SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The first time Jason LaBarbera returned to Vancouver to play, he was inundated with ticket requests from friends and family members.
“I learned my lesson,” said LaBarbera, who is from nearby Burnaby. “I bought about 20 tickets and it cost me like three grand. I was like, ‘yeah, no more of this.’”
Travel costs aside, the Coyotes’ annual trip through western Canada to play Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver often takes on a homecoming feel. Six current Coyotes are from Alberta or British Columbia. In addition to LaBarbera, captain Shane Doan is from Halkirk, Alta.; forward Kyle Chipchura is from Westlock, Alta.; forward Nick Johnson is from Calgary; and defensemen Derek Morris and David Schlemko are from Edmonton.
Maybe that helps explain why the Coyotes have historically had success on this trip, going 16-12-2 against these three opponents on the road over the past five seasons.
“I don’t know what it is,” coach Dave Tippett said. “There’s always an excitement about going to Canada, and that probably brings out the best in players.”
The tightly packed schedule – this trip is often three games in four nights – rarely affords the players a lot of time to see friends and family, but there is usually time for a meal.
LaBarbera’s favorite haunt is Earls in Calgary, where his two brothers live. Doan expects to treat his parents and siblings to Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Edmonton, and when time affords, Chipchura usually heads to his parents’ house for some home cooking.
“We’re western Canadians so it’s usually meat and potatoes, but there’s lots of good Urkrainian food like perogies and cabbage rolls,” he said. “My mom’s a really good cook, so when we have the time, there’s no sense in eating out.”
For Johnson, the trip is special because his fiancée, Teresa Sims, still lives and works in Edmonton. The two are planning an August wedding, after which they will be together, but this trip is a welcome oasis in the grind of the season.
“It sucks in a lot of ways to be so far apart,” he said. “But she made this work commitment, and I love that she did. We just have to plan our schedules and gut it out until this summer.”
For the Alberta natives, the trip invariably invokes memories of the great Oilers teams that won five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990, and even the Calgary Flames, who for a stretch, were Edmonton’s greatest impediment to the Cup. Calgary won the Cup in 1989 and also eliminated Edmonton in 1986 on the infamous Steve Smith own-goal that prompted Flames fans, for years, to chant “shoot!” whenever Smith touched the puck.
“When you grow up there, it’s your dream to play at Rexall Place,” Chipchura said. “And then to get to play in front of people you know? It’s pretty cool.”
Even though most of the players grow accustomed to that feeling after a couple trips, that doesn’t mean it dulls the significance.
“Hockey was such a big part of growing up, we were all such huge Oilers fans and the NHL is so huge up there,” Doan said. “It will always be special.”
THREE KEY OPPONENT STATS
2.25: That’s how many goals per game Edmonton is averaging. Why is that low total significant for a team that sat 13th in the Western Conference before Friday’s games? Because it’s a significant drop over last season’s 2.59 goals per game, and a surprising stat for a team whose strength is its talented set of forwards. Columbus, Nashville and Minnesota were the only teams averaging fewer goals per game. Edmonton has a league-worst 0.52 goal-for/against ratio in 5-on-5 play, with just 17 goals scored in those scenarios. 9 in the hole: Rookie and top overall 2012 pick, Nail Yakupov, may be best known for his rousing celebration following a game-tying goal against the L.A. Kings earlier this season, but his coaching staff might be focused more on his plus-minus stat. Yakupov is a minus 9, which is one off the worst mark in the NHL this season, shared by eight players, including the Kings’ Drew Doughty.
Tailspin: After opening the season 4-2, Edmonton has won two of its last 10 games to fall to 13th in the Western Conference standings with 15 points — three behind eighth-seeded Minnesota. Worse yet, following Saturday’s game, the Oilers will embark on a 17-day road trip that spans nine games.
THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
Hall suspension: Edmonton star Taylor Hall was suspended Friday for two games for laying out an unsuspecting Cal Clutterbuck with what might have been intended as a hip check but became an unnecessary blindside hit without the puck in the area. The play occurred late in the third period of Minnesota’s 3-1 win Thursday. Hall has scored three goals this season and is tied for the team lead with 16 points.
Smitty or bust: Coyotes coach Dave Tippett hadn’t decided for certain but said Friday he was leaning toward playing goalie Mike Smith in both games of a back-to-back weekend set with Edmonton and Calgary. It helps that the Edmonton game is a matinee, affording Smith more time to recuperate before Sunday night’s game in Calgary, but a lack of confidence in backup Jason LaBarbera could also be a factor. LaBarbera has a 2.83 goals against average and a 90.8 save percentage in four appearances this season.
Picks to click: Coyotes wing Shane Doan has 54 points (40 assists) in 58 career games against Edmonton. Center Marty Hanzal has five goals and 11 points in 17 career games against the Oilers. Wing Raffi Torres has six goals and 11 points in 18 games against Edmonton. INJURY REPORT
For the Coyotes, D Derek Morris (upper body) is day-to-day; D David Schlemko (upper body) is out indefinitely. Morris could play on this trip but won’t go against Edmonton. F Radim Vrbata (lower body) and F Matthew Lombardi (shoulder) are both expected to return to the lineup on Saturday. For the Oilers, F Lennart Petrell (concussion-like symptoms) and F Ryan Jones (eye) are day-to-day, but both are likely to return to the lineup against Phoenix. F Shawn Horcoff (hand), D Andy Sutton (knee) and F Anton Lander (foot) are out indefinitely.