EDMONTON, AB - The Olympic break is finally over and for the Edmonton Oilers players, it’s a chance to get back to playing hockey games which is something they’re eager to do after seeing some success heading into the break.
“It’s been kind of a grind the last little bit, the last 7 or 8 days,” Oilers Luke Gazdic said. “Just practicing the whole time kind of takes a toll on you and you’re just kind of getting a little unsettled but it’s nice that we’re going to get back in it tonight and I’m a little nervous too, just to get back into game action but it’s fun. I’m ready for it.”
Tonight, the Oilers face the Minnesota Wild. The last time these two teams played each other, it was Ben Scrivens’ first start as a member of the Edmonton organization. He allowed four goals in the loss to the Wild but has been outstanding ever since. Scrivens leads the NHL in save percentage (.937) and has allowed two goals or less in four of five of his starts since that game against the Wild on January 16.
The Oilers will look to shake off the rust tonight against a Wild team that’s currently in 7th place in the West.
“It’s more of a mental break than anything and coming back, focusing on the right things and we have 22 games here to really push towards the end and we’ve got to be ready for it,” Sam Gagner said.
The final stretch of the season kicks off and the Oilers are focused on making strides no matter their position in the standings.
“I think the biggest thing for us is just finding a way to play consistent, hard hockey,” Gagner said. “We’ve done it for stretches this year but we haven’t done it consistently. We can’t really focus on results or how many wins you get. It’s just, if you focus on the right things and the process and doing the same thing every night, the wins kind of speak for themselves and that has to be our focus.”
Scrivens will get the start in net while Anton Belov will also draw into the lineup on defence for the Oilers.
The Oilers used the latter part of the Olympic break as a ‘mini-camp’ to install new system play and tweak some aspects of their game. Tonight, those changes will be on display in the team’s first game since February 7.
Head Coach Dallas Eakins says he believes they got everything they wanted to accomplish finished in time for the games to begin again.
“Yeah, I think so,” Eakins said. “I think as a coach, there’s never enough time. You’d like to stay out there and do it every day but you’ve got to watch their rest and their attention spans, things like that, but there were a couple of things we felt that were real important. We got them done but there may be some growing pains with it, but they’re very well may be none. We’ll see how it goes tonight.”
PROTECT THIS HOUSE
The Oilers are last in the Western Conference standings, with just 47 points this season. Despite winning five of their last seven games, the team is really looking more forward to improving their overall home record. The Oilers are just 10-14-2 at Rexall Place this season.
“With the playoffs out of mind, the one thing we really want to look into is improving our home record,” Eakins said. “I think we’re four games below .500 at home, and so I really think we want to make our mark here, especially for these fans who have come out every game. We’ve sold out crowds for the 29th place team and I think we owe it to the people of Edmonton a little bit to come right at it here in the last 15 games.”
With 15 of their last 22 games on home ice, the Oilers have an opportunity to begin changing the reputation of their building.
“We haven’t been good enough at home,” Gagner said. “We know that and it gives us a chance down the stretch to kind of right that. We need to find a way to continually get better at home and make it a hard building for teams to come into and we have a chance to do that down the stretch.”
Taylor Hall says the team is happy to be closing out the season with the majority of their games in Edmonton.
“I think we’re all excited about it,” Hall said. “I know, for me personally, I like playing at home… It’s not as hectic, you’re not traveling as much, obviously, and it feels a lot more comfortable for me. But as far as our team goes, we need to start making this a tough place to play. Whether we’re a team that’s first in the standings or whether we’re a team that’s not in the playoffs, we want to make this a building that’s tough for teams to come into and make it a little more intimidating.”
Eakins said that he likes finishing the season at home however, looking back, the team may have benefited from some variations in the scheduling that would have given the team more home-ice advantage early.
“It’s always easier to look back,” Eakins said. “Before the season started, I liked that we were going to be at home down the stretch. Do I like being home right now down the stretch? I do. But now looking back, I wish some of these home games had been at the start of the year, where we were on the road a lot. I thought we suffered on the road greatly, early. Maybe that would have helped change things a little bit but I’m fine with it. Listen, you’ve got to play the games. For me, it shouldn’t matter where they’re at, home or away.”
-- Chris Wescott, edmontonoilers.com
NHL.COM GAME PREVIEW
WILD (31-21-7) at OILERS (20-33-7)
TV: FS-N, SNET-W
Last 10: Minnesota 6-2-2; Edmonton 5-3-2
Season series: This is the second of three games this season. Minnesota's Jason Pominville had a goal and an assist in a 4-1 win Jan. 16 at Xcel Energy Center.
Big story: Minnesota got hot before the Olympic break, winning two of its final three games and taking five of a possible six points. Minnesota is 11-4-2 since the first of the year and has opened up a five-point lead for the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Wild: Minnesota was playing well before the Olympic break, but the time off came at a good time for several injured players. Defenseman Marco Scandella, who twisted his knee with one game remaining before break, would have missed three weeks' worth of games any other season. Instead, he could wind up missing only one. Forward Jason Zucker needed a minor procedure done on his leg during the break and could be back in a few of days. Captain Mikko Koivu, who hasn't played since Jan. 4, didn't go to Sochi and was instead able to rehab his fractured ankle.
"Let's be honest, there's no question we want to get him back, he's a huge part of our team," coach Mike Yeo said of Koivu. "But at the same time, when we get him back, we want to have him in the lineup at 100 percent or at the very least very close to that. More importantly we want to have him back for the rest of the season."
Oilers: Edmonton is 17 points out of a Stanley Cup Playoff spot in the Western Conference and could see a number of changes to the roster in the coming days as the NHL Trade Deadline approaches next Wednesday. Coach Dallas Eakins said Tuesday the Oilers' approach won't change even though the team could be looking at number of different players over their final 22 games in an effort to start building toward next season.
"We're going to play to win this game," Eakins said. "Will we take some different looks at people in different situations now? Yes. I think we have a couple of players who may be ready now to play some bigger minutes."
Who's hot: Wild forward Mikael Granlund was one of the top players in Sochi and should return to the NHL brimming with confidence. The second-year center, who turned 22 Wednesday, was named to the Olympic All-Star team after leading Finnish forwards in points (seven), shots (20) and minutes played (18:15). … Oilers forward Ales Hemsky had a solid Olympics too, scoring three goals and an assist in five games with the Czech Republic. Hemsky has been rumored to be among players that could be available in the run-up to the Trade Deadline.
Injury report: Koivu (fractured ankle) and Scandella (knee) are questionable and could be game-time decisions for Minnesota. Goaltender Josh Harding (illness) and forward Jason Zucker (leg) are out. … Edmonton defenseman Philip Larsen (illness) is out.