EDMONTON - The Northwest Division rival Oilers and Minnesota Wild last met on Dec. 29, 2011. Since then, 420 days have passed and the Oilers have played 61 games against other NHL opponents.
In preparation, the Oilers held an optional morning practice at Rexall Place. Nick Schultz, Justin Schultz, Eric Belanger, Teemu Hartikainen, Nail Yakupov, Sam Gagner and Taylor Hall were all absent. Lennart Petrell, who missed the past two days of practice with concussion-like symptoms, did skate but will not draw in tonight.
Head Coach Ralph Krueger said he took "a big step" by skating today and should be ready to go for Saturday vs. Phoenix.
Theo Peckham skated again and will make his 2012-13 debut tonight. The 25-year-old spent the past two weeks on a conditioning assignment with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons. According to Krueger, Peckham was the best defenceman for both teams this past weekend in back-to-back games against the Texas Stars.
It's expected that he'll be paired with Mark Fistric. Ryan Whitney will sit as a healthy scratch.
"With the skill-set we have, it's excellent to add some more meat and some physicality to the lineup," said Krueger. "We like the idea of adding the muscle tonight."
Devan Dubnyk will start in goal. The 26-year-old has put together a 5-4-3 record, 2.76 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. Niklas Backstrom will get the nod for the Wild.
Tonight also marks the night in which ex-Oiler defenceman Tom Gilbert makes his return to Edmonton. The Bloomington, MN product was traded to the Wild late last season in exchange for Nick Schultz. Prior to, Gilbert had spent his entire career (six seasons) as an Oiler, posting 33 goals and 158 points in 384 games.
"I've never had a chance to play against him in my career," said the Oilers' leading-scorer, Sam Gagner, who lived with Gilbert and Andrew Cogliano during the 2007-08 season when all three were NHL rookies. "I know him very well, too, so it's going to be a unique experience. I got a chance to meet up with him yesterday at the rink here. I'm sure he's excited about it. He had quite a career here and there are going to be a lot of memories coming back to him."
At Minnesota's practice Wednesday at Rexall Place, Gilbert said he can't wait to line up against his former teammates.
"(Gagner) is one guy I can't wait to play against," he said. "Ladislav Smid, too. I know he likes to run his mouth a lot, so I hope I'm in the corner one time with him."
"I'm sure Ladi (Smid) is going to be running his mouth like he always is," laughed Gagner. I'm sure it's not going to affect Gibby one bit. When we were on the same team, it was always happening in practice and Tom takes it in stride.
"It's going to be the same thing tonight. I'm sure it'll be an emotional game for him."
The trade has worked out well for both sides.
Since being acquired by the Oilers in that deadline-day swap with the Wild, Schultz has played exactly as advertised. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound rearguard has been a defensive specialist who's contributed plenty to the penalty kill and has been an excellent mentor to Justin Schultz.
"(Mikko Koivu) told me last night to keep it clean," laughed Schultz. "Obviously it takes a little bit of time to get adjusted to your new environment and it's still a process, but it's gone very well. Both sides and both players are happy and my time in Edmonton has been great."
Schultz has still yet to register a goal in Oilers silks, but contributed four assists in 20 game last year and has added another in 2012-13.
The Feb. 27 trade was a pure hockey deal -- need-for-need, with no sweeteners. Due to salaries, long-term contracts and the value of draft picks in today's NHL, it's a rarity nowadays.
Schultz still holds the Wild franchise record for regular-season appearances, suiting up in 743 games in Minnesota.
"He's a man of his word and when he speaks, everybody listens," said Krueger. "He's a man of few words but when he speaks it gets everybody's attention. He's our leader in the defensive core, quite clearly. His habits are the habits we want because they're the habits of a winner. He tries to be better every day and never misses a beat. If we take him out of a role for a brief period, he's still there for everybody else, which is something winning type of players do."
Even-strength scoring has been an issue for the Oilers all season. Of the 35 goals the club has tallied this year, only 18 have come at evens. It seemed to be corrected with a 56-shot, 6-4 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday, but it wasn't. Tuesday's result vs. Los Angeles was anything but an inspired offensive effort.
"We readdressed it yesterday (at practice)," said Krueger. "We're trying to change habits here. We can't push a button and do it in one day. We're being persistent in the messaging, making it clear and simple. One of (the messages) is we have to create those opportunities with bodies and with pucks going to the net. We need to increase the amount of shots on goal. It's something we'd done so well to a record-setting pace vs. Colorado and we did it quite poorly against Los Angeles."
Gagner, who leads the Oilers with 16 points in 37 shots in 15 games, agrees. In his mind, the key is crashing the net in order to get those second- and third-chance opportunities where greasy goals tend to result.
"You're not going to score every time you get pucks and bodies to the net, but it creates some space and forces the other team to defend a little differently if it's something to employ consistently," said Gagner. "That has to be our focus tonight. When we do that, and it really showed against Colorado, it helps our overall game where we're able to out-chance the other team."
Season series: First of four for the Northwest Division rivals. Last season, the Wild took two of three at both the Xcel Energy Center and Rexall Place after six-game sweep in 2010-11. They are 27-8-2 against the Oilers over the last six seasons.
Big story: One point separates the two teams in the Northwest, and although the first-place Canucks have hardly opened up any distance, holding a four-point lead on the Wild, both teams are on the outside of the playoff picture in 10th and 11th positions respectively. Neither team has been lighting the lamp with much frequency -- the Wild are last in the NHL in scoring with 33 goals, the Oilers only slightly better with 36.
Wild: They do fine when they score more than once (5-1-2). On Sunday, Dany Heatley scored for the first time in nine games and 21-year-old Jason Zucker picked up his first career goal in his NHL debut. Add Torrey Mitchell's first goal of the season and the Wild were able to come from behind to beat the Red Wings 3-2, giving them a 3-1-1 record in their last five games.
"It's big. I'm not going to sit here and say this makes our season," coach Mike Yeo said. "We've still got a lot of work to do and we're focused on continuing to get better as a group. But this is huge."
Oilers: For a team that's been struggling the way the Oilers have, it's important to pick up wins wherever possible, especially at home, and especially before a nine-game road trip that will take them to mid-March. To do that, they need to finish.
They came back from a 1-0 deficit Tuesday against the Kings and continued to compete most of the way from there, but Jeff Carter snatched the game away with 49.6 seconds left, giving the Oilers a painful 3-1 loss. It also puts them at 1-2 on the five-game homestand that ends Saturday against Phoenix.
"Going on the road for nine more, you want to be over .500," Taylor Hall told the Edmonton Journal. "It puts us in a tough spot to win our last two games against good teams.
"We're going to have to show up every night. We play two good games and then we have a stinker in this one. We're going to have to play better and stop leaning on our goalie so much."
Who's hot: Wild point leaders Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Dany Heatley each have gotten on the board in their last two games. .. Sam Gagner scored Edmonton's lone goal against the Kings and has five points in his last four games, Hall has six points in his last five.
Injury report: Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom (flu) would be missed if he's not ready to go. He's 22-3-1 against the Oilers with a 1.81 goals-against average. Forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard and defenseman Justin Falk joined Backstrom in sick bay Sunday. Goalie Josh Harding (multiple sclerosis symptoms) was placed on injured reserve last week. Defenseman Tyler Cuma (foot) is still weeks away. … Oilers forward Ryan Jones (eye) had been cleared for contact last week and could be back in the lineup by the end of the homestand. Forwards Anton Lander (foot) and Shawn Horcoff (hand) are week-to-week.