Failing the test

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:28 AM ET

It looked like a playoff game.

It felt like a playoff game.

It sounded like a playoff game.

But in the end - actually long before the end - it was a go-back-to-trying-to-make-the-playoffs game for just about the hardest home town team to cheer for in the NHL.

It was Saturday Night. Hockey Night In Canada. Harry Neale in the booth. Don Cherry in the studio.

It looked, felt and sounded like the old days at this time of year when the Toronto Maple Leafs were terrible and Calgary-Edmonton was the main attraction.

The crowd was loud enough to drown out the starting line-up introductions. With easily 1,000 fans in the stands wearing Calgary Flames sweaters, there was that, too.

It was physical. In the first period there seemed to be a solid hit every single shift.

There were fights. On the ice. In the stands.

It was, for the 10 Edmonton Oilers in the line-up who have yet to taste playoff atmosphere here, at least a whistle-wetter for the way it is around here during Stanley season.

And the Oilers showed up from the opening face-off attempting to think big and take advantage of an opportunity to try take on last run at the top rung in the toughest division in hockey.

The Oilers were all over the Flames from the git-go. It was 9-1 Oilers in shots on goal in the first six minutes.

But by 4:12 of the second period it was 3-0 Flames. Two turnovers.

And a bad goal.

It was, despite everything involved, the same game these two teams have been playing again and again and again.

No matter what the Oilers have done, it hasn't been good enough to beat Miikka Kiprusoff most nights, much less Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf, Daymond Langkow, Andrew Ference and all those other Edmonton-area guys on the Flames.

SEEM TO SPECIALIZE

And no matter how many opportunities the Oilers give themselves to get something going with their season, they seem to specialize in devaluing the price of a ticket to a tilt in Rexall Place.

It was the 37th sellout of the season in 38 games in the building. It's hard to hug a team which has only won 17 of them.

Giveaways for goals by Radek Dvorak and Ryan Smyth and a bad goal off the shoulder of Dwayne Roloson put the Oilers in a position of chasing a game they'd attempted to take to the Flames.

"Mistakes,'' said Smyth. "I thought we were really assertive at the start of the game. We came out strong. We did everything but score. Kipper made some good saves. Then we started making mistakes. This is playoff hockey. You can't have that right now.''

Coach Craig MacTavish took it further.

"The first goal was a prelude of what was to follow,'' he said. "We gave the puck away 10 feet from the blueline.

"After that it became a tactic of ours. We just went and played suicide hockey. We were clearly the better team early on. But we didn't show any composure at all when we got down.''

And so much for thinking big.

The Flames, with back-to-back wins over Colorado and Edmonton, for all purposes secured the division title with 92 points and eight games to go. Calgary is now four points clear of Colorado, five clear of Vancouver and six clear of Edmonton.

The Oilers go back to their usual business at this time of year of simply trying to secure a playoff position and making sure they have their hotel reservations for Dallas.

At least the Oilers had a good night on the out-of-town scoreboard. For the second game in a row, Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes upset the San Jose Sharks - this time 4-3 in overtime - to keep Joe Thornton & Co. three points back in ninth place with two games in hand. From high to low to high to low they go.

"You have to get through the emotional setback when you lose a game, lose a big game like this, especially the way we lost it,'' said MacTavish.

"We had guys who had failure to pay the price. We had guys who failed to go to the tough areas of the ice. You can't tipsy-toe through the tough areas.

'PLAYED UNREAL'

"Ryan Smyth played unreal again tonight. I was disappointed we didn't have many guys going with him. Young players have to learn that veteran players play the big games hard. It was pretty clear we weren't team tough. Games like this test your mettle.''

In the end, too many Oilers failed the test. There are seven tests left this regular season. Fail two or three more and that may have to do for your playoff experience for another season.


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