SUN Hockey Pool

Opportunity knocks for Oilers

Oilers' Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff walk through the parking lot in front of Rexall Place...

Oilers' Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff walk through the parking lot in front of Rexall Place yesterday morning. The players changed at Rexall before driving to a rink in Sherwood Park for practice. Rexall was unavailable for practice because of a concert. (Edmonton Sun/David Bloom)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

Welcome back. Great trip.

Now it's time for the Edmonton Oilers to bring out the doughnuts and beer, scratch themselves in places they probably shouldn't scratch in public and let out a few belches.

Start acting like Homers.

"We're in decent shape," said head coach Craig MacTavish, whose club is sitting one point over .500, despite 14 of its first 20 games on the road. "Now it's up to us to establish ourselves as a dominant team at home. If we do that, we're going to be in excellent shape."

IT'S MAKE OR BREAK AT HOME

A .500 road record is good, the goal of every team to start the season, but .500 isn't going to get them anywhere near the playoffs -- it's what they do at Rexall Place that's going to make or break the Oilers. They'll need to be about 10 games over .500, with a handful of their losses in OT or shootouts, to get the 95 points MacTavish figures it'll take to make the Top 8.

"We're going to have to be better than what we've been," he said, adding he'd like that seven-game losing streak back. "But in light of the schedule and where we've played the majority of our games, if we can get going at home here we'll be right in the mix."

Six of Edmonton's next eight are here, starting tonight against the Detroit Red Wings. While the first game back after an extended road trip usually means a letdown for most teams, MacTavish is hoping a tight race and a marquee opponent are enough to clear the cobwebs.

"The first game is always a little bit of a crapshoot," he said.

"I can't put my finger on the mentality of it, but I know I was subjected to it as a player and I've seen it as a coach. You try and do different things but it's tough to avoid.

"Maybe there's a tendency to think it's going to be easier when you do get home, but Detroit eliminates that mindset, so we should be ready to go, I would think."

The Wings were softened up a little by the Calgary Flames last night, so the opportunity to springboard into a successful homestand is right in front of them.

"Our goal is to still win the division," said MacTavish, as his players filed out of Millennium Place (they still can't practise in their home rink yet because of Nine Inch Nails and Gwen Stefani concerts yesterday and tomorrow). "Vancouver lost three in a row prior to Detroit, so there's opportunity there. Calgary is on a run, but they've been doing it at home and are going to have to go on the road. We're still in the mix for the division and that's been our goal from the outset."

In the old days you could set your watch by the top four teams in the west, but thanks to the new CBA there are no superpowers anymore. Edmonton, in theory, has as good a shot as anyone. They've already posted wins over Colorado, Detroit, Vancouver and Nashville and if they can ever figure Calgary out they might have a shot.

"In the past you'd run into teams where it was almost impossible to get a win," said Jarret Stoll. "Now you can go into Detroit and Colorado and win. And when you get on a roll and feel good about your team, you feel you can beat anyone."

NEXT THREE WEEKS CRUCIAL

You also know you can lose to anyone, as evidenced by the seven game slide, or a recent 3-1 loss to Chicago. With this much parity, and a run of home games on the schedule, it's really up to the Oilers what they make of the next three weeks.

"It reeks of opportunity," said MacTavish. "If you get your game in order and stay healthy, there's great opportunity to make up a lot of room in a hurry, like we've seen in Calgary. The opportunity is there. We're in a good position now, but we have to deliver the goods."


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