Edmonton Oilers circle the wagons as Stars' grip tightens on series

It’s understandable Knoblauch didn’t want to tip his hand while looking for every possible competitive advantage, given a loss would have made it three consecutive on a playoff run where the Oilers

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Let the games begin.

Or at least, the gamesmanship within the playoff games.

It was always going to be a different story, one way or the other, the next day.

But heading into the ever crucial Game 4 of the Western Conference final trailing the Dallas Stars 2-1 in the series, the Edmonton Oilers were bunkered deep in the bowels of Rogers Place and emerged to circle the wagons in front of media assembled from across the nation Wednesday morning.

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It began with head coach Kris Knoblauch playing coy with his lineup for the first time since taking over in mid-November.

When asked off the bat about potential lineup changes, he replied, “Yeah, we will have some lineup changes, but you’re going to have to wait until tonight. It’s a big, big showcase.”

If Knoblauch has shown anything so far, it’s a willingness to make changes to his lineup when things aren’t going well. He sat forwards Corey Perry and Ryan McLeod when their offensive output lagged, and he rested Stuart Skinner for two games so his starting goalie could find his footing once again.

But can there be a case of too much of a good thing, when looking to make corrections? Going into Thursday’s game, it appeared the Oilers were going to have three healthy scratches from Game 3, with centre Sam Carrick, winger Warren Foegele and defenceman Vincent Desharnais sitting out in favour of McLeod and Perry returning to the lineup, along with the playoff debut of defenceman Philip Broberg.

Not that the clandestine roster activity was throwing the Stars for much of a loop.

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“Not really. I don’t think it does,” said head coach Pete DeBoer, who did the same ahead of the return of first-line centre Roope Hintz one game earlier, but offered up his changes freely Wednesday morning. “At the same time, listen, it’s an age-old practice, right?

“I guess the only thing is every coach is anal about preparation and you’d love to have exact lineups on the board when the players arrive at the rink and not wiping names off the board in warmup, things like that. But from a practical, preparation point of view it doesn’t make a difference.”

It’s understandable Knoblauch didn’t want to tip his hand while looking for every possible competitive advantage, given a loss would have made it three consecutive on a playoff run where the Oilers hadn’t lost more than one in a row prior. Not to mention putting their collective back up against the wall in facing their third elimination game of the post-season in Game 5.

Falling behind 3-1 and having to win three in a row in order to reach the Stanley Cup finals would be nothing short of a death sentence. So, it’s understandable that some nerves were on edge ahead of Wednesday’s puck drop.

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Perhaps none moreso than Darnell Nurse, who has been hunkered down in a fox hole, pinned in place by bullets from media and fans, alike, who’ve seen him as a prime target for his team’s recent woes.

He poked his head up just long enough to rifle off three quick responses, before abruptly excusing himself in the politest way possible.

But it was one of the more pointed exchanges in an Oilers media availability this season.

“He’s a really good player, he’s ready,” Nurse said of the addition of Broberg to an Oilers defence that has been faltering in the face of Dallas’s offensive rush.

Do you have confidence in him?

“A hundred per cent, he’s a really good player.”

What does he bring to the lineup?

“He can skate. Physical. Can make plays”

How do you expect to play facing another elimination game?

“We’re good with our back against the wall.”

How do you stop the Stars when they get momentum?

“Playing hard. Thanks, guys.”

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And those were just the warmup questions. He didn’t even get to be asked about his team-worst minus-12 plus-minus rating in the playoffs, compared to the team-leading plus-12 by fellow defenceman Evan Bouchard.

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But oh, well …

Perhaps Nurse was saving his energy to allow his actions to do all his talking Wednesday night.

As an interesting aside, Nurse’s short responses gave time to look up how his plus-minus rating was the only one worse than Foegele and Desharnais, who share a minus-8 as they watched from the sidelines for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, Nurse got an assist in the answer department from teammate Connor McDavid

“I’ll take that,” the Oilers captain said into the microphone in the Hall of Fame room at Rogers Place. “Nursey, he’s a big piece of our room. Plus-minus, whatever. I know it’s a funny stat.

“But he gives us everything he’s got and always has. For a long time. He’s a big part of our room, I would expect him to have a great one tonight.”

One thing is readily apparent. Both at this point and going forward — for as long as their run lasts — the pressure is on these Edmonton Oilers.

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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