EDMONTON – If the Oilers are going to climb back into playoff contention Edmonton will have to overcome a host of injuries as well as their opponents.
The Oilers open the second half of their season against the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday, when they’ll try to end a three-game losing streak that’s part of a 2-8-0 record over the last 10 games.
Edmonton lost forwards Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as well as defencemen Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney at various points in that 10-game period.
“We can’t do much about what’s gone on in the first half, good and bad, unfortunately,” coach Tom Renney said on Tuesday. “What we can control is what’s in front of us and we certainly approach it that way.”
Briefly atop the Western Conference standings after a 9-3-2 start, the Oilers hit the halfway mark in 13th place at 16-22-3 with a 4-1 loss in Dallas last Saturday. That defeat saw Edmonton finish a stretch of seven road games at 1-6-0.
“We’ve got a group of guys here who have a terrific cumulative attitude, if you will,” Renney said. “We just have to stay with it. We had a great start and we faltered and we slipped. Other teams that people were writing about and throwing accolades all over have also had tough times and slipped.
Renney is confident that Edmonton can find itself back in the Western Conference’s playoff picture with some hard work.
“There’s an ebb and flow to the hockey season and there’s no reason why we can’t get ourselves winning again and get ourselves on a couple of real good rolls that really help reel people in,” said Renney.
Edmonton’s biggest personnel loss came in the 4-1 loss to the Stars. Eberle, who leads the team in scoring with 17 goals and 26 assists, sprained his knee when he collided with Jamie Benn. Eberle will be out two to three weeks.
“Whatever people are saying, we still want to make a push here and win hockey games,” said Eberle, who has already matched the 43 points he had in 69 games as a rookie last season.
“Obviously, it’s going to be tough to watch from the crowd, but, at the same time, I’ll get healthy and get back into this line-up as quick as I can.”
Nugent-Hopkins, who leads NHL rookies in scoring with 13 goals and 35 assists will be out until the end of January with a shoulder injury suffered when he lost his footing and fell into the boards in a 4-3 win in Chicago on Jan. 2.
With Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins injured, Renney will lean heavily on Taylor Hall—who has scored goals in four straight games—as well as Sam Gagner, Ryan Smyth and Alex Hemsky.
“The first 15 games were great for us,” said Hall, who will face New Jersey on a line with Gagner and Hemsky. “The last 25 haven’t been the greatest.
“There’s been a lot of injuries. There’s been times when we’ve had a lot of key guys out. It’s hard to play like that. There’s no getting around that, but we have to put that behind us and focus on having the best second half we can possibly have and see where that puts us.”
Gilbert sprained his ankle against the Blackhawks when he was slammed into the boards by Daniel Carcillo. He’s likely out until after the NHL all-star game on Jan. 29. Whitney, who has struggled to recover from ankle surgery, hasn’t even played since Dec. 22.
The loss of Gilbert, who leads the Oilers with 23:41 of ice time per game, is a big blow. With Whitney in and out of the lineup, Gilbert and Ladislav Smid have been Renney’s go-to tandem.
“I’ve used this before, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are in a playoff spot right now without the best player in the world,” Gagner said, talking about the loss of Sidney Crosby. “It’s tough. There’s times where it gets frustrating, but every team goes through injuries at some point in the season. It’s a matter of guys just coming together and collectively battling through it.
“It’s be a pretty special feeling in here if we’re able to soldier up and have a good little run here with some key guys out and get ourselves back into playoff contention. That’s our goal.”
After back-to-back 30th-place finishes, Renney’s goal at the start of the season was to play meaningful games in March and April. That will take some doing. Going into games Monday, the Oilers sit 26th overall and are 13 points back of the eighth-place Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference.
“We really can only approach every day as it comes and pay attention to the needs of the day in terms of how we practice and how we prepare to be better,” Renney said.
“That’s what you do here. I think our attitude is probably as important to us as anything.”
Edmonton is getting some reinforcements from its minor-league system.
Forward Magnus Paajarvi was recalled from Oklahoma City with Ryan O’Marra Monday after tallying nine points in 10 games with the Barons. Both will be in the lineup against New Jersey.
That won’t be the case for former first-round pick Gilbert Brule, who was also recalled but had to clear re-entry waivers. Brule was claimed by Phoenix.