Sending out an S.O.S.

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:19 AM ET

Saved by the bell.

The Edmonton Oilers were out on their feet when the Olympic break spared them a face full of canvas. Tired, beaten up and bleeding points, they staggered to the February hiatus physically and emotionally spent.

Six of their regulars were out with injuries, their goalies owned the worst save percentage in the NHL, and they'd managed just four wins in their last 11 games, (one of them a gift from J.S. Giguere, another a last-second miracle in Phoenix). So it's no stretch to suggest this two-week respite might have saved their season.

"We needed it," understated head coach Craig MacTavish. "We're going to have to get healthy and get back to where we were when we were not only racking up wins, but turning in good performances. It's been a while since we've had that."

Too long. Only twice since a five-game run before Christmas have the Oilers won consecutive games. They've gone from contending for first in the Western Conference to barely hanging onto eighth.

"We've been in a lot worse situations," said Shawn Horcoff, who remembers years when the Oilers were as low as 12th at this point. "We're happy, but not satisfied with where we are at the break. For us to be (three) points up and not six points back is going to be huge for us."

Looking back ...

Aside from a nasty seven-game stumble out of the starting blocks and the pre-Olympic fizzle, the first two-thirds of the season weren't half bad. Better than most seasons.

It took Chris Pronger a while to settle in and it took two months before the Oilers realized Michael Peca wasn't a first-or second-line scoring centre. But the off-season moves made a huge difference.

Pronger settled in as one of the best defencemen in the league while Peca and Ethan Moreau shut down some of the best forwards in the league. The power play improved by leaps and bounds, from 29th in 2004 to top 10 when Jarret Stoll got hot, before settling into the middle of the pack.

Despite the goaltending issues and all those games in the ridiculously tough Northwest Division, they're still within striking distance of home ice in the playoffs.

What went right ...

- Shawn Horcoff - Nobody figured a bit player from two seasons ago could excel as a first line centre, but he delivered above and beyond all expectations. He played both special teams, dominated in the faceoff circle, was durable, sound defensively and ranked in the top 25 in points. Who knew?

- Chris Pronger - A few weeks in we were wondering what all the fuss was about. Now we know. They weren't kidding when they said a player of his calibre could turn a team around. He isn't entirely responsible for Edmonton's revival, but when he's out there, about half the game, the Oilers are in good shape. The only concern is whether he'll be run ragged in an Olympic year.

- Ryan Smyth - With 27 at the break, Smyth is on pace for his highest goal total ever. Never took a night off, never avoided the tough areas of the ice and helped with the emergence of Horcoff and Ales Hemsky.

- Ales Hemsky - Tries to be too cute for his own good sometimes, but you can't knock world class moves on a team that hasn't had any in well over a decade.

What went wrong ...

- Goaltending - Without laying any further beatings on this dead horse, Edmonton will not go anywhere in the playoffs, and might not even get to the playoffs, unless its netminding is shored up. Every goalie in the league is letting in bad goals, it's simply a product of new goalie equipment and the new NHL, but nobody wins with a team save percentage of .880. Nobody.

- Secondary scoring - Edmonton had too many passengers who seemed comfortable slumping offensively as long as they didn't give up much the other way. Horrible, month-long droughts from the likes of Raffi Torres, Fernando Pisani and Radek Dvorak had as much to do with Edmonton's bad finish as goaltending did.

- Home record - Four wins in their last 13 home games? Two games under .500 at Rexall Place? It's hard to understand how a team that gets as much support from its fans as Edmonton does could be so flat and listless at home, but the numbers don't lie.


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