EDMONTON, AB - Tonight the Oilers host the Tampa Bay Lightning, which continues their streak of games against some of the NHL’s elite. Coming off of losses to Phoenix, San Jose and Anaheim, and with games against St. Louis and Pittsburgh looming this week, Edmonton hopes to turn their fortunes, against the league’s top teams, around.
“We’ve kind of struggled against the top teams,” said Oilers forward Jordan Eberle. “We haven’t been able to play well and, as far as chances, we’ve been getting outshot and outplayed. That was really frustrating. I think when you play well against the lower-end teams in the league, the teams that aren’t in the playoffs, then you get to teams like that, that’s where you want to excel and move your game forward because you gain confidence. When it doesn’t happen, it’s frustrating.”
Their schedule doesn’t get any easier tonight as Tampa Bay is 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, even without star centre Steven Stamkos.
“Being back home here, we’ve got to find a way,” said Eberle. “Tampa Bay, they’ve been playing well without Stamkos. They’ve been getting wins and we’ve got to find a way to get some shots on net, get some chances and give the crowd here something to cheer about.”
Oilers sophomore winger Nail Yakupov has struggled to make the offensive impact expected of him this season. But the clouds have parted slightly as of late with some recent success finding the back of the net.
Yakupov has two goals in his last two games and three in his last five, dating back to his two-point performance against Winnipeg on December 23.
The turnaround comes after Yakupov had a one-on-one talk with Head Coach Dallas Eakins at practice before the team’s trip to Phoenix. Yakupov was scratched against the Coyotes before finishing the road trip against San Jose and Anaheim.
“We had a great meeting and I kind of changed (things around a little bit),” said the 20-year-old former first overall pick. “We’re still losing. So, I’m just worried about our team. We’ve got to get some points tonight at Rexall Place.”
Eakins is very happy with the recent play of his young forward, following that conversation they had.
“I feel good for him and then I feel good for our team because this young man has had a lot of ups and downs this year,” he said. “I think he’s had a real trying start to his second year. He’s stuck with it and I thought his last game, he was one of the few bright spots in our last game on that road trip. I thought he was probably our best forward.”
TOP LINE BACK TOGETHER; PERRON WITH YAK
Eakins told the media this morning that Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle will reunite on the Oilers top line. He also said that he would be pairing Yakupov back with David Perron. It is a move he hopes continues to prod Yakupov along offensively.
“David has been good for Yak this year,” said Eakins. “He’s gone out of his way to try to help him. I think he enjoys kind of the part of being a player that tries to help coach a little bit too. We’ll see how that goes early.”
MONITORING ICE TIME
The Oilers young stars have become the workhorses this season. Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in particular have consistently played 20-plus minutes in games this season.
With a compressed schedule and a lot of games against heavier teams, the Oilers will continue to monitor the ice time of their top forwards. It gets tougher to cut down time to conserve their energy when the team is playing from behind.
“It’s two-fold,” said Eakins. “I’ve got to keep an eye on them and they need to really manage what they’re doing off the ice too. They’ve got to make sure they’re living right and eating right and training right. That’s the first challenge, is what they’re doing away from the rink. The next challenge is for me to keep an eye on them in the games.
“The problem we run into is when you get behind in these games, there’s usually only one way to get back into it. That’s with your best players and the guys that can score and those are the guys that can score. That’s how their minutes get run up a lot of times. Moving forward as this team gets more experienced, I dearly want these guys to be able to handle… 22-23 minutes per night and they should be able to do it as they get some of that ‘old man strength’…”
Big story: The Lightning are winning even with Steven Stamkos (broken right tibia) out of the lineup since Nov. 11. Tampa Bay is 13-7-4 without its star center, good for second place in the Atlantic Division at the halfway point of the season.
Nearly as remarkable has been the Lightning's turnaround away from home. From Nov. 16-Dec. 14, Tampa Bay went 0-5-2 on the road while being outscored 27-11 and shut out three times. During their current five-game road winning streak, the Lightning have outscored opponents 18-5.
"If you told us where we are and considering all the injuries we've had, I think we would have paid for that," Lightning forward Martin St. Louis said. "We're working hard and I think we're getting rewarded for all the work we're putting in."
The Oilers are back at Rexall Place after going 0-2-1 on their recent road trip and have lost 10 of 12 games.
Lightning:Ben Bishop's impressive season continued Friday night. The 6-foot-7 goalie made 19 saves in a 2-0 win against the Calgary Flames, his fourth shutout, tying the Boston Bruins' Tuukka Rask for the NHL lead. Rookie forwards Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov scored for the Lightning, who are 7-1-1 in their past nine games.
''That might have been one of our best games of the year from start to finish,'' Bishop said. ''Seemed like we had the puck most of the game. The big thing [Friday] is we never took our foot off the gas. We played a full 60 minutes.''
Oilers: Goals from Boyd Gordon and Nail Yakupov, and 32 saves by Ilya Bryzgalov weren't enough Friday in the Oilers' 5-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. Edmonton held a 2-1 lead midway through the first period before Anaheim scored the next four goals.
"We have been hanging around in games, but we always seem to find a way to blow a lead,'' Gordon said. ''We can't sit around and hang our heads. We have to find a way to get the job done.''
Who's hot: Bishop has earned at least a point in 10 straight games (8-0-2) and allowed two or fewer goals in eight consecutive starts and 26 of 31. Ondrej Palat's goal and assist Friday extended the forward's point-scoring streak to five games (two goals, four assists). … Oilers forward Taylor Hall is has 11 points in his past eight games; forward David Perron has six in his past six.
Injury report: Stamkos has been skating with full equipment. Lightning defenseman Sami Salo (upper body) has missed the past four games but could be ready Sunday. Defensemen Keith Aulie (broken hand), Brian Lee (knee) and Mattias Ohlund (knee) are on injured reserve … Oilers right wing Jordan Eberle (knee) missed the game Friday. Defensemen Corey Potter (groin) and Philip Larsen (illness) are on injured reserve.