The Oilers held their final practice on Wednesday morning at the Leduc Recreation Centre before shuttling over to the nearby Edmonton International Airport to board their charter flight bound to Los Angeles. The team opens a lengthy 12-day, six-game road trip against the Kings on Thursday, taking them to Hollywood, Phoenix, Montreal, Boston, Detroit and Chicago.
With their first month of action in the books, the Oilers sit atop the Northwest Division with a 7-2-2 record and a five-game winning streak, though all but three of their games thus far have been played in the friendly confines of Rexall Place. Head Coach Tom Renney said today he looks forward to testing his squad's character and versatility as they battle through the rigours of a long trip against challenging opponents.
"We need to man up now more than ever before," the bench boss said in Leduc. "Our record is indicative of what we've done, there's no doubt about that, but now teams are going to come after us. That's just the nature of the game. We can't sit back and think we're so wonderful that (wins are) just going to happen. We better really dig in and play hard starting in L.A. tomorrow night. If we're not sharp, not ready and not committed to the team game, we're going to see the consequences."
Smyth's Return To L.A.
Thursday's showdown at Staples Center between two of the top teams in the Western Conference marks the return of left-winger Ryan Smyth to Los Angeles. Number 94 played 149 regular season games and 12 more in the playoffs with the Kings over the last two seasons, tallying 107 points combined in that span.
Smyth played nearly 11 full seasons in Edmonton before being dealt to the New York Islanders at the 2007 trade deadline and moving on to the Colorado Avalanche and the Kings before returning to the Oilers this off-season. He said he enjoyed his time in southern California but knows he's back where he belongs in Edmonton and is keen on starting the road trip with a big victory.
"It's a game against my former teammates, so hopefully we can go in there and get the win," Smyth said. "It was fun going to practice in shorts and flip flops all year, but for me, I missed the snow, so it's nice to be back in this environment and playing with the Oilers again. This first game is important to give us momentum for the rest of the trip. As a group, we've built a string of wins together at home, which is great, but now we have to take it on the road."
"Ryan's an honourable guy, there's no question about that, and he'll have the utmost respect for his former team," Renney added. "It'll be nostalgic for him, but that being said, he's an Oiler and I know he wants to beat them, and that's a good thing because so do I and so do his teammates as well."
Nuge Kid On The Block
One day after goalie Nikolai Khabibulin was selected as one of the NHL's Three Stars for the month of October, the league announced today Oilers first-year centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is October's Rookie of the Month.
"I couldn't have imagined anything better," said Nugent-Hopkins, the 2011 first-overall draft pick who scored 11 points in 11 games during his first month in the NHL. "I don't know if I can keep up the same pace for points, but I'm going to try to keep contributing as much as I can. I'm really happy with the way things are going so far. I'm really excited about this road trip. We want to get some huge wins out of these games."
The Nuge edged Nashville centre Craig Smith (9 points in 11 games), Buffalo centre Luke Adam (10 points in 10 games), Ottawa left-winger Colin Greening (8 points in 12 games) and Colorado left-winger Gabriel Landeskog (7 points in 11 games) for the monthly award.
"He's had a really solid month, and even longer than that, he had a good, hard training camp, doing a great job there as well," Renney said. "It's a nice acknowledgement from the league, and hopefully it can continue through him to the rest of us."
Sutton Set To Serve Suspension
Defenceman Andy Sutton addressed the media for the first time today after being suspended by the NHL for five games after his hit on the Avalanche's Landeskog on Friday in Denver. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound blueliner will be available for action again when the Oilers arrive in the Motor City on Friday, Nov. 18 for their game against the Red Wings.
"I try to play the game the right away and hope to not have any incidents like that," Sutton said. "I've played the same way for a long time and had very few infractions, so I'll continue to play my style while also being more mindful of the new rules. I'm going to continue to play aggressively – it's gotten me this far."
"My intention was to catch a player with his head down with a clean body check. I took my route and I don't feel I deviated my positioning to target the head, but inevitably the result was the blow unfortunately ending up on his head, and I have to deal with the consequences."
Sutton called NHL head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, whom he met with in New York City on Monday, a "total gentleman" who is "making steps forward to create a permanent change." Renney said the Oilers will miss Sutton's shot-blocking, imposing presence and leadership while he serves the remainder of his suspension.
Omark Off To OKC
The Oilers also made a roster move this morning, as defenceman Colten Teubert was called up and left-winger Linus Omark was assigned to the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons.
