Sprint to the finish

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

Once again, as they have every March for as far back as anyone can remember, the Edmonton Oilers are limbering up at the start line, readying themselves for another excruciatingly tense, agonizingly close seven-week sprint to the finish.

With 24 games in the next 48 nights, all four-pointers against the West, their season will seem to hang in the balance every second night from now until April 17. They'll be in, they'll be out, they'll be up and they'll be down, and there won't be a minute to catch their breath or a day to rest their weary legs.

Just like always.

"We all look forward to the days when we can start preparing for the playoffs when we come back from the break, but they're not here yet," said head coach Craig MacTavish, whose Oilers are in better shape than they usually are at this juncture, but are hardly secure in eighth place.

"It's going to be very entertaining, very pressure-filled hockey from here till the end. When you find yourself five points out of the division lead and three points out of ninth, there's lots at stake."

The stakes are enormous this time around: With the addition of Chris Pronger and Mike Peca, in a much-anticipated era of small-market equality, fans are daring to dream about Edmonton's first trip to the second round in eight years. Missing the post-season altogether would be catastrophic.

"It's maybe the most important stretch we've had in a number of years," said MacTavish. "It can be a little overwhelming, but how we handle the pressure is going to be one of the big factors in the success that we're going to have."

They usually handle it well.

LATE-SEASON SURGES

The Oilers are famous for their late-season surges, having amassed a record of 46-16-13-7 in the last six weeks of the last four seasons. In two of the last four years their valiant finishes weren't enough to undo the damage they did in December and January, but this time there is no hole to crawl out of.

This time they won't be so far out of it in March that it takes every ounce of energy they have just to get a sniff of Calgary's dust.

"We're in a little better position now," said Shawn Horcoff, who knows they'll make it with time and room to spare if they can close out this year like they've closed out the previous four. "Before we were in must-win situations and every night was like a playoff game for us - it was pretty draining.

"This year played well to get ourselves into a little better situation. This year we feel like we have a team that can contend for a division title and go deep in the playoffs. We're confident that we can get the job done. The rest was good for a lot of guys and it's going to be exciting to get going again."

EVERY GAME MATTERS

This is when hockey is the most fun. When every game matters, when the out-of-town scoreboard is just as important as your own, when one shift, one goal, can mean the difference between getting in or having to explain why you didn't.

"I feel like I've played every game like that since I've been an Oiler," said Steve Staios, heading into his fourth stretch drive here. "We know where we stand. It's going to be a grind. There are going to be a lot of games that we look at as must-win. But I think everybody feels confident in what we can do in the last quarter of the season."

With Vancouver's defence decimated by injuries and 10 of Colorado's players exhausted from the games, the door to the Northwest Division is actually open a crack.

"It's a tough stretch," said Horcoff, who looks forward to the steady diet of four-point games. "But you look at it as a good opportunity, too. If you can be successful early you can give yourself a bit of a cushion. I don't feel any more pressure this year; I feel more excited than anything about our team and our chances to be successful."


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