Boston, MA - Following a hard-fought 3-1 win one night ago at the Bell Centre, the Oilers returned to action across the border with a one-hour practice at Boston's TD Garden.
"Know who you're playing tomorrow night," Head Coach Tom Renney shouted in the otherwise silent rink. "Get it to the net!"
In a game, last night, in which the Oilers were doubled-up (and then some) on the shot clock 29-14, Renney wasn't too pleased; Nikolai Khabibulin stopped 28 shots in the win, so he gets a passing grade, but the others were put to work.
IT WASN'T PRETTY
Ryan Jones, who scored an unassisted shorthanded goal at 4:38 of the second period and patrolled the ice for 4:21 when down a man, agreed with his coach's assessment.
"I think the biggest thing is that we got the win," he said. "Good teams do that, even in the tough games when you're not playing well.
"We relied a little too much on [Khabibulin] and he was stellar like he has been the whole year. We know in this locker room that we can be better, and we know that we have to be better to keep winning hockey games."
Jones, 27, has been an integral component to the orange and blue's fourth ranked, 89.3-percent PK this season. As the rugged winger explains, neutral-zone pressure is invaluable.
It's what led to his goal, Jones' third in 2011-12.
"We know we want to create some pressure in the neutral zone," he said. "You want to make it hard on them to get into your zone. I was trying to step up and block a pass, and I was fortunate enough that it bounced ahead of me."
While the PK needs no assistance, the Oilers do need to sharpen up in even-strength chances against. The Canadiens peppered Nikolai Khabibulin with 29 high-quality shots last night, but the 38-year-old veteran had an answer for 28.
HELPING THE 'TENDERS
The Oilers are ranked third in the NHL with 232 blocked shots on the season. Ladislav Smid, who tallied another three to propel his total to 51, leads the NHL with seven more than Chicago's Brent Seabrook, who places second in the league-wide standings.
"You do whatever you can to keep the puck out of your net," he said. "Especially on the PK, we're showing a lot of character this year, so that's good to see."
Smid still understands that, while the club has improved in certain areas this season, last night's incomplete game needs to be corrected. Khabibulin has been lights-out, but his heroic numbers will be tough to maintain throughout the season.
"I don't know how many times we turned over the puck, but it was a lot. If it wasn't for [Khabibulin], we wouldn't be walking away with the two points."
"Getting back in the zone together and being supportive all over the ice," Jones added, when asked about what needed to improve to help the netminders. "When you have two or three outs, it's a lot easier to move the puck. Less time in your own end means they're going to get less scoring chances.
"We know [Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk] are going to make saves whenever we have breakdowns, but we want to help them as much as we possibly can."
CUP CHAMPS AHEAD
That, too will be a challenge, given the next opponent. The Oilers will go head-to-head with the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins tomorrow night; and, following a middling start to the 2011-12 campaign, the B's have won three straight and are beginning to climb the league's Eastern Conference standings.
"[We expect] much of what we saw yesterday," Jones laughed. "They're fast and physical, and they're a team that works hard; they won the Cup last year for a reason. They have some dynamic players over there and Tim Thomas is a great goaltender. We have to put pucks on him, play the game that we know that we can and we'll give ourselves a chance to win."
Smid, who leads the Oilers in hits with 23 on the season, is also expecting a battle tomorrow night.
"We know they're a big, strong team," he said. "They're going to be coming hard, so we've got to keep the game simple and avoid those turnovers. Just keep it simple, play a good road game and hopefully we're going to generate our own chances."
THIS & THAT
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has scored six goals and 12 points in 14 games this season, but has improved in another, more obvious, situation. The 18-year-old rookie took 10 draws last night, winning six to stamp his most productive career-outing on the dot.
"He's getting more accustomed to what it takes to win a faceoff at the NHL level, both from a mechanics and skill perspective and strength as well," Renney said. "But also, his wingers are important; to know that it's a collective effort is important."
