EDMONTON - The Edmonton Oilers have been an early surprise this NHL season thanks, in part, to a favourable home schedule. Now, they're about to find out how their act plays on the road.
With five straight wins in a stretch when they've played eight of 11 games at Rexall Place, the Oilers open November with six games away from home. The first stop is Los Angeles to take on the Kings on Thursday.
It's an extended annual trip—the Canadian Finals Rodeo takes over Rexall Place every November—that always challenges the Oilers (7-2-2). No partisan crowds. No favourable last-change match-ups for the coaching staff. No home cooking.
"It's a good test for us," coach Tom Renney said. "I think that we have to embrace it, obviously. It's an opportunity to continue to grow as a team and see if we can sustain good work habits and a winning approach."
Can veteran goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin stay hot? Will the Kid Line of Taylor Hall, rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle continue to fill the net? Will special teams remain a difference-maker? Can Ryan Smyth continue to turn back the clock?
As the saying goes, this is where the rubber meets the road.
Coming off back-to-back last-place finishes, the rebuilding Oilers—who sit atop the Northwest Division with 16 points—have lots of hockey to play before they can parlay a promising start into meaningful movement in the standings.
"It's going to be very important for the whole team," said Nugent-Hopkins, who leads NHL rookies with 11 points. "We're going to need to get some really big wins in some hard buildings to play in."
With stops in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Montreal, Boston, Detroit and Chicago, this trip represents new ground for the 18-year-old Nugent-Hopkins, who is on a point-a-game pace with five goals and six assists.
"It's my first chance to see all these different buildings," he said. "It's going to be cool seeing the different atmospheres, but the biggest thing we need to do is go out and get a few wins."
Khabibulin, 38, who struggled mightily last season, has looked like a new man in seven appearances. He has five wins and two overtime losses. Khabibulin was awarded the NHL's third star for the month of October and leads all goaltenders with a 1.12 goals-against average and .960 saves percentage. With Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk splitting duties, the Oilers have allowed just 18 goals.
"Any way you want to say it, it's important to have good goaltending," said Khabibulin. "A lot of times, the difference is one goal and we've been in some of those games already."
Smyth, back for his second tour with the Oilers after being acquired from Los Angeles during the off-season, has been equally impressive on a line alongside captain Shawn Horcoff. Smyth has five goals and 10 points. Horcoff is off to one of his best starts in many years with seven points.
"It's up to our line to play well," Horcoff said. "If we do, we can take some pressure off those guys (Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle) because we'll get a look at the top checking lines and the top defensive pairings.
"It's a different game on the road, but I think our depth at forward as a whole is going to help take some of the pressure off the kids."
Nugent-Hopkins, Hall and Eberle have provided Renney with the dynamic offensive line the Oilers have lacked in recent seasons. Hall has three goals and six assists, while Eberle has three goals and 10 points.
They'll undoubtedly face tough line-matching on this trip, something Renney has been able to shelter them from at home.
"If you have a big, strong, heavy lineup you want to play them against youngsters who are sort of getting their feet wet still in this league in Ebs and Hallsy and Ryan," Renney acknowledged.
"That being said, there are ways to work around that. I'm not going to suggest today what those ways and means might be, but I've got some."
Two seasons ago under Pat Quinn, the Oilers got off to a similar start, then faltered. They won just once during a five-game trek to open November and their season soured.
"I don't know about the results to be honest, but I certainly thought the effort would be there," Renney said of the first 11 games.
"The tale of the tape is on a trip like this, when you're out there for an extended period of time. There's all kinds of ebbs and flows to your season and there could, in fact, be on this road trip. We look forward to trying to handle all of that."
Edmonton will be without the services of defenceman Andy Sutton on the trip. The 14-year veteran was suspended for five games Tuesday for his hit to the head of Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog.