SUN Hockey Pool

Get a grip!

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:31 AM ET

SAN JOSE -- Stay off the rails, and they'll put the brakes on any momentum they mustered in the first half of the schedule.

Get back on track between now and the Olympic break, starting tonight against the San Jose Sharks, and they can avoid the need to make like a runaway train down the stretch just to make the playoffs.

It's tough to tell which way the Oilers will go, given the unsettling three-game losing streak they take into The Tank tonight, but we'll get a good idea in the next dozen games.

So, can the Oilers overcome the slipshod goaltending, bonehead penalties and other kinks in their game that have caught up to them lately to take a run at a Northwest Division title, or are we in for more March Madness?

What say you, men?

"We've got to get a hold of it in a hurry," says coach Craig MacTavish, talking about putting the brakes on his team's latest slip. "We'll be able to tell a lot about our team and what we have by the way we play against a very good San Jose team."

Beaten 3-1 by the Buffalo Sabres Monday, the Oilers haven't much resembled the team that amassed 50 points with a 23-14-4 record in the first half of the schedule.

OVER THEIR SHOULDERS

Second in the Western Conference for about 15 minutes when they led the Northwest Division, the Oilers today sit eighth. With 53 points, they're just four points back of Calgary and Vancouver. But, a look over their shoulders shows the Oilers they're just six points ahead of the ninth-place Sharks, who have three games in hand.

"We're not too far off the division lead," says Shawn Horcoff. "When you're winning and things are going good, everybody is looking ahead. When you slide a little, everyone looks behind.

"A good stretch for us in these next 12 games before the break puts us in a pretty good position."

And a bad stretch sets the table for a gruelling March, a month in which the Oilers play 16 games in 30 days, plus the obligatory no-margin-for-error drive just to sneak into seventh or eighth place.

"Nobody wants to play 16 games in 30 days and have to win 11 or 12 of them just to put yourself in a good position," Horcoff said. "That's why we view these games before the break as very important for us to win. These are huge games."

The Oilers were supposed to be better than the old March Madness routine in the new NHL, no?

"It takes too much out of you," Ethan Moreau said of needing to squeeze every point out of the stretch. "Two years ago, we had to work so hard and compete so hard. We have to start winning games in a more controlled fashion - with good defence, good goaltending, good special teams, good systems play."

In 2003-04, the Oilers played their backsides off down the stretch and still missed the post-season. They can avoid a repeat by getting a handle on things now. Three straight losses is a hiccup. If three turns to four and then to five or six, well, that's more like vomiting on your shoes.

"We know the type of hockey it's going to take from here on in," insists Moreau. "It's not going to be a free-wheeling, where we turn pucks over. We have to settle back into our game.

'WE HAVE TO DO IT'

"If we go on this next stretch and win every game, we're talking about how good we are. Having said that, we have to do it."

Easier said than done against a San Jose team that's risen from the depths since the arrival of Joe Thornton. So be it. The task gets more daunting the longer this slide continues.

"We've got to be more committed. We've got to be smarter. We've got to be more intense," said MacTavish.

Sooner rather than later.


Videos

Photos