SUN Hockey Pool

Death by division

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:45 AM ET

Death by boredom.

That was the sentence handed down by the National Hockey League's schedule maker 15 days ago.

The Edmonton Oilers, who couldn't beat a team in their own division to save their lives, were already dead last in the Western Conference, just a few well-placed losses from watching their season topple into an abyss.

And they woke up Nov. 5 to find their next eight games were against Northwest opponents. Just what the executioner ordered.

Minnesota, Colorado, Calgary, Vancouver, Minnesota, Calgary, Vancouver and Colorado. It was the last thing Edmonton, 1-5 in its first six Northwest games, needed and the last thing Edmontonians, starving for a little variety in the schedule, wanted.

If things went badly, as many expected they would, Edmonton would be out of the playoff race by late November. Fans would be bored stiff. And the Oilers would be just plain stiff.

"It's going to be important for us to come out of this above .500," centre Shawn Horcoff said at the time. "We should be looking forward to a stretch like this because it could be a real season turner for us."

Seven games in, they still have a pulse. Tonight against Colorado is the eighth and final game of the stretch, and the Oilers are one win away from coming out of this with a winning record.

"We're 3-3-1 so far, so if we can win this game and come out of this above .500, that would be a big step," said Jarret Stoll. "These were important points."

The best thing about this stretch, other than the fact they survived it, is that they'll never have to go through anything like this again. The NHL admitted it made a terrible mistake scheduling 32 divisional games, and only 10 against inter-conference tilts, a season, and will rework the schedule this summer.

Good, because everyone is sick of it.

"I don't like it," said Horcoff. "And I don't think there are too many people who do. Fans get pretty bored of it."

Bored to tears. In trying to appease its weakest markets - like Tampa, which can only draw fans when they're playing Florida - the NHL punished its hard-core base, subjecting them to the same game night after night after night.

"It would be nice to see some different teams, different players," said Stoll, who might as well have been speaking for 16,839 fans at Rexall Place.

"It seems like we're playing teams in our division every other night."

Seems nothing. They ARE playing teams in their division every other night.

"They brought in this schedule to create rivalries and I think it had an opposite effect," said Horcoff.

"It used to be that you only played those teams every six or eight weeks and you'd look forward to it. Now it's every two weeks and as a fan you're saying, 'Oh well, if you don't see this one, you'll catch the next one.' "

Not that there's much to catch. A steady diet of Flames might have been cool back in the '80s, before Gary Bettman and the governors neutered the NHL, but with the instigator penalty (which referees still don't know how to properly apply) and every little scrum and battle being whistled down for something, rivalries are diluted beyond recognition.

In Edmonton's seven straight divisional games, there was one scrap. While that says as much about the Oilers as it does about the league, there's no disputing the lack of intensity in today's NHL.

So why not see Sidney Crosby once a year instead of Vancouver eight times?

"The rivalry is still there, but they're not as rough and tough as they used to be," said Stoll. "Now it's more about the points. The points are huge. You win these games and you're going to be in pretty good shape."

True enough. Had the Oilers tanked this eight-game stretch they would have been done. But now they can turn that boring death sentence into 4-3-1.

"We have an opportunity," said head coach Craig MacTavish. "To turn this homestand into something positive."


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