well," said Krueger. "It is an injury that we've all spoken about that he's going to have to manage for awhile. It didn't go away but he feels good to go today."
The foot injury had been bothering Hemsky for awhile but Monday was the first game he missed because of it.
"We did an MRI, too, to make sure that everything's fine and there's no risk in him playing of it getting worse. It's just an aggravated sensitive area that's going to be there for awhile. Really, it's the medical staff and Ales and I together speaking about it. The importance of this game today is really what makes the decision."
The rest of the lineup remains the same. Ryan Jones draws out with Hemsky coming in and Hemsky will slot in on a line with Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff. The line of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins remains intact. Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi and Nail Yakupov make up the second line and Jerred Smithson centres Lennart Petrell and Mike Brown on line four.
On defence, the team will go with the same three pairings they had on Monday. That means Mark Fistric remains in and Corey Potter remains out. Devan Dubnyk gets the start in goal.
-- Marc Ciampa, edmontonoilers.com
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Last 10: Phoenix 4-4-2; Edmonton 5-5-0
Season series: Third and final meeting of the regular season, with the Oilers aiming for the sweep following post-regulation wins in both cities. Nail Yakupov's overtime goal gave them a 2-1 victory in Phoenix on Jan. 30, while Sam Gagner's shootout goal proved decisive in a 3-2 triumph in Edmonton on Feb. 23.
Big story: Nine games left in the regular season for each team, with the Coyotes three points out of eighth in the Western Conference and the Oilers four off the pace.
Coyotes: Sweeping a three-game homestand to begin the month of April put Phoenix right back in the hunt for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but now the Coyotes are confronting a three-game road trip through western Canada that began Monday in Vancouver. They will need to improve upon one of the NHL's worst road records, which dropped to 4-9-5 following a 2-0 loss to the Canucks. Mike Smith couldn't have been much better, making 40 saves, but Cory Schneider turned aside all 19 shots he faced.
"They are a really good hockey team, especially on home ice and we didn't push back enough early and chased the game after that," Smith said. "When you are facing elimination like we are, we've got to be more desperate than we showed."
Oilers: This is the start of a three-game homestand for Edmonton, which plays seven of its final nine at Rexall Place. But has the Oilers' current three-game losing streak left them with too much ground to make up and not enough time? After opening a four-game road trip by scoring eight goals and routing the Flames, they had only two goals left in them for the remainder of the trip. Nick Schultz scored his first of the season early in the third period of Monday's game against the Ducks, drawing the Oilers into a tie, but Radek Dvorak's second of the night sent them to a 2-1 defeat.
"We have to find ways to win games and we're not doing that," Schultz told the Edmonton Sun. "We need to be better in a lot of areas, winning battles, getting pucks to the net, bodies to the net and scoring goals."
Who's hot: The goaltenders. Smith has stopped 64 of 65 shots for the Coyotes over two starts since returning from injury (the Canucks' second goal Monday was into an empty net). Devan Dubnyk, meanwhile, has allowed eight goals over his past five starts for the Oilers and has a .948 save percentage over that span.