EDMONTON - In preparation for Saturday's matinee tilt against the Phoenix Coyotes, the Oilers held an up-tempo, hour-long practice at the Russ Barnes Arena Friday morning.
Following Thursday's 3-1 loss to the division rival Minnesota Wild, Head Coach Ralph Krueger hinted that there could be some changes to the lineup heading into the clash with Phoenix.
There will be, but with the short turnaround and early start Saturday (1:30pm MT), Krueger doesn't want to "shake up the tree too much." Expect further lineup changes as the Oilers kick off their nine-game road trip in Chicago.
Ryan Jones, who's missed all 16 games this season with an eye injury, is ready to play and will likely be deployed alongside Lennart Petrell (who's also ready to play after missing the past two games with concussion-like symptoms) and Chris VandeVelde.
The Top 3 lines will remain the same: Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle; Nail Yakupov, Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky; Ryan Smyth, Eric Belanger and Ben Eager.
Teemu Hartikainen and Magnus Paajarvi appear to be the odd men out, as both skated on a line with injured captain Shawn Horcoff at practice. Considering Hall has a mid-afternoon hearing with the NHL after his major penalty for kneeing Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck one night ago, one of Hartikainen or Paajarvi could be reinserted if the Oilers' sniper is assessed any sort of supplementary discipline.
UPDATE: The NHL announces that Hall has been suspended for two games.
"I'm excited," said Jones, who was originally injured less than a week before the NHL and NHLPA came to a resolution over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in early January. "I can't honestly say that I thought I'd be here when the injury happened, so to put all the work in, to be an option to play again and be ready to go is exciting.
"I get to carry on my dream of playing hockey for a living. I'm extremely excited. It's the rink. How can you not be happy to come here every day?"
The injury occurred during an off-season practice at the University of Minnesota. Jones was standing off to the side when a deflected puck, packing a punch, bounced off his eyebrow. The 28-year-old said it was one of the scariest incidents he's ever been a part of.
"It's an eye. It's one of your main senses, so when it happened, I wasn't sure (how serious it was)," said Jones. "When I looked out of my eye when it first happened, I knew I had to get the hospital right away. The extent is something I had no idea about, but I was worried."
Considering the Oilers have struggled to get dirty and pot some greasy goals this season, Jones' addition couldn't have come at a better time.
"The pucks will be in the corners and I'm excited to get in, battle and be around the net," said Jones, who collected 17 goals and 33 points last season. "My game is simple and I haven't changed it in many, many years. It's a matter of getting back to that. I've got to give a hit and take a hit early on.
"I'm not going to say, necessarily, that the team needs me. But there's a little bit of grit and people around the net that the team needs right now. We have a ton of skill and if we can insert a little grit and a little bit of hard-to-play-against, we'll be an extremely successful hockey team."
STICKING WITH IT
Losers of eight of their past 11 and sitting dead last in the entire NHL in 5-on-5 scoring with just 17 on the year, the Oilers know that getting down on themselves won't help their current predicament.
"We've addressed that," said Eberle, who's been held pointless in the past two games (both losses). "We don't want that in the locker room. It brings guys down and makes things worse. The media can be negative all they want, but as soon as that starts creeping into the room, it starts turning sideways.
"We're staying clear of it."
"That's what losing can bring," said Krueger, adding that the club isn't at all bothered by it and is remaining committed to the process. "We're not playing to not lose, and that's causing some losses at that moment, but that eventually is going to lead to the type of culture we want. When it was 1-1 (Thursday), we didn't sit back and say, 'Oh boy, let's hold on to this and get a point and go into overtime.' No, we went for the win. We ended up losing, but you have to stick with the mentality that's in there right now.
"We don't feel any lack of desire to win on our team. We don't feel any quit in this team. What we feel is making mistakes and we feel that there are situations where we're not mature enough or aren't able to react to bring the wins home. It's that that we need to stick with, and so a day like today was a good day to speak quite sternly with the team about that."
Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff has been sidelined since Feb. 4 with a broken knuckle ("It's making good progress," he said), but has been around the team and in the dressing room getting a sense of it all.
"There's a difference between negativity and frustration," said the veteran, who's a little ahead of schedule and could return in a couple weeks' time. "I see a lot of frustration. We're not scoring goals like we should be and aren't confident at all playing in close games."
"When you're not playing, it's an easy game from the press box. You can't be that guy that comes into the dressing room that hasn't played and starts ranting and raving about what we're doing wrong on the ice. It doesn't work like that.
"Having said that, you try to take some guys aside try to keep things as positive as you can."
EAGER TO IMPRESS
After suffering a concussion in Game 1 of the season and returning to action on Jan. 20, Ben Eager has been a force for the Oilers in recent games.
"He's been the energy player we need and that's what we brought him to Edmonton for," said Krueger. "His physicality and his size, he makes people afraid in the right way; in the way the game of hockey should be played. We're excited about the version of Ben Eager we have right now."
Since returning to the lineup, Eager's ice time has increased in each game, culminating in a season-high total of 12:29 Thursday vs. Minnesota a number he exceeded only four times in 63 games last year. In addition to recording six hits (giving him a total of 19 over the past three games), No. 55 was rewarded with an assist on Ryan Smyth's second-period goal.
The 6-foot-2, 236-pound winger could get promoted at some point in the near future.
"I'm playing more, so (the coaches) are happy with how I'm playing," said Eager. "I feel great. That break I had after the injury, I worked out hard and it's paid off in the past couple games. Just trying to skate (hard), get in on the forecheck and do what I do."
Season series: This is the second of three meetings this season between the two clubs. In the opener on Jan. 30, Nail Yakupov scored the game-winner with a power-play goal 3:52 into overtime and Devan Dubnyk made 27 saves to lead the Oilers to a 2-1 victory. Edmonton went 0-3-1 against Phoenix in 2011-12.
Big story: After opening the season 4-2-0, the Oilers have only won two of their last 10 games to fall to 13th in the Western Conference standings with 15 points -- three behind eighth-seeded Minnesota. Following Saturday's home game against the Coyotes, the Oilers will embark on a 17-day road trip that spans nine games.
Coyotes: After opening the season with four losses in five games, the Coyotes have gone 7-2-2, notching points in nine of the past 11 games to move into seventh place in the Western Conference with 18 points. The scoring has been spread across the board with Radim Vrbata (four goals) leading the way with 12 points. Forwards Martin Hanzal and Mikkel Boedker and defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle each have 10 points.
Oilers: The Oilers lost to the Minnesota Wild for the 11th time in the past 13 meetings on Thursday at Rexall Place. Ryan Smyth scored his first goal in six games for the Oilers to give the home team a 1-0 lead, but the Wild scored the next three. Edmonton's Taylor Hall ended any hope of an Oilers comeback when he was given a five-minute penalty for kneeing and a game misconduct for an open-ice collision with Cal Clutterbuck with 2:33 to go. Clutterbuck had to be helped off the ice and was unable to put weight on his left leg. Hall had a disciplinary hearing by the NHL department of safety on Friday for the hit on Clutterbuck.
Who's hot: Since returning from injury on Feb. 1, Coyotes goalie Mike Smith has notched three shutouts, posted a 2.08 goals-against average and a .930 saves percentage. Over that nine-game stretch, the Coyotes have posted points in seven games he has started. … Edmonton's Hall has recorded a point in five of the past seven games (one goal, six assists).