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Edmonton Oilers look to improve win percentage at faceoff circle

EDMONTON - The Oilers' weakness on faceoffs was exposed Monday night against Vancouver, and now with the loss of Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger—Edmonton's two best draw men—the concern has become even more immediate.

Horcoff was put on the injury reserve list Tuesday and is expected to be out at least three to four weeks to heal a broken knuckle he suffered in Monday's 3-2 overtime loss to the Canucks.

Belanger, who broke a couple of toes Saturday, could be back by the weekend.

“I'm sure everybody saw the numbers against Vancouver,”Oiler head coach Ralph Kruger said Tuesday of the Oilers losing 70 per cent of faceoffs.“It really is a difficult game when you're playing a top team and starting by puck retrieval all the time.”

Kruger said the Oilers, who held an optional workout Tuesday and will be home tonight to the Dallas Stars, are working on faceoffs on and off the ice,“even strategically, just trying to figure it out.”

Horcoff and Belanger, despite their injuries, will be working with centres Sam Gagner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Anton Lander and Mark Arcobello, who was called up from Oklahoma City on Tuesday.

Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner, the team's top two centres, had terrible nights in the faceoff circle against Vancouver and neither skated Tuesday. One Oiler who was respectable on faceoffs was Lander, who was strong on draws in the American Hockey League but has struggled in the NHL.

"Down in the AHL I did good, but it's another league, everyone is so much better here,”said the 21-year-old Swede.“I haven't been that good in the NHL. Everyone is so much better, stronger, bigger…it's like everything thing else, a higher level, everyone's better.”

But he added the Oilers have to find a way to start plays with the puck.

“That's huge, you want to start with the puck, not be chasing it. It's a big mental thing, too. Start winning a couple of draws you get confident... I need to step up on the draws and I know that.”

Kruger said while the loss, especially of Horcoff who missed the team's two recent road losses, is a blow it's also an opportunity to see who will step up to fill the void.

“Shawn is someone we'll not only miss in his multi role of penalty killing, power play, leading our team in faceoffs, but also what he brings in the dressing room. You could feel him missing in the two games on the road in critical situations. This is where our leadership group has to find other ways. It's a good time for us to find out what we're made of.

“These kind of crisis force you to get better in those areas so the kids all have to pick it up here and they all have to take it more seriously. Maybe it's a good thing for us in the long term but faceoffs are going to be a challenge for us without Belanger and Horcoff.”

Notes: Defenceman Mark Fistric could miss tonight's game with a sore back suffered Monday. That means Ryan Whitney, a healthy scratch Monday for the first time in his career, will likely be back in the lineup. ... Kruger said he's encouraged by the progress of Ben Eager (concussion), Ryan Jones (eye) and Theo Peckham (hip) but no date has been set for their return to the roster.

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