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Oilers face off against Wild tonight

by Staff Writer / Edmonton Oilers

With four games remaining against tonights opponent, the Minnesota Wild, the Edmonton Oilers are not out of the playoff race by a long shot.

Following last nights shootout loss in Calgary, the Wild currently sit 10 points ahead of Edmonton for the eighth and final playoff spot. But with four more head-to-head match-ups between the two teams there are eight points that the Oilers can make up in their pursuit of the postseason.

"Everybody needs to take it individually upon themselves to come with a better effort and come prepared to raise their level of game," remarked Oilers captain Jason Smith.

Tuesday was an emotional day for the Oilers. That evening, the franchise honoured Mark Messier by raising his number to the rafters but earlier that day the longest-serving active Oiler – Ryan Smyth – was dealt to the New York Islanders.

"Hes a great player and hes been a piece of this franchise ever since I can remember," said Joffrey Lupul. "We wish him the best but weve got to realize that we have to still come out and play a hockey game."

Phoenix skated to a 3-0 victory as the Oilers opened their current four-game homestand with a loss. The good news, however, is that they can help their fortunes greatly with a win tonight versus Minnesota and Saturday against Calgary.

"Weve got to pick ourselves up and get ourselves back at a high emotional level so we can play the game against Minnesota and win some hockey games," Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish commented.

A big reason why the Oilers have been unable to close the gap against Minnesota is because the Wild have been among the hottest teams in the NHL over the past several months.

Since January 11, the Wild have the fifth-best record in the NHL at 14-4-3 and they had the leagues second-best record in February at 9-2-2.

"There's a feeling in the room that if we just go out and play our game that we're going to win that hockey game," Wild captain Mark Parrish told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "That's important this time of year, especially as we get closer to the playoffs."

More recently, the Wild have picked up points in four straight games and in nine of 10. Last night was a defensive struggle with Minnesota losing to the Calgary Flames 2-1 in a shootout.

Marian Gaborik scored the lone Minnesota goal in last nights game, netting his 21st goal of the season despite only playing in his 30th game. The big news from last night, however, was Minnesota potentially losing goaltender Niklas Backstrom. He left after the first period with a groin injury.

When starting netminder Manny Fernandez went down with a knee injury at the end of January, many felt that the Wild would start to struggle but thanks to backup Backstrom the exact opposite happened and the team was on fire in February.

Backstrom was named the NHLs first star last week after posting a 3-0-0 record with a 1.62 GAA and .933 pct but is now questionable for tonight. Rookie Josh Harding played in relief of Backstrom last night and did well, stopping 21 of 22 shots.

In addition to being 10 points up on the ninth-place Oilers, Minnesota has top spot in the Northwest Division within their sights. They are currently only one point back of Calgary and Vancouver for first.

LINEUP UPDATE (11:06 AM): Coach Craig MacTavish shook up all the lines at the morning skate today. Top line will be Petr Sykora, Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff. Second line is Petr Nedved between Patrick Thoresen and Fernando Pisani. Third line is J-F Jacques, Marc Pouliot and Joffrey Lupul. Fourth line is Raffi Torres, Marty Reasoner and Zack Stortini.

ROSTER UPDATES: Edmonton – Jarret Stoll (concussion) is out. Ethan Moreau (shoulder) is out. Tom Gilbert (concussion) is doubtful. Petr Nedved (knee) is probable. Daniel Tjarnqvist (inflamed pubic bone) is questionable. Ladislav Smid (knee) is probable; Minnesota – Niklas Backstrom (groin) is questionable. Manny Fernandez (knee) is doubtful.

OILERS TO WATCH: Petr Sykora is nearly a point-per-game player at Rexall Place. In 32 home games, Sykora has 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points. He has 19 points in 32 road games Another Oiler who plays a better game on home ice is Joffrey Lupul, with a +1 rating and nine goals in 32 games. He has six goals and is -18 away from Rexall Raffi Torres has 20 of his 31 points on home ice Last game, Fernando Pisani found himself on the teams top line alongside Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff.

WILD TO WATCH: The Slovakian duo of Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra is always dangerous. Gaborik has 21 goals this season in only 30 games played while Demitra ranks second on the Wild with 48 points in 55 games Dominic Moore, acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins yesterday, was a scratch last night for Minnesota but is expected to make his Wild debut tonight. Moore had six goals and 15 points in 59 games for the Penguins this season. He was tops on the Penguins in faceoff wins at 51.6%.

FAST FACTS: Minnesota has the leagues fifth-best record since January 11 at 14-4-3 and second-best record since January 30 at 9-2-2 The Wild has picked up at least one power play goal in six straight games for a 37.5% efficiency rating and have not allowed a power play goal in four games The Wild is 21-0-0 when scoring three or more goals in a game this season At one point earlier this season, Minnesota had lost 11 straight on the road but since that slump theyve gone 9-3-1 away from home.
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