SUN Hockey Pool

Forward thinking

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:07 AM ET

Somewhere in the last few weeks, right between "this is going to be the worst season ever" and "they should fire everyone," the Edmonton Oilers' funeral march turned into a sprint for the playoffs.

Dead last in the Western Conference and too young, too injured, too weak and too offensively challenged to do much about it, the Oilers looked resigned to a permanent spot in the NHL cellar.

There's no guarantee they won't still wind up in the dark, dank depths of 15th place before the last puck is fired in anger on April 3, but right now, after having weathered a brutal two-month storm, they can still see the light.

Six wins in their last nine games has them within spitting distance, three measly points, of eighth place.

"We've had all the injuries, we've gone through slumps and we've had times when we thought we were the worst team in the league, and we were, points wise, but we're still in the mix," said Marty Reasoner, both relieved and surprised that the Oilers are still alive, given all they've been through.

"That's the one thing that kind of kept us going during the hardest times, knowing that nobody is really pulling away.

"We win three games in a row and we're right back in the mix."

Heading into last night's action they were as close to third as they were to 15th: five points.

"As negative as things were around here for a long time, we're still in a prime position," said Shawn Horcoff.

"As rough as our start was, we still find ourself in a position where the playoffs are only a two-, three-game winning streak away. We've been playing some pretty good hockey of late."

They'll have to keep playing it for the entire 53-game stretch drive. Parity in the Western Conference, coupled with their slow start, means they'll have to live on the knife edge all season, knowing one mini slump could drop them into 15th again.

"We're just one run away from really being in a good position," said Reasoner.

"The problem with that is the longer you take before you do it, there's a chance that somebody else is going to grab it. That's one thing we have to realize in here, we have to get our act together and win those big games that are going to put us over the top."

SEE THE TOP

That Edmonton can even see the top - relatively speaking, since eighth place shouldn't be anyone's definition of the top - is fairly remarkable stuff.

When Sheldon Souray, Joni Pitkanen, Ethan Moreau, Fernando Pisani, and Matt Greene were out and the Oilers sunk to last, the season could have easily gone south for the winter and stayed there. Credit the players in the room for pulling out of it.

"I think everyone kind of counted us out for a while," said Horcoff. "It was just perseverance."

And now they're starting to get healthy. Pisani and Pitkanen are back; Souray is close.

"We're coming," said head coach Craig MacTavish, who knew, given the youth and the injuries, that most of November would have to be spent trying to tread water.

"The reality is that it's difficult to play when you have 14 or 15 million (dollars) sitting in the press box.

"But we had the depth in the organization, young guys to plug into those holes, and the experience is paying off for them. Now we're starting to get healthy and we're getting the development of some of our young guys. You go in the morning and you see all these kids training. They're getting a sniff of it. It's refreshing to see. It's a good environment to be around right now. I hope everybody in the room feels like we're trending up."

GOOD ... UNTIL

Life is good. Until they lose three in a row and fall five places in the standings - then it'll be the worst season ever and time to fire everyone.

"The game is funny. When you lose you think you're the worst team in the world and when you win you think you're going to win the Cup," said Reasoner.

"It's a pretty big roller coaster ride of emotions. For us, it's just trying to stay level, realize there's always things we could do better, but at the worst of times we're not as bad as we think, either."


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