SUN Hockey Pool

Past the half way point

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 12:55 PM ET

Catch us if you can.

The Edmonton Oilers haven't had the luxury of saying that often in the past 10 seasons when it comes to a Western Conference playoff spot, but that's where they are at the halfway mark of this campaign.

With 50 points in the books as they open the second half tomorrow against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Oilers don't have to make up ground or catch anybody to get a post-season berth. They have one.

That's not to say the Oilers have a cushy margin in the standings, because they don't, but they sit sixth in the conference and are two points out of the Northwest Division lead - held by the Calgary Flames - a perch that would bump them three places in the playoff pecking order.

Call it the difference between urgency and desperation.

"We've always been a good second-half team," Shawn Horcoff said. "We take pride in that.

"At the same time, we'd expend a lot of energy coming down the stretch just trying to get that eighth spot. That makes it tough when every game from February on is like a playoff game.

"We don't want to go into games with the intensity level not what it should be, but at the same time, you don't want the pressure of having a playoff-like atmosphere game in and game out with 20 games to go."

BLAZED DOWN THE STRETCH

The Oilers blazed down the stretch like a house on fire in 2003-04 with 51 points in their final 41 games, but still missed the playoffs because they dug themselves too deep a hole in the first half.

They had no margin for error in the last month of the season and, despite taking a dramatic run at the top eight, finished two points short of Nashville and St. Louis.

They're sitting relatively pretty today thanks to a 21-14-1 record within the conference and a 9-8-0 mark against divisional rivals Calgary, Vancouver, Colorado and Minnesota.

"When you've got to make up a lot of ground in the second half to get in, it's physically and emotionally taxing," said Michael Peca. "If you've got to go with two and three lines for 30 games to get back into it, it's difficult.

"Being a front-runner, having the depth that we do, we can roll four lines and keep everybody fresh. We've got to set a goal that we want to get 25 wins in this half and get ourselves to 100 points."

The addition of Peca and, especially Chris Pronger, are the most significant changes to the team of two years ago. But improved special teams and the development of Jarret Stoll, Raffi Torres, Shawn Horcoff, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Ales Hemsky have also played a big part in things.

If the Oilers sort out their goaltending - they slipped Mike Morrison to the ECHL under the cover of an off-day for hospital visits yesterday - they'll have a lot of ducks in a row for the stretch.

"In previous years, it's always been that a lot of things have had to go well for us to win in a lot of games," coach Craig MacTavish said.

'GOALTENDING'

"You'd have to get the goaltending. You had to get a performance out of your power play. You had to get the first goal. Now, we're getting beyond that where we control most of those things in the game. That's what I've seen as the major difference.

"If we come out and play well, we're getting good enough now where we can afford a lapse in a particular area where we couldn't overcome that in the past. Now, we can."


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