Plight of the Phoenix

DEREK VAN DIEST, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 10:40 AM ET

The Edmonton Oilers are aware these dogs can bite.

With the playoffs out of reach for the Phoenix Coyotes, the team has been relegated to playing the spoiler role for the remainder of the season.

The San Jose Sharks found out how dangerous they can be, losing a pair of games to the Coyotes on the weekend, jeopardizing their playoff chances.

And while the Oilers are grateful for the favour the Coyotes did them by beating the Sharks, they are not interested in being Phoenix's next victim.

"They're playing well right now, they are obviously loose," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish. "When you look at Phoenix, it really looks like the product of their team is parallel to their goaltending. Curtis (Joseph) was really good early, then fell off a little bit in mid-season and he's really back on top of his game."

OUT OF PLAYOFF HUNT

Despite being out of the playoff hunt, the Coyotes have won six of their last seven games, heading into tonight's encounter (6:30 p.m. PPV) with the Oilers at Rexall Place.

In the teams' last meeting, the Oilers needed a miracle goal with one second remaining in the third period to send the game into overtime. The Oilers then went on to win the game 4-3 in a shootout.

"Phoenix is a team that is playing really well," said Oilers forward Michael Peca. "They have a lot of guys that have been given an opportunity over the last couple of months that are trying to make the best of it, and they are right now.

"They've proven to be a tough opponent of late and I expect the same (tonight)."

Tonight's game is the first of four against teams out of the playoff race for the Oilers. After hosting the Coyotes tonight, the Oilers go on the road to face the Minnesota Wild Thursday, Chicago Blackhawks Friday and St. Louis Blues on Sunday.

They'll conclude the trip in Detroit, before coming back to close out the regular season by hosting the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Colorado Avalanche.

"The one thing you have to be careful with every time you look at a lineup and see that you are playing a team you should beat, is that sometimes you don't put in your best effort," Peca said. "But I think at this point in the season, we're prepared to play our best hockey night in and night out."

The loss to the Calgary Flames on Saturday put the Oilers precariously close to falling out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Sharks and Los Angeles Kings sit just three points back of the Oilers. However, the Sharks have two games in hand.

NEED TO GET ON A ROLL

"Phoenix had two games with San Jose and they played them hard. We can't take them for granted. We have to play them hard and play them tough," said Oilers goaltender Dwayne Roloson.

"We've got to get on a little bit of a roll. We have to get two or three games stuck together here and get some wins. That's the only way we are going to get out of this; we have to try and get on a roll. If you're on a roll once you get into the playoffs, you never know what could happen."

Getting on a roll means putting the disappointment of the loss to Calgary behind them.

Had the Oilers been able to defeat their provincial rivals, they would have been in a battle for top spot in the division. As it stands, they're clinging to the final playoff spot in the conference.

"It's difficult but it's certainly necessary," MacTavish said. "You never want to take yesterday's baggage into tomorrow's game. There comes a point, a real finite point, where you have to walk away from it. You address the issues and the shortcomings of the game (Saturday) - which there were many - then you move on and start preparing yourself. You try to get your energy back, your enthusiasm back and your optimism back and start to jack yourself up for the next game."

What made Saturday's game even more frustrating was the fact the Oilers took the game to the Flames in the first period, outshooting Calgary 9-1 through the first seven minutes.

They finished the first period outshooting the Flames 14-9, but down 1-0.

FRUSTRATION SETS IN

"Frustration is a part of it, because it's all about the result," MacTavish said. "Saying we'll worry about the process and the results will take care of themselves is nauseating at this point - it's all about the result.

"However you get the result, if you don't get it, it manifests itself in frustration. But you have to deal with that like you do with nervousness or tension or anything of that nature and get yourself ready to play."

Despite the recent frustrations, the Oilers were in a relatively relaxed mood yesterday. With seven games left in their season, the Oilers' fate is in their own hands.

"For the most part, it is still a pretty light atmosphere around here," Peca said. "As games go on, if it stays tied or if we fall behind, we get a little tight. We have to rely on our ability, we have a great team in here, and just sometimes we don't believe it as much as we should."

DARRYL DYCK, Sun photos


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