The morning after their second consecutive heartbreaking loss to a Northwest Division rival, the Oilers continue to stick to their guns and stress the importance of building a successful team based around sound defence. The squad held an optional skate on Friday morning at Rexall Place following Thursday's 2-1 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wild.
Thanks to Ryan Jones' second goal of the season, the Oilers maintained a 1-0 lead on the Wild until Dany Heatley snuck a shot past Nikolai Khabibulin with just one second left in the third period to force overtime. Minnesota went on to win in a shootout, with Matt Cullen scoring the lone goal. The tough loss came just two days after the Oilers squandered a 1-0 lead against the Calgary Flames, as their provincial rivals scored two goals 89 seconds apart late in the third to win 2-1.
"None of us are happy at all with these last two losses," Head Coach Tom Renney said on Friday. "We were right there to win these two games. But that's the beauty of this team is that they're not happy. They're pissed off, and that's the way it should be. You can't come out of a loss saying we sure tried hard and did a lot of good things and leave it at that."
STICKING TO THEIR GUNS
Six games into the 2011-12 season, the Oilers are tied for third in the NHL with just 10 goals allowed but also sit tied for second last in the league with only 10 goals for, and that even ratio has translated into an even 2-2-2 record.
"We started placing a premium on playing defensive hockey a couple of years ago," Renney said. "We've really tried to create a defensive foundation that we can build our whole game from. I think we're in a good place this early in the season, but we still have a lot of work to do. In no way, shape or form should (our defensive focus) distract at all from offence. I'm hoping it's only a matter of time until everyone else gets to chip in."
So what will it take to vault the goals-for number higher?
"The bottom line is we're getting chances as a team to score," the coach said. "I think we've got to maybe work a little bit harder to get to the blue paint and hang around there a little more and fight for body position. We do have the ability to score, even though the statistics may indicate otherwise right now."
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES' (PACE)
Jones tallied his second goal of the season during the first period of Thursday's contest against Minnesota, and with two goals in six games, the right-winger is well on his way to matching or surpassing his 18-goal career-high 2010-11 campaign.
"He plays a complete game," Renney said. "He can play with anybody in the lineup and be valuable to us. I like the fact that he does really and truly care about our defensive look. He's a great communicator on the ice and he's a second and third effort guy, which is what we're going to have to be all about this season."
Though he has been known to break free and find the back of the net on a breakaway or hard drive to the net, Jones' goals so far this season have been scored into wide-open cages on passes from linemate and namesake Ryan Smyth. The first was an empty-netter against Nashville on Monday, and last night's against the Wild was a no-doubter on the doorstep.
"I just go to the net," said Jones, who has primarily played on a line with Smyth and Shawn Horcoff. "Smytty has been unselfish. We just want to continue playing the way we have. We've been fairly consistent as a shut-down line, as a checking line, and it's also nice to be able to contribute to the scoring when we can. Yesterday was one of those times where we created a turnover down low, went to the net and Smytty made a nice pass."
In addition to playing on the same line, sitting next to each other in the locker room, sharing the same name and sporting similar, flowing hairstyles, Jones and Smyth also play a similar hard-nosed game, making number 94 a role model for the 27-year-old.
"Smytty is easy to get along with," Jones said. "He's a blue-collar guy who works hard, and he's made a career out of working as hard as he possibly can and going to the hard areas. Being in front of the net is kind of a painful area, but if you go there you're going to score goals. I try to pick his brain as much as I possibly can, because that's the sort of career I hope to put together."
GAGNER ON THE BRINK
Sam Gagner has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain since the team's pre-season tilt with the Flames on September 24, but the centreman is likely to return to action against the Rangers this Saturday, thanks to four weeks of recovery time.
"At this point, it's up to the coaches and trainers, but I feel good out there, and fitness-wise I'm ready to go," Gagner said. "The ankle feels good, so hopefully tomorrow I'm in. I think the only test I have left is getting into a game situation."
One questions remains, though. If Gagner is indeed cleared to play against New York, will he move to the wing while Horcoff, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Anton Lander and Eric Belanger remain at centre? That's fine by number 89, he says.
"I just want to get back playing, I don't care where it is," Gagner said. "My first year I pretty much played wing the whole year, so I'm pretty comfortable with playing there. Wherever they want to put me, I'm fine with that. We have so much depth on this team that guys are going to have to switch around and play different positions from time to time."
The Oilers' homestand continues on Saturday night as the New York Rangers visit Rexall Place. Game time is 8:00 p.m. MDT and it can be seen on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada.
The Oilers held a 1-0 lead for 43:52, but Dany Heatley and the Wild scored at the most opportune time, equalling the score with only 1.2 seconds to play before winning 2-1 in a shootout Thursday night at Rexall Place.
Looking to get back in the win column tonight vs. Minnesota, the Oilers’ game day began a brisk, 20-minute morning skate at Rexall Place.
With Taylor Hall having missed Tuesday’s contest in Calgary due to the flu, morning concern was quickly put to rest when the skilled 19-year-old took to the sheet alongside eager teammates.
