They're halfway there

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:55 AM ET

Let's get this straight . . .

One game short of the halfway mark in the season, the Edmonton Oilers don't have a No. 1 goaltender. Fans shudder over Craig MacTavish's third defensive pairing like a grenade-juggling act with the pin pulled. Michael Peca is on pace for 10 goals.

The Oilers ushered out 2005 with a 6-5 defeat in Calgary, they've won just once in their last four games and have endured a seven-game losing streak. Is that about right?

All that said, the Oilers will face the Chicago Blackhawks tonight on pace to win 40-plus games for the first time since 1987-88, when Wayne Gretzky sipped suds from the Stanley Cup one last time.

Win tonight, and the Oilers will have 50 points in 41 games and a shot -- they play 22 games at home in the second half -- at 100 points for the first time since 1986-87.

THRILL-A-MINUTE TANDEM

That bottom line doesn't jibe with Ty Conklin, Jussi Markkanen and Mike Morrison sharing the goal crease, the thrill-a-minute tandem of Igor Ulanov and Cory Cross and Peca's generous attempt to allow Georges Laraque to catch him in goal-scoring, but do the math.

Here we are.

"I couldn't be happier with where we are now in terms of elements we've added to our team through the maturation of some players and through a couple of key additions," MacTavish said.

At 22-14-4 for 48 points, the Oilers hit the ice tonight seven points back of the first-place Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference.

They are where they are in spite of their goaltending, which has been mostly average, at best, and sometimes awful.

They've overcome a tentative start by Peca, who has delivered as advertised defensively but has struggled mightily to produce points. MacTavish thought him capable of 20 goals.

Likewise, it took Chris Pronger time to get his legs after a year off, although he was sneaky good while logging his usual 28 minutes a night before he got going offensively.

Even with this last four-game slip, the Oilers have taken points in 22 of the 30 games they've played since the seven-game losing streak, a stretch that includes 19 wins.

"I keep getting back to the fact that we haven't been dominated in well over two months in a game," MacTavish said, referring to a 7-1 spanking from Colorado Oct. 21.

"That tells you how close you are. If we rectify a few things and improve in a few areas, those games we see slipping away will turn the other way, and we'll really have something good here."

The positives are many.

Stoll and Shawn Horcoff, tied for the team lead with 40 points, have made up for Peca's lack of pop. Stoll has already eclipsed his previous career high for points. Horcoff will do so with his next point.

Then there's Ales Hemsky, whose 38 points take a back seat only to his ridiculous skills, and Raffi Torres, who is proving his 20 goals of 2003-04 were no fluke, even with his penchant for going AWOL.

The power play, thanks to Pronger and Stoll, has cracked the top 10. The penalty killing is mediocre, which represents a step up.

"The thing now is consistency," offers Stoll. "If you lose one or two games, you've got to get back to putting some wins on the board. You can't have a seven-game losing streak."

BOX-OF-CHOCOLATES GOALTENDING

The to-do list is short but significant.

It begins and ends with Conklin, Markkanen and Morrison. If they can't straighten it out, GM Kevin Lowe will have to.

Box-of-chocolates goaltending -- not knowing what you're going to get -- won't do it in March. And using a roster spot for a third stopper is a luxury the team can't afford down the stretch.

Outside the crease, the Oilers need Peca to find his offensive game. They need more of the Pronger we saw in December. They need more of what Horcoff, Stoll and Hemsky have delivered.

If they get that, why not 100 points?

"Things we need to do better are things that are correctable within the group we have here," MacTavish said.

"That puts us in a pretty good position, if we have the focus and the intensity to correct the things we need to do."


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