With Ryan Whitney and Cam Barker both nursing injuries, and Sutton serving his suspension, Teubert fills a void on the back end and will likely play his first-career NHL game on the road trip. Omark, who has only played five games this year, was sent to the affiliate squad in order to get more game action.
"We need to get him playing," Renney said of the Swede. "It's hard when the team is winning and you can't find an opportunity. That's completely my choice, and in his best interest, we need to make sure he plays, so that when he does come back to our lineup, he's actually played some hockey and can step in and help us. The opportunity exists the next time he steps on the ice."
With three days between Sunday's 4-2 win and Thursday's game in Los Angeles, the Oilers used Halloween to recoup, but returned to the ice this morning at Millennium Place in Sherwood Park.
Ales Hemsky skated once more, but was still donning the baby blue non-contact sweater. Andy Sutton, who was still awaiting a decision from the NHL regarding his suspension, was also present but was not made available to the media.
Cam Barker missed Sunday's game with a sore shoulder and did not skate today. No. 13's status will be updated tomorrow prior to the road trip.
Through 11 games this season, the Oilers have amassed a 7-2-2 record, 16 points, leading the NHL's Northwest Division and are locked with the Dallas Stars and Chicago Blackhawks for the Western Conference lead.
Last season, the orange and blue were sporting a 3-7-1 record through 11 games.
"Compared to last year and the last three or four years, it's obviously more fun when you're winning," Tom Gilbert said post-practice. "We're working hard and that's the main reason why we're having so much success.
"We're having fun, and we're going out every single day and playing as hard as we can. That's been a huge key to our success this season. Now we're eager to keep going and see where it takes us."
Gilbert has registered a goal and three points, along with a -2 rating in his team-leading 24:47 TOI average. In anchoring the Oilers' blueline with sound coverage and production on the scoresheet, No. 77 has been a huge contributor to the team's hot start.
It's also provided a boost to the entire 23-man roster.
"Absolutely," he said. "We've gone out and beaten some really strong teams in the past week or so. Knowing that we can beat teams like that is huge. [Washington is] a strong team and they're going to be contenders this year. Teams like Pittsburgh, Vancouver – knowing that we can play 60 minutes with those guys and come out on top, it gives you such a boost.
"Now we need to build on those games, making sure we're doing the right things so we can play at a more consistent level night-in and night-out."
That's an area where 25-year-old Ladislav Smid has excelled in this season. The 6'3", 210-pound rearguard has averaged 20:48 per game, establishing his name as one of the team's go-to blueliners.
Smid has blocked a team-best 40 shots (23 more than second-best Tom Gilbert), dished out 18 hits (also a team-high) and has only accumulated eight minutes in penalties.
"He's always shown the character that you need in a lineup," Renney said. "He's got so much respect from his teammates because of that. He's coming around to the point where he's someone that has to be looked at as a more complete D man now than maybe ever before."
Smid, who's been paired with Gilbert this season, was appreciative of his coach's praise; especially so, considering the smooth-skating defenceman has taken a new approach to the 2011-12 campaign.
"I know my role on the team," he said. "I've narrowed the things I wanted to accomplish out there each night. Rather than pushing to do too much, I'm making sure I'm breaking a game or practice into segments so that I'm keeping my list much more manageable. It's been great so far.
"Last year was tough for me because I had surgery, but I came in with a new attitude this year and it's helped. Playing with [Gilbert] isn't a bad thing, either. We work so well together and I think the chemistry has been good."
SIX GAMES, 12 DAYS
The Oilers will practice once more before departing for Los Angeles tomorrow on a marathon, six-game road trip. The Oilers will make stops in Phoenix, Montreal, Boston, Detroit and Chicago in addition to LA.
The Oilers played eight games at Rexall Place and only three on the road (Minnesota, Calgary and Colorado) in October. The challenge begins anew in November, with the club preparing to battle on the road in 10 of the team's next 12.
"It's a good test for us," Renney said. "We have to embrace it, obviously. It's an opportunity to continue to grow as a team and see if we can sustain good work habits and a winning approach on the road."
Gilbert agreed, adding that, while the team has struggled to produce wins on long trips in recent seasons, this year's squad is better prepared.
"This is the big one," he laughed. "We're playing some really good teams on this road trip, too. It's going to be a great test for the young guys who haven't yet experienced this. We've got to focus on the way that we want to play, regardless of where we are so we can have success."
