San Jose, CA
- In needing a win to close out a three-game road set on a high note (and with some points), the Oilers know they're in tough tonight. The San Jose Sharks are struggling, posting a 3-5-2 record in the team's last 10, but are a sleeping giant with skill up and down a veteran-laden lineup.
With Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Ryan Clowe and others patrolling the Sharks' top units, it's a big-body group eager to meet the Oilers' talented young stars.
"We've faced other guys like that earlier this season," said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
, who's yet to go up against the Sharks in his 31-game NHL career. "(Mikko) Koivu and (Dany) Heatley are the same way; but it's going to be another good challenge for me and the team tonight.
"I don't really think about it too much," he added, referencing the obvious size discrepancy between he in his opponents. "It's a new opportunity for me to play against these guys, so it's really cool to be able to watch them; but you've got to approach it like any other game against any other opponent."
That's where the orange and blue will need to be better. In recent games, slow starts have been crippling, limiting the Oilers' chances while the opponent pots a couple, sealing a win in the game's early or mid-stretch moments.
"The start will be important," agreed Head Coach Tom Renney. "We can't let [San Jose] feel good about a great start, so we have to make sure that we're right there with them. Special teams are interesting here, too. I think we've taken 50-percent more penalties than they have, so we've got to stay out of the box.
"This is a team that will capitalize on your mistakes, so we need to make sure we play as error-free as we possibly can," he added. "I think the other thing we have to do, speaking of 'free,' is to free our minds up to go play. I think when you're struggling a little bit, you almost over-think the game instead of going out and participating."
While the Oilers have amassed a record no better in the team's last 10 contests, ample practice time and matchups against the league's top-end opponents ought to help develop a strong mindset in the locker room. That's challenging, too, as the Oilers sit in 12th place in the NHL's Western Conference standings with 31 points, but it's an integral component all the same.
"You do have to start with good intentions," Renney explained. "Our guys have that, no question about it. We give them a program to allow them to have success with minimal thought, and I think they're doing too much of that (thinking)."
"We've got to get back to playing our game," added Ryan Jones
, who's been held without a goal since his hat trick on Dec. 2 vs. Columbus. "We've gotten away from our identity as a team; a hard-working team that creates chances off of turnovers. I think we've tried to play a little more run-and-gun than we would like to, and the results show that.
"We know what [San Jose] can be. I think teams look at us the same way and they're not going to underestimate us. We know they've got the players and the capability to win games, so we're going to have to play our best and play within our means to come out with a win." PROPER KHAB-ITS
There had been some questions about Nikolai Khabibulin
's health over the past week, but those appear to have been put to rest. The 38-year-old veteran had missed consecutive practices back in Edmonton, described as "maintenance days," and Devan Dubnyk
even made a surprise start in Phoenix.
Khabibulin has been back practicing on the Oilers' current trip and looks to be ready now; he'll get the start in goal this evening as he looks to surpass his entire win total from last season, in which he patrolled the pipes in 47 games.
That personal 14-game losing skid he endured in 2010-11 seems like so long ago.
"As you get older, it takes a little more time to recover," Khabibulin said at Saturday's morning skate. "I get a little more tired than I did 15 years ago, so that's why I pay close attention to these things."
"He's playing," Renney said. "He feels good, he's had a couple real good practices, he's well-rested, so hopefully he can get the job done for us done tonight. Maybe we can lessen the workload that Dubey (Devan Dubnyk
) has had to deal with, too."
Having given up a combined 76 shots in losses to the Flames (3-0) and Coyotes (4-2) in the team's road trip to this point, that note has become especially vital. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple message relayed by the Oilers' bench boss:
"We need to get down to good, sound, fundamental hockey, but with the requisite energy it takes to win." -- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com
- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick