“Absolutely,” Oilers winger Matt Hendricks said. “We want to win hockey games. A lot of the teams we’re playing right now are fighting for playoff positions or trying to get into the playoff picture. We want to win as many as we can.”
The Oilers have the opportunity to play that spoiler role tonight and steal points away from the Winnipeg Jets, as they visit Rexall Place. Although the Jets have won their first two games against the Oilers this season, they have needed to come back in the third period in both before winning in overtime and a shootout.
“We know what we’re dealing with tonight,” Oilers Interim Coach Todd Nelson said. “We’re dealing with a heavy hockey team that’s playing very well. The last game we played against them, it was a hard-fought game. What I liked about last game against them is we competed. We’re going to have to do the same thing tonight. Right now, our team is trying to find ways to motivate ourselves and so I guess the motivation is to go out there, play hard and make teams earn their playoff spot.”
The Oilers lost their last meeting with the Jets, 5-4 in a shootout. This, after having three one-goal leads and a two-goal night from Nail Yakupov.
This is now a Jets team that has hit its stride in the Western Conference playoff race. Currently seventh in the Western Conference, with 86 points in the standings, Winnipeg is looking to lock up a spot. The Jets have won four games in a row, playing some of their best hockey.
“I think it’s more just the fact that you know they’re going to come out with their best game and you still want to win every game,” Oilers defenceman Mark Fayne said of playing spoiler. “We want to go out there and see what we can do against them. It’s still a test. They’re in the playoff hunt so it would be good for us to know that we can knock off a playoff team or just really get in there and have our best game.”
With 10 games left in the season, the Oilers are hoping to finish strong. In order to do that, they’ll have to knock off teams like the Jets, who are battling for a post-season appearance.
“Just know that they’re going to be playing their best hockey and it can help raise our game,” Hendricks said. “These last 10 games, we want to be as competitive as we can be and steal as many points as we can. It’s going to be good for us. It’s definitely going to be a learning experience for a lot of guys in this room.”
Knowing you’ll get the other team’s best helps with motivation.
“You’ve got to get yourself up for games and we have a lot of pride in here. We don’t want to mail it in with 10 games left and just go out and play,” said Teddy Purcell. “I think it will be good. A lot of these guys are going to be here next year and it’s kind of like a playoff game. Winnipeg is coming in here, they’re playing their best hockey and they’re fighting to get in the playoffs so every play is going to matter tonight. If we don’t come out ready to go and match their intensity it could be a bad one.”
THE BIG JETS
The Oilers know what to expect when they hit the ice against the Jets. Winnipeg boasts a lot of size in their lineup. Just as an example, they have eight forwards who are six-foot-two or taller. On the backend, there are another eight players on the roster over that mark.
“They’re fast and they’re big,” said Purcell. “They have a very good system that they use well. Everyone seems to be on the same page with them. They’re getting contributions from their defence. All three lines are chipping in offensively and they’re getting good goaltending too. We’ve got to be ready to match their pressure and be ready to skate with them.”
“They’re a bigger team,” Fayne said. “They’re real physical. They made a few good acquisitions with (Tyler) Myers and a couple of other guys like (Drew) Stafford. I think overall, they’re just a tough team to play against. They’re hard-nosed, they don’t give you much space out there and they’re tough in all zones.”
Some of their big weapons add to the physicality of Winnipeg, making them tough to match up against.
“Looking at the opponent, I think we have to recognize where their skills are,” Hendricks added. “They have some big forwards up front that can skate well, they’ve got some big D that can skate well on the backend and they are that hard, gritty hockey team. They seem to be playing playoff hockey right now. We need to recognize that, but at the same time let’s worry about ourselves over here and the type of brand of hockey we want to play.”
The Oilers offence has bounced back from struggles, scoring four goals in five of their last seven games. A big part of that is the power play, which leads the NHL post All-Star break with a 26% conversion rate. But the Oilers power play was held off the score sheet in their 5-4 overtime win over Philadelphia on Saturday.
“We talked about chemistry with the lines,” said Nelson. “I think we’re starting to bear down on our opportunities. Last game, we didn’t get a power play goal so it was nice to get the even strength goals. I think we’re working well as a five-man unit in the offensive zone. We’re supporting the puck better and we’re starting to get more traffic, consistently, in front of the net and we’re getting shots through.”
