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THE TEAM TODAY: Goin' to Winnipeg

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers


Edmonton, AB - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was only 2-years-old when the original Winnipeg Jets played their last game on Apr. 28, 1996 – a 4-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, ending the club's post-season quest in a tear-eyed conclusion.

Jordan Eberle was three was older; Taylor Hall, two, and an indication of the Oilers' rebuilding youth and blissful ignorance of the atmosphere that's to come tomorrow night in Winnipeg.

Head Coach Tom Renney said it best when the club visited the Bell Centre in Montreal. It was an opportunity to immerse themselves in a hockey-mad, sports mecca; Manitoba, undoubtedly, will be the same.

"It's a great hockey town," Renney said as he addressed the media post-practice at Rexall Place Sunday. "I'm so happy that they have an NHL team, and it's right. They've got a great fanbase there and I had the opportunity to experience that myself during the (1999) World Junior Championship and it was outstanding.

"I know that every single fan in that building, with the exception of a couple, will be after us and going to bat for their team," he added. "It will be a really good environment. I hope it is. I hope it's intense, I hope it's loud, I hope it's everything that you want in terms of adversity."

The game, while promising to be a wild 60-minute clash, could have an emotional component as well. Nikolai Khabibulin began his 18-year career as a Jet, playing in 26 games and posting an 8-9-4 record as a rookie during the 1994-95 season.

The very next year, he backstopped his club once again and assembled an above .500, 26-20-3 record.

The 39-year-old has missed the past two games with a groin injury, but has been back practicing and says he's ready to go.

"It would be exciting to play a game there after such a long time," he said, looking back at his seasons with the Jets. "It's where it all started for me. The fans were great to me and in general, the people in Winnipeg were really nice and still are. I'm looking forward to it.

"It's a Canadian city and it's a smaller city, so the fans are really into it. From watching a couple games on TV, I see that the building is really loud and the fans are crazy. I expect the same tomorrow. The building isn't the same anymore and it's a new place, but I'm going to bring some memories back. It's going to be a really exciting time to go back."

It's still unclear as to whether or not Khabibulin will dress or even get the start, as Renney is committed to being prudent with his athlete's health. Like Nugent-Hopkins, he'll have to be at 100-percent.

"I'm going to talk to [Khabibulin] now," he said. "I've spoken with (Head Athletic Therapist) T.D. (Forss) and he wants to talk with Nik as well, still. I'll let those two chat and then I'll step in and have a conversation and we'll see what happens. What I don't want to do is hurt him. I'm sure he wants to play and I understand why, but I'll make the right decision on his health.

"Amazing. That's quite a story," Renney added, noting Khabibulin's 15 years since being a member of the Jets. "I'd like to contribute to that, but I also need to contribute to the well-being of the player in the long run."

While the Oilers have recently made trips to Winnipeg, playing pre-season games on Sep. 26, 2006 vs. Phoenix and Sep. 24, 2009 vs. Tampa Bay, one player has a more recent memory of what the ruckus MTS Centre crowd will be like. As a member of the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons last season, Jeff Petry made the trip to take on the Manitoba Moose back on Dec. 3, 2010. The Barons lost 3-2 that night, but the 24-year-old collected a +1 rating.

"It's a big hockey city," he said. "For our game, it wasn't sold out, but it was pretty close and it was loud in there. Tomorrow they'll probably have it sold out and it will be a good environment to play in."

Petry will most certainly get the opportunity to revisit the environment that he spoke so highly of, but others won't be so lucky. As the squad rushed to vacate Rexall Place en route to the airport, seeking to catch their charter's noon departure, Renney said to expect some lineup changes heading into tomorrow.

One will come out of necessity, as Tom Gilbert stayed behind in Edmonton. Cam Barker, a Winnipeg native, will draw in.

"I don't know what it is exactly, but he's got a bad back," Renney explained. "It's one of those things where I think if we travel with him, it might lock up even more. We'll let him stay here, do some rehab and get some treatment. I think he'll be good sooner rather than later, but we're taking our time with it."

The other was sparked by the need to bounce back from yesterday's 3-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. Ryan Jones, who's missed the past three games as a healthy scratch, could be reinserted tomorrow evening.

"I'm contemplating that," the bench boss said. "I think Jonsey's had a good rest here. I think we've got an opportunity here coming up to get him back here. I think it might be tomorrow. I'm not sure, exactly, and I'll contemplate it on the plane, but I think he's penciled to come back in.

"The bottom line is that there's a way that Ryan has to play to be an effective player for us, and he certainly can be and has been. Sometimes you need a reminder. He's vital to our success moving forward and I know that he'll make good of the situation and be a real team player as he always is."

-- Ryan Dittrick, - Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick


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