"It's going to be challenging," Smid added. "But we're all pros and we know what it takes. We're going to play some tough teams. LA is doing really good, we're going to play Chicago and Boston in their buildings, and they're good as well.
"It's really going to show what this team is made of."
The Oilers win their 5th straight, improving to a 7-2-2 record; leading the NHL's Northwest Division & Western Conference standings with 16 points on the season.
The Oilers hit the road to start a 6-game road trip Thursday night in LA. Game time is 8:30 p.m. MDT and it can be seen on Sportsnet West.
The Ryans (Smyth, Nugent-Hopkins and Jones) combined to score two goals and three assists, factoring in each Oilers tally as the home side doubled-up the visiting St. Louis Blues 4-2 Sunday night at Rexall Place.
Nikolai Khabibulin got the start in goal, posting 28 saves and propelling the Oilers to their fifth straight win.
Following a brief morning skate, the Oilers had a team meeting in preparation for the St. Louis Blues - a team who started out slowly but have played well as of late.
"We've been playing good hockey. Good enough to win games. We'd like to be a little bit sharper these last few games. A lot of turnovers," noted blueliner Tom Gilbert, who was quick to point out that the play between the pipes has been instrumental certainly with the last three victories.
"Our goaltending has been huge for us. When they're playing well, we have a good chance to win."
Gilbert also reflected on playing the Blues tonight. St. Louis had won three straight before dropping a 3-1 decision on Friday in Calgary.
"They're a great forechecking team. They come very hard. It's got to be really good puck control, get the puck moving as quick as possible. They're physical. The more we get the puck moving the better we'll be."
LIFE WITHOUT SUTTON
Awaiting trial for suspension following his hit on Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog Friday, Andy Sutton will not be playing tonight.
"He will be (missed tonight). We need to make sure we pay attention to how we want to play that area anyway and do the best we can and make sure those people who are engaged do it with a little bit of jam and fortitude."
The loss of Sutton means more opportunity for a player like Theo Peckham, who needs to play physical.
"It doesn't matter who we're playing, when he's in the lineup he needs to deliver with that part of his game, no question about that," stated Renney. "Against a team that attacks well like St. Louis does - and they do have some heavy bodies - the way he plays is certainly at a premium."
With the suspension to Sutton, Jeff Petry makes his return to the Oilers lineup. He was sent to Oklahoma City only 11 days ago but with Sutton's situation as well as Whitney's injury, he may now be up for awhile.
"Our hope was to put the best team on the ice that we could and if that included him, wonderful for him," said Oilers head coach Tom Renney.
"We also recognized that we have an excellent coaching staff in Oklahoma City and the guy would play a lot of minutes and get lots of responsibility. It's not purgatory, that's just learning and developing, not just with him but with many others."
For Petry, at this stage in his career he knows it's all about development.
"You never know what's going to happen. One day you're here, one day you're down there. I just need to continue to grow in the areas that I need to."
Petry did not play badly in his time with the big club this season. In three games, he had a +2 rating and averaged 20 minutes of ice-time.
"I need to do the things that I was doing before I left, continue to do those things. Get the puck up ice, get back to pucks early, not trying to do too much. Make the simple plays."
Petry had an assist and was +1 in his two games with the Barons.
"I was only there for two games. Jumped right into those and felt pretty good down there. Team looks great, so it was a good situation."
Alex Plante was also recalled and will be arriving in Edmonton later this afternoon.
HEMSKY SKATES, NEARING RETURN
Ales Hemsky skated with the team for the first time this morning and his return could come as soon as this Thursday in Los Angeles.
"They told me three to four weeks so it's pretty much on schedule," said Hemsky. "I think three weeks we'll be at the LA game so we'll go from there."
The additional time off has helped Hemsky, who never really had the shoulder pain go away in the first place.
"I had pain there the whole three months and just couldn't get rid of it. Now it's feeling much better. I don't have the pain there. I'm feeling the best I have in a long time."
Hemsky is expected to play at some point on the team's upcoming six-game road trip and for coach Renney, any chance to get the skilled winger back into the lineup is welcome.
"It's been too long. Being without him for a game is too long. We'll see how it goes. It's pretty much on track. Once he's able to skate and participate with contact, it's a whole new ballgame for him, of course," said Renney, who added that he doesn't expect this to be a lingering issue throughout the season.
"I have all kinds of faith in our medical people. Bodies break down, that's just the nature of the game but I expect him to be there for the duration."