Offensive production is just one of the things Edmonton hopes to continue in their final 10 games of the season.
“You’ve just got to keep riding that confidence,” said Purcell. “The last three games we’ve got points here. We can build off that. It’s nice when you have different lines contributing and you’re not relying on just your power play or just your top line. It’s nice to chip in and take some of the load off some of the first-line guys, even though they’re playing at a pretty good pace right now.”
Jordan Eberle is on a career-high seven game point streak with five goals and nine assists in that span. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is on a five-game run with 10 points (3-7-10).
The Oilers have gained points in the standings in each of their last four games. The power play is clicking, certain players are racking up points and it seems like the players have bought in to the team’s goals down the stretch.
“The big thing for us right now is we’ve been just playing simple hockey,” said Fayne. “We’ve been trying to do everything as a team, as a five-man unit when we’re out there. There are not many individual efforts. It’s a lot of rebound goals, a lot of driving the net, and that’s how you win hockey games. I think, if we stick to that, we will do well. I think we’ve got to carry that over to next year. It’s building a team identity right now.”
“I think our execution has been better,” added Hendricks. “We’re playing the system for 60 minutes, or at least we’re really attempting to do that. It’s allowing us to stick around in games and claw our way back when we need to our hang on to a lead when we have it.”
The way the team has rallied, not willing to mail it in for the remainder of the season, has been encouraging to some of the veteran players.
“I think probably for the last 20-30 games it has really been noticeable,” Fayne said of the team buy in. “Defensively, offensively, everybody is committed to winning. Everybody is starting to realize it’s not individual efforts that win games. It’s everybody on the ice, every shift. I think it’s starting to pay off.” QUICK NOTES: Edmonton is 2-1-3 in their last six games against the Jets. Eberle has averaged two points per game the last seven games. Nugent-Hopkins is coming off a three-point game (2-1-3) and scored the game-winning goal against Philadelphia. Benoit Pouliot is on a five-game scoring streak with three goals and three assists. Winnipeg is 17-12-7 on the road this season, but only 3-7-2 since January 27. Blake Wheeler leads the Jets in road scoring with 16 goals and 29 points away from home. Ondrej Pavalec has started and won four straight games since March 14. Drew Stafford is on a five-game point streak with three goals and four assists.
-- Chris Wescott, edmontonoilers.com
JETS (37-23-12) at OILERS (20-39-13)
TV: TSN3, SNOL
Season series: The Winnipeg Jets have won the first two games against the Edmonton Oilers, with each victory at MTS Centre. Injured Jets center Bryan Little has two goals and an assist.
Jets team scope: Winnipeg canceled its scheduled practice Sunday before flying to Edmonton to begin a two-game road trip. A four-game winning streak has the Jets holding the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference; they trail the Minnesota Wild by one point for the first wild card. Little and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien each missed Winnipeg's 3-0 win Saturday against the Washington Capitals. Each player has missed seven consecutive games because of an upper-body injury; coach Paul Maurice is expected to update each player's status Monday. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec could make his fifth consecutive start; he has stopped 113 of 117 shots (.966 save percentage) in his past four starts. Forward Drew Stafford has a five-game point streak (three goals, four assists). The Jets visit the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday before a four-game homestand that starts Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens.
Oilers team scope: Edmonton continues its six-game homestand. The Oilers defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 5-4 in overtime on Saturday, are 2-0-2 in their past four games and have scored 20 goals in their past five. They went 0-for-4 on the power play Saturday, ending their streak of six consecutive games with at least one power-play goal. In all, the power play is 11-for-33 in its past seven games. The top line of left wing Benoit Pouliot, center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and right wing Jordan Eberle continues to produce. Eberle has a career-best seven-game point streak (five goals, nine assists), and Nugent-Hopkins (three goals, seven assists) and Pouliot (three goals, three assists) each has a five-game point streak. Edmonton, which hosts the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday, placed forward Ryan Hamilton on waivers Sunday. Hamilton had a goal and an assist in 16 games this season.