Programming note: Sharks-Oilers coverage begins tonight at 6:30 p.m. with Sharks Pregame Live, exclusively on Comcast SportsNet California
EDMONTON – At some point, it’s widely expected that the youthful and speedy Edmonton Oilers will gel as a team and rise to be one of the top clubs in the National Hockey League. A young core that already featured players like Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was bolstered by number one overall pick Nail Yakupov and highly sought-after free agent defenseman Justin Schultz in the extended offseason.
After one game, it’s so-far-so-good for the Oilers, who skated to a 3-2 shootout win in Vancouver on Sunday. Tonight, they’ll host the Sharks in their home opener at Rexall Place (7 p.m. PST, CSN California).
“They’re going to play fast and they’re going to play hard, [with] a lot of young energy,” Joe Thornton said on Tuesday morning. “They’re going to improve every year. Every time we come in here it’s a different team, because they keep on improving.”
Joe Pavelski said: “They have a lot of young skill and they’ll be ready to play. It’s exciting always, whether you’ve been in the league for a while or not. It’s a fun time to play and they’re going to be fast. They’re going to want to put on a good show.”
For the Sharks, it will be the second straight game they are a part of an opposing team’s home opener. San Jose returns home on Thursday to host the Phoenix Coyotes at HP Pavilion.
No decision on Gomez
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said a decision on free agent forward Scott Gomez will be made “within the next day or so,” but all signs point to Gomez signing a one-year contract with the Sharks shortly. He could play as soon as Thursday’s game in San Jose.
McLellan said: “He’s coming across as a very hungry player; a guy that would like to prove himself right before he proves everybody else wrong.”
As for where Gomez might fit on the Sharks’ roster, McLellan didn’t want to go there just yet. “We’ve talked about it a little bit, but in fairness to the group that we have right now that are Sharks and in fairness to Scott, I’d like to keep that between us until the decision is made whether or not he’ll be a Shark,” he said.
The Sharks would have to make room for Gomez as they are currently carrying a full, 23-man roster. Putting Brent Burns on injured reserve is one option, as the defenseman still is not skating.
The Sharks will be looking for a better start than on Sunday in Calgary, when Antti Niemi kept them in the game and San Jose struggled to get the puck out of its defensive zone in the first 20 minutes.
Poor first periods were common last season. The Sharks had the lead after the first just 19 times in 82 games, a league low.
“I wouldn’t say we were unprepared [Sunday in Calgary]. It felt like we were ready, it just didn’t happen,” Pavelski said. “It was one area, coming out of our zone, I think that we got hung up on in that first period. It didn’t allow us to a lot of other things in the game. Once we cleaned that up, our game got going a little bit better.”
Dan Boyle, who scored a power play goal in garbage time, said: “Everybody talks about the legs and the hands, but for me it was more my vision. I wasn’t seeing as much as I used to.”
One aspect of the Sharks’ game that will be under heavy scrutiny will be the penalty kill, which was particularly bad last season, finishing 29th in the NHL. On Sunday, the Sharks allowed a power play goal in the first period to Lee Stempniak before killing off the next two, finishing 2-for-3.
“You could see some of the nuances that Larry and Jimmy want to bring to the penalty kill. I thought that we were, for the most part, working as a group of four versus two or three at any given time,” MeLellan said.
“The most positive thing that came out of it is we rolled our shoulders back, held our heads high, and went out and killed the next few. It will be a confidence thing, it will take some time.”
Oilers excited for first game at Rexall
Oilers fans will get a chance to welcome Yakupov and Schultz for the first time tonight, with the hope that their team will finally be a contender after missing the playoffs for six straight seasons.
“This will be pretty fun. First game at home, you know the crowd is going to be going, so I’m excited to get this game going,” Schultz said.
Hall said: “I think the fact that we won the other night and it’s been so long since we played a home game here, it’s going to be a pretty wild night. Hopefully we can give them a good show. We know that San Jose is poised to be a really good team this year, and we think we are too.”
There’s a new head coach, too, as Ralph Kreuger takes over after previous serving as an associate coach in Edmonton.
He’ll caution his team to remain focused in the defensive zone, as it did against the Canucks, and not get too overanxious in front of what will surely be a raucous crowd.
“That’s what we want again today, continue to attack on opportunities, continue the speed up front and continue the offensive pressure, but it’s the defensive side that can get lost in the home opener,” Kreuger said. “We would like to see stability there right off the bat and continue that and make that a habit.”
Antti Niemi will get the start for the Sharks after his impressive 31-save performance on Sunday. Niemi is 3-0-1 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .902 save percentage in his career against Edmonton.
Devan Dubnyk is expected to start for Edmonton. In seven career games against San Jose, he’s 4-3-0 with a 2.43 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. Veteran Nikolai Khabibulin remains out with a hip injury.
The Sharks look like they’ll ice the same lineup as they did against the Flames, meaning Frazer McLaren will get the call over James Sheppard. For the Oilers, former Sharks tough guy Ben Eager was hurt against Vancouver, and he’ll sit in favor of Magnus Paajarvi.