In his post-practice media scrum, Hall revealed that he had been battling the illness for several days prior to skipping out on the Battle of Alberta.
"I wasn’t feeling great vs. Vancouver," he said. "The next day I was good, and then I woke up [on Monday] vs. Nashville and was feeling pretty bad. Then I woke up in Calgary I knew I couldn't play that night.
"I went to the therapists' room and I said I couldn't go; they understood, as I had a fever and you can’t really play like that.
"Last year I was pretty lucky. I didn't get sick one time at all, and I didn't miss any practices or anything. I got a little run-down. I thought I might have overworked in the gym or something like that. I kept getting sicker every day and it escalated."
In four games this season, Hall has scored one goal and three assists, ranking second behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the Oilers’ scoring race; he was replaced by Linus Omark on a line with No. 93 and Jordan Eberle in Calgary, but the unit struggled to produce in the low-scoring, one-goal loss.
"Part of our attack game," Head Coach Tom Renney explained when asked about what was missed in Hall’s absence. "In-zone time is enhanced when he's there, too. He doesn't have any problems with the responsibility of the puck, attacking with it and making things happen.
"There's a certain wildness about Taylor's game. I don't think any of us mind, and certainly don't mind that in our lineup, as long as we manage it."
Playing that high-speed, sometimes reckless game is engrained in Hall's makeup.
"If I'm tired, I show it pretty easily," Hall said. "I need to be rested and awake in the mind to play my kind of game. It was unfortunate that I had to miss a game, but I feel a lot better now and with the compact schedule, it's good to take one game off instead of missing a bunch."
Jordan Eberle’s status was also heeding concern this morning. The sophomore winger took a hit from Calgary’s Curtis Glencross in Tuesday’s game and missed Wednesday’s practice, but was good to go and showed strong signs at 10:30am.
No. 14 spoke at length about how the Oilers need bear down, cash on their chances and string some wins together during this home-heavy October schedule.
"For our team and me personally, too, I've been getting a ton of chances," he said. "They're going to come, I'm not worried about that. That's usually how it works. Some days you get several chances and don't score, and other days you get two and you score two.
"If I wasn't getting chances, I'd be a little worried, but I've been getting tons and making plays to set up goals, too, so it's been going pretty good."
TAMING THE WILD
The Oilers have established a 2-2-1 record to this point, but have held leads in all three games that they’ve lost: 1-0 in Minnesota (2-1 OT loss), 3-2 vs. Vancouver (4-3 loss) and 1-0 in Calgary (2-1 loss).
Eberle says it’s all part of the growing process.
"I think when you're a mature team, you don't give up those leads," he explained. "We've been working on our game and I think we've being playing real well. We now need to make sure we're getting it done out there and getting some wins. We’re going to get there."
"We need to be a little bit more physically involved as a team because of our speed and quickness," Renney added. "When you have those assets, you want to make sure you're taking the extra two or three strides to complete the deal and, I think as a team, we could probably execute that a little better."
Although the Oilers have struggled to tame the Wild in recent games, the home side does have a positive 15-13-2 record vs. Minnesota all-time at Rexall Place. The Oilers lost all three on Oil Country ice last season, but do have some extra motivation in protecting their home rink.
"They're a team that seems to have had our number, last year especially," Eberle said. "Losing in the shootout (2-1 on Oct. 13) this year was a little bitter. Just the team in general, we feel so good about ourselves that we can do it every night and win hockey games, so that's what we expect to do this year.
"For some reason we just can't seem to get a win in their building. Here, it's a different story; this is our home building and we want to be a team that, when people come into our barn, they're worried about playing us here.
"I think for the most part we've done that pretty well. I think we're seen as a fast-moving, fast puck-moving team. In order to beat these guys, you've got to use your speed. In the past they've played with a little bit of a trap, but I think if we move the puck quick enough we can beat by it."
Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff did not skate this morning, but is expected to play tonight. In his pre-game media conference, Renney described it as a "maintenance morning."
Sam Gagner was skated hard again today and will be unavailable for tonight’s game:
"He's right there," Renney said. "He could probably go tonight, but I'm going to hold him out one more day, one more game."
Ryan Keller was recalled from the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons today:
"We have some guys who are a little lame and have the flu, a little bit," Renney explained. "It's more of a precaution than anything else, making sure we've got ourselves covered.
As much as they'd like to, the Oilers can't turn a blind eye. It's impossible to ignore the team's struggle to manage the puck.
"We turned the puck over a ton in the second period [vs. Calgary]," Head Coach Tom Renney explained following Wednesday's practice.
"So much of the damage that happens to your team is based on poor puck management; certainly in the second and third period, we were really poor at managing the puck.
"It's one thing to want to be a puck control team, it's another thing to know when and how to give it up to get it back, too, and we seem to forget that."
With 78 on the season, the Oilers lead the league and aren't seriously challenged by another NHL team. The Calgary Flames are next closest, but it's a distant-second as they've posted 18 less in 2011-12.