The Oilers' six-game road swing rolls along with a stop in Montreal as the trip reaches its midway point. The orange and blue took to the ice at 11am this morning at the Bell Centre, with some new (old) faces re-entering the fold.
"Hemmer will play tonight," remarked Renney in his post-practice media scrum. "He's been cleared to go; he's been skating for a couple weeks now and we brought physical contact into his repertoire, did some skating tests with him yesterday and he's good to go.
"What he brings to our team is experience, production, good leadership and a guy that's real passionate this year to play."
Hemsky, who's been missing in action since Oct. 13 when we re-injured his shoulder in Minnesota, is eager to get back in. Doing so against a buddy, Montreal's Tomas Plekanec, should provide some extra motivation.
"I'm feeling good, excited," he said. "It's been a little while. It's been 11 games or something like that. The shoulder is feeling great, so I'm pretty excited and happy to be back in the lineup."
The 28-year-old winger recorded one assist in two games vs. Pittsburgh and Minnesota.
"I'll try to play my game," he said. "I don't want to change anything. I'll play with Smytty and Horc and it will help me to get back into it. It will be easier to get back with them than with something else.
"Even in practice now, I feel pretty much the same; strong and the shoulder feels good. Some things are better than they were before. I wasn't targeting to play here in Montreal, but it's been three to four weeks, and that's where we're at. It worked out pretty well."
IT FEELS SO GOOD
Reunited. Hemsky has missed all but two games this season, but the team's second line has made do in his absence. Ryan Jones filled in admirably, producing two goals and three assists alongside No. 10 and 94.
But now, 2006's magic line is back together once more, looking to provide some much needed secondary scoring vs. Montreal. Both teams are coming into tonight's contest riding high and sporting identical 4-1 records in their last five games.
"It's going to be a tough battle," said Ryan Smyth, who's scored seven goals and 15 points in 23 career games against the Canadiens. "The two teams are playing really well and it's just a matter of the will. We've some youth, some energy and excitement so hopefully we can bring that.
"It's going to be a lot of fun with the explosiveness on both teams. We need to limit turnovers, limit the transition game and play simple road-hockey. Play simple, play hard and play 60 minutes. When you play a full 60, you give your team a chance to win on a nightly basis."
Smyth is tied with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for the team's scoring lead with six goals and 12 points in 13 games. Hot on his heels is the Oilers' captain, No. 10, who's had a stellar start as well. Although he's posted seven points in 13 games, his value has been rattling a 52.5-percent success rate in the circle.
He, too, is pumped for tonight's matchup.
"It's always real fun to play in Montreal," Horcoff said. "There's a lot of tradition and history in this building, so it's always fun coming here. The fans are great and the atmosphere is incredible.
"[Montreal is] a team that really skates, and so are we, so we're looking forward to an exciting game.
"We need to play our game," he added. "Just like every other team, not making turnovers in the wrong areas, really being good in the neutral zone and trying to limit easy chances for the other team. For us tonight, we're not really focused on what other teams do, we're more concerned about what we need to do; and we know when we do that and we're successful at it, we'll give ourselves a good chance to win."
QUELLING THE NERVES
In a building that seats 21,273 boisterous fans, nerves are bound to arise; especially for those that haven't experienced the ride in a prior encounter. Jordan Eberle has, playing in last year's Dec. 1 contest at the Bell Centre.
"It's one of the better barns to play in," he said. "These guys are intense and passionate about hockey. It's always loud. The fans are going to be into it and I know the players are, too."
"Maybe, but I always remember being excited," the captain added. "The energy is something you don't get in every rink, so we're going to go in there, have fun and take the crowd out of it as soon as we can."
Nikolai Khabibulin gets the start in goal as the Oilers look to get back on the winning track and improve to 9-3-2 on the season.
Montreal, QC - Following a day in which the Oilers practiced in Glendale, AZ and then embarked on a cross-(inter)national trip to Montreal, the team assembled for a one-hour practice at the vertigo-inducing Bell Centre.
(It's true. The multi-level arena seats 21,273; and the bowl is plain steep.)
