BACK IN TOWNEdmonton, AB
- Following a six-day pause to relax, recharge and rebuild during the NHL's All-Star break, the Oilers returned to practice at 3:30pm today.
Tom Gilbert and Cam Barker
, both of whom are out with ankle injuries, donned the red, non-contact sweaters throughout the 60-minute session; it's unclear whether or not either will be available to play on the team's upcoming three-game homestand, but both are getting closer to a return.
"I feel good," said an upbeat Barker, who's missed 34 games this season. "We'll talk to the doctors in the morning and see where it's at, but I feel pretty good. I've been feeling pretty good for a couple weeks now.
"It's great coming back and being around the guys," he added. "When you're injured for two months, you're with the trainers and on your own and working to get back. It's nice to be back around the guys and in that environment. It's exciting for me."
Barker could potentially get back in the lineup this week and is targeting to, but Gilbert's absence could extend a little longer; having missed 11 games since getting punted with an illegal hit by Chicago's Daniel Carcillo on Jan. 2 at the United Center, he's still not back at 100-percent.
"It's still a little bit sore," said the 29-year-old, who's equally as eager to return. "I wanted to get out there and try a practice. It's going to be a day-by-day thing, and hopefully every day it gets better. I wish I were a doctor to tell you how many days it'll take. We're on track; I'll take it day-by-day, like I said, and go out there and keep practicing.
"Ideally that'd be great," Gilbert added, noting that he'd like to get back in the lineup this week. "Will I be there? I don't know. We still have to go through a lot."
Gilbert has been the Oilers' iron man, posting a games played total of 82, 82, 82 and 79 in his four (full)-season NHL career. It's been an unusual situation, but one that the 6'2", 206-pound rearguard describes as a "learning experience."
"It's frustrating," he explained. "Especially when it's a dumb incident like that, where it was on the ice, but every player goes through it. I think the most frustrating part is that all you do is skate. An ankle injury isn't a very fun one, because you try to get back on the ice and it doesn't feel as good as you want it to be.
"Don't push it too hard, but you've got to keep pushing through it to get back in."
Although it was expected that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
would appear at practice, he did not. The rookie has been sidelined for 11 games and was likely to miss 3-4 weeks in total, but it has extended past the break; an unexpected sign, as his hobbled shoulder needs some additional time to heal.
"He has the flu," Head Coach Tom Renney deadpanned, responding to the question as to why he missed today's session.
"I don't expect him playing here in the next game or two. We're maybe looking at next week, to be honest. He has had no contact yet in practice, so we need to get a couple of those in.
"I think [his shoulder is] okay, It's coming along good. He just needs to strengthen it."FINISHING STRONG
With the Oilers sitting in 29th place in the NHL's overall standings, the break came at a good time. The orange and blue will welcome back healthy bodies and, perhaps to a greater degree, an upbeat mindset; with 33 games remaining on the season's seven-month schedule, now is a good time to get back on track to salvage pride (and points) in a challenging time.
"It was a nice, long break this year," said Taylor Hall
, who spent the week in Mexico to get away. "We all needed a chance to recharge and get our thoughts together. Today was a good practice, a good time to get back into that and it's nice that we get back into the thick of things tomorrow.
"We're not going to quit by any means," he added. "Not one guy in this locker room is going to give up on the season. It's going to be nice when we start getting some guys back in a couple games here (Barker and Gilbert). We're excited to have a fresh start, a fresh mindset and come back here as best we can."Sam Gagner
, who's collected 21 points in 42 games this season, agreed with his teammate's sentiments. The 22-year-old also made the most of his break, relaxing in Cabo (along with Hall and others), but he's ready to get back at it tomorrow evening vs. Colorado.
"It was a good break," he said. "Just to clear our heads and get rested – we have 33 games to salvage things and turn things around. We've to take it one step at a time. I think everyone's excited for the challenge and ready to get things going again.
"Yeah," Gagner agreed, putting emphasis on continuing the team's hot ride into the All-Star break. "I think it helps. The teams we played are really good teams and we played them really well. Going into the break, that's big for us. Now we need to continue the wave."
While the players were taking a cross-border break, Renney didn't quite have the same luxury. He was hard at work, re-watching breaking down his team's season deep in the bowels at Rexall Place.
"Where else should I be when we're in 29th place?"-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick