It's still defence first

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 10:10 AM ET

The time-worn axiom about defence winning championships never hit home with the Edmonton Oilers more than it did last spring.

Always known as a wide-open, free-skating team that tried to replicate the good old days - but never could - the Oilers discovered post-season success beyond their wildest dreams when they decided to tighten up.

The trap, long a dirty expression in Northern Alberta, frustrated the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks straight into elimination and set the stage for a run to the Cup final.

Head coach Craig MacTavish made no apologies, saying it didn't make much sense to enter a shooting contest when you don't have the guns.

Now they do. Adding Joffrey Lupul and Petr Sykora gives them as much firepower as anyone.

So what's the game plan?

CHANGES ON BACK END

Do they play that conservative style again, given all the firepower up front? Can they play that style again given all the changes on the back end? Do they dare abandon a system that took them to the final? But how do they commit to it and execute it again with the personnel they have on defence?

"I think you still have to concentrate on defence," said Jarret Stoll, not hesitating for a moment. "If you can win games 6-5, fine, but I think we're going to want to win them 2-1, 3-1. You always have to worry about the defensive side of the puck.

"In playoffs it was proven that's how you win. You can get away with those (high-scoring) games sometimes, but I don't think over the course of the season that's how you're going to win and how you're going to be successful."

If the playoffs taught them anything, they say, it's teams that can't win 2-1 and aren't willing to pay a price to do it don't go very far.

"The most important thing for us is we've found the style of hockey we need to play to be successful," said Horcoff.

"And that's not just all out (offence)all the time. That's what we used to do, we were always two guys strong on the forecheck.

"We still want to be aggressive, but if we can't get there, let's sit back and let them come to us.

"Conserve energy and play a little bit smarter. When we started doing that in the playoffs we won a lot of games."

It'll be harder without defensive cornerstones like Chris Pronger and Michael Peca, but there's enough good, two-way players on the team (thanks to MacTavish's policy of defence first when the likes of Stoll, Horcoff and Fernando Pisani were young) that they think it's doable.

"We learned a lot on the defensive side of the puck last year, and in previous years, and that will never be out of our mind at all," said Stoll. "We just have the skill offensively now to score more goals."

Horcoff agrees.

LOADED UP FRONT

"We have the same core, minus, obviously, one of the best D-men in the league. When he plays that many minutes it obviously makes it tough, but we're way deeper up front."

"I look at a team like Carolina that won a Stanley Cup, they didn't have any superstar D on the back. They were loaded up front.

"Every team we played, especially the first two series, we concentrated on two offensive lines and focused on shutting them down. But when we got to Carolina they had three.

"That's kind of what we're looking to be this year; still playing good defensive hockey, but when we are in the offensive zone putting on a lot of pressure and finishing our chances."

Which reminds Ryan Smyth of another axiom: the best defence is a good offence.

"Defence first," he said. "But if they can't get out out of their own end you're not going to be playing defence."


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