SUN Hockey Pool

Oil riding the horses

DEREK VAN DIEST -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:37 AM ET

BUFFALO -- In the first period of the first game of a critical two-week road trip, they were over the boards every second shift.

Shawn Horcoff finished Tuesday's contest with nearly 25 minutes of ice time. Ryan Smyth played just under 23 minutes.

"I'm going to keep playing them," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish.

"With the injuries we have up front, with the importance of the games, Ryan can handle a lot of ice time and Horc can handle a lot of ice time as well.

"And we're grinding them hard in practice as well because we play better after practice."

Yesterday the Oilers spent over an hour on the ice at the Agganis Arena - Boston University's new rink - in preparation for tonight's encounter (5 p.m., SNet) against the Buffalo Sabres.

Having lost 3-0 Tuesday in Boston, the pressure is on the Oilers to come away with something against the Sabres, the best team in the NHL.

Expect the top line to play big minutes again.

"When you're playing 25 minutes that can be up there," Horcoff said. "It all depends on how much you practise, really. If you're playing that much and you're getting the time between games off you're going to be able to do it. But if you're practising lots, it's going to be tough."

Unfortunately for Horcoff, MacTavish believes in practice. The team did not skate the day before Tuesday's loss to the Sabres.

"Maybe what we're looking for in the games is more mental energy than physical energy," he said. "Maybe if they're a little fatigued they have to rely more on the mental aspect of the game which is what we need to do better."

Either way, it's clear MacTavish is intent on riding his horses to the finish line.

And if that means playing them extra minutes before the rest of the field gets too far out of reach, so be it.

"We've been playing a lot as of late," said Horcoff. "And playing just under 25 minutes is a lot. I've been used to playing around 21 or 22 minutes, but I think (Tuesday) night (MacTavish) was trying to get us away from (Zdeno) Chara. But the guy plays as much as we do, too."

Chara averages nearly 29 minutes per game for the Bruins this season.

He was on the ice against the Oilers' top line for most of the night on Tuesday. But early on the Oilers did manage to keep Smyth, Horcoff and Hemsky away from him by simply playing them every other shift.

"I was able to create that for ourselves, but then we take the penalties and get behind early," MacTavish said. "And this isn't a league that you come back many nights once you get down a couple of goals, especially in light of the way we've been scoring goals."

Unfortunately for the Oilers the three minors they took in a 2:52 span in the first period cost them the game.

They gave up two power-play goals a minute apart and could not recover. Horcoff and Smyth spent a good part of the first period trying to kill those penalties off.

The Oilers then spent the rest of the game trying to come back. For the most part they created a number of chances - out-shooting the Bruins 32-23 in the contest - but they could not beat goaltender Tim Thomas.

"We have to leave it behind us and move on," said Horcoff. "They got a couple of lucky goals in the first period and that was really the difference. Tim Thomas played pretty well, but we have to find a way to solve him, find a way to score goals."


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