Although line combinations remained the same, there were some notable surprises at this morning's session. Ales Hemsky, who was cleared for contact at yesterday's practice, continued to work back into drills, rotating in and out with several units to ease the load.
To conclude practice, Head Coach Tom Renney assembled a pseudo-slalom course in one end, where the dreaded drop-off exam would take place. With a grimace and wide-eyed stare, Hemsky stepped up to the plate to see if he'd pass.
"I think [I passed]," he said in the team's locker room. "I always pass; I don't have problems passing. It's pretty hard, but I'm not a bad skater."
The exam was a smaller, more condensed version of the coach's method back home. Still, it was a challenging run-through as No. 83 tackled several laps, which included tight-turns around the blue- and goal-lines.
"It's pretty hard," Hemsky explained. You've got to pass the tests [Renney] has. It's not easy, but it's part of the game. I think I'm ready, but it's up to the coaches.
"It's not in my hands anymore.
"It's more fun to watch than last year," he added about the Oilers' recent winning streak. "If the team is winning, the atmosphere in the room is way better. I want to be part of it and I want to play; that's why I'm here and that's why I play hockey."
Hemsky wasn't the only one to run Renney's marathon, mind you. Cam Barker, who's been out with a nagging shoulder since Oct. 30 (missing three games in the process), ditched his powder blue non-contact sweater and returned to a regular rotation in drills alongside Andy Sutton.
He, too, endured the bag-skate. And by all accounts, he's nearing a return as well.
"Yeah, I'm ready to go," Barker said. "I feel good. I've had my legs under me; it's not something I lost. It's a matter of feeling comfortable with my shoulder, shooting the puck, and I feel great right now.
"It's bound to happen in hockey. It's just something that's needed time and there's nothing wrong. It's something you've got to keep an eye on and keep progressing."
Renney said there's been no word on whether or not they'll play in tomorrow's sure-to-be intense matchup, but that he'll "contemplate" that decision.
"The results are very important to me," he said about his on-ice evaluation. They're good to go for full contact, but now it's about fitness. We'll work on that and get them ready to play."
ON THE HORIZON
Last season, Taylor Hall played 16:46 in the Oilers' only visit to Quebec. He was unable to record a point that night, but he did become a bitter rival. In a town where Sidney Crosby and other superstars are booed on a consistent basis, Hall's name was added to the list at the Bell Centre.
Just minutes into the game, No. 4 hurried in to pressure the Canadiens' D, crushing them without hesitation into the end-boards. The boo-birds followed, but that didn't put the slightest hiccup in Hall's aggressive game.
The Bell Centre is a unique place to play. It's also only a six-hour drive from Kingston, ON, where Hall lives in the summer. Marked on the calendar long ago, the 19-year-old winger will have family and friends in attendance tomorrow night.
"Everyone loves coming here," Hall said. "The atmosphere in this building is electric. We'll have fun, it's going to be a great game to play in and we know Montreal is coming along hot right now, so it should be a good one. I'm pretty excited."
"It's a hockey mecca," Renney added. "It's always good to come to Montreal and play in a place where hockey means so much. We've all been able to watch the history of this franchise and now some of us get a chance to participate.
"It's really exciting for all of our guys, and for us."
Itching to be a part of tomorrow's event, Hemsky, who's buddies with Montreal's leading-scorer Tomas Plekanec (4-8-12 in 13 games), is equally as eager to get back in to experience the Bell Centre's ruckus and downright emotional crowd.
"It's a great place to play," he said. "They've got great fans and it's always fun to be part of these games."
Barker, who's in a similar boat, agreed.
"It's exciting. It's a great building to play in. It's fun and the fans are crazy here. It's going to be fast game because they're a fast team. That's something we can bring to the table ourselves."
THIS & THAT
Darcy Hordichuk arrived in Montreal today and took part in the team's practice. He was donning the non-contact powder blue sweater, but was a regular participant in all drills.
Tom Gilbert was struck by an errant puck during practice and was forced to leave, but returned and will require stitches in his right ear lobe.