Having notched another 12 in the Oilers' 2-1 loss to the Flames one night ago, it was obvious who would step up to help counter those issues in puck control.
Paired with Ryan Whitney in his return to regular-season game action, 27-year-old Corey Potter has stepped up, impressing Oil Country with an excellent, intelligent two-way presence – a complement to his partner's game, which has helped No. 44 emerge as the team's go-to option.
The calm, mild-mannered rearguard didn't record a single turnover last night, has only coughed up one in his three-game Oilers career and has contributed on the other side with a pair of assists.
"I've been waiting for this," he said of his opportunity in Edmonton; Potter signed a one-year, two-way deal back on Jul. 1 and was expected to be battling for the extra-man spot on the blueline.
"It's good to come in as the nobody with no expectations, and to come in and play well, change their minds and persuade them. I can play in this league."
Potter spent the 2010-11 season with the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, scoring 37 points (seven goals, 30 assists) in 75 games. He's played in 321 American League games and now 12 in the NHL between the Oilers, Penguins and Rangers.
He's a rookie by big-league standards, but his coach isn't surprised.
"He's an older rookie, so he has a certain maturity level that allows you to feel good about whatever the circumstance is," Renney said. "He's got good vision, good wherewithal, he doesn't get outmuscled, and he seems what to know what to do with the puck when there's nothing to do with the puck.
"That's huge to us. We're a little light there. He's a calm, poised guy."
Potter was originally selected 122nd overall by New York in 2003, but he was never able to crack the Rangers squad on a full-time basis. He did make a lasting impression on Renney, who served as an assistant and head coach for the Rangers from 2003-2009, however, while he waded minor-league waters.
"He was so good as a steady, reliable, leader-type defenceman; and obviously everybody was happy to have him in the organization, but we couldn't make room for him up top [in New York]."
Potter played 20:03 Tuesday night in Calgary, including 15:15 even-strength and 4:31 on the power-play alongside Whitney.
"He played great, he was awesome," No. 6 described. "He was really poised with the puck and solid in his own end. He's been like that the whole time and he's a good guy to play with.
"He's playing very, very well."
305 DAYS LATER
Never one to hide his honest opinion, Whitney's is as good as any. While he recognized Potter's strong assignment, the 6'3", 206-pound veteran also had a good showing in his 2011-12 debut.
"It was tough," he said. "There were times when I struggled, but there were other times when it went pretty good. It was about getting rust out and making decisions with what you're going to do with the puck before you get it, instead of waiting and that's what I was doing.
Renney wanted to keep Whitney's ice-time down, but he ended up carving the sheet for a total of 21:22 on the night.
"I think I played that much because we were down a goal at the end," he explained. "[The coaches] have a really good plan for me, and that's to ease me into it. This is my training camp. I feel good today; a little sore, but that's to be expected."
The Oilers' bench boss usually has high expectations for his stars, and Whitney was certainly no exception when it comes to the coach's post-game report card.
"I thought he needed to move his feet a little more and maybe deliver the puck sooner than he did; but he's got such a great scope of the game. He's one of those guys that can make those types of passes. He's started his exhibition schedule now.
"He's none the worse for wear today," Renney added about Whitney's higher-than-expected ice-time total. "It's about execution, too and making sure the right things are getting done and when that gets extended or stretched, maybe that gets compromised."
IN, OUT AND UP TOP
With Whitney back and Potter playing as well has he has been, ice-time has been tough to get for rugged blueliner Theo Peckham. The 23-year-old was relegated to the press box vs. Nashville and played 3:08 as a fourth-line winger last night in Calgary.
He's eager to get back in, but understands the circumstances.
"I need to be a good teammate right now," he said. "It's a tough situation when you're not playing, but ultimately the coach is doing it for the right reasons. He's doing it because that's what the Edmonton Oilers need right now. It's about being a good guy and a good teammate.
"I'm waiting until I get another chance to get in there and making sure that when I do get in there, I'm doing whatever I can to help the team win."
Renney said he'll get his chance again soon, but it will depend on how others are playing and how the opponent stacks up.
"His delivery of the puck has to be a little bit more precise and sooner and quicker," he explained. "But he's come a long way and the last couple games for him have been really good. He's a victim of numbers.
"It's about what the team needs at the moment, or what the opponent might bring us and how that might serve us to have certain people in the lineup," Renney added. "The bottom line is, it's about winning. As much as it's a team game and we really pride ourselves in our approach to that here, there's internal competition. [The players] know that and are prepared for that."
It was noted by Head Coach Tom Renney that Sam Gagner was getting close and would likely play on Saturday vs. New York, with a shot of playing tomorrow vs. Minnesota. He will be assessed again tomorrow prior to the Oilers' 20-minute morning skate.
Taylor Hall did not skate or work out at Rexall Place this morning. He was having blood work done as he continues to battle illness. Hall made the trip to Calgary but traveled back before yesterday's game.