Springboard or diving board?

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- They will either use this five-game road trip to catapult themselves into the shadow of a playoff spot, or they'll die trying.

But make no mistake, if the Edmonton Oilers don't take advantage of the opportunity in front of them and cut a very wide swath through the worst division in hockey, they will be dead.

"You can't underestimate how important this trip is," said head coach Craig MacTavish, his team facing an eight-day swing that will ultimately serve as a springboard into the playoff race or a diving board into the abyss, depending on what they decide to do with it.

'POTENTIAL'

"We all know there's potential ... either way. We've got to have a good trip to put ourselves in position going into the All-Star break."

It's their last best chance to resurrect their season. Going 4-1 on their recent home stand helps, but doesn't relieve any of the pressure. They'll probably have to duplicate that record on the road to gain any ground.

"We needed a good home stand to set up the road trip," said Shawn Horcoff. "And we're in a good position now going into some winnable games on the road. We need to go on a five-game (streak), that's the mind set."

For a young team without much experience winning, it's a lot to digest, knowing you have to be almost perfect on the road. Knowing you can't make the playoffs in the next 15 periods, but you can absolutely miss them.

"The danger is we get a little bit overwhelmed, too uptight," said captain Ethan Moreau.

"If you look at the big picture and think you have to win so many games on this road trip, it gets to be a little bit nerve wracking, especially for the young guys. You tend to tighten up and not play your game."

But Moreau is convinced it's doable. He saw it in them when they were going 4-1 at home and believe they have it in them to go 4-1 on this trip.

"Momentum is an intangible that's hard to explain," he said.

"You always get that goal that you need, you always get that save that you need, you always get that momentum change when you need it, as opposed to a losing streak where everything goes wrong. I think we're just at the start of the streak."

MacTavish says tonight's game against the Caps will lay the foundation for everything. "You know how energy goes on the road," he said. "You get off to a good start, you're playing looser. But if you go into a game after you've lost a couple in a row, you're tight - and that normally doesn't help you, especially our team. The start is important."

If there's ever a division you want to see when you're in need of a boost, it's the SouthLeast, as people like to call it. Four teams that sit below the playoff cutline and one that would be tied for eighth if it weren't for the fact that divisional leaders are automatically seeded third.

In other words, there are some pretty easy pickin's to be had here. Of course, that's what the Oilers said about 30th place LA, too, before the Kings wiped the smiles off their faces Monday night at Rexall Place.

And it's probably what Ottawa and Detroit thought about Washington and Atlanta, before the Caps and Thrashers beat them 4-2 and 5-1 Monday.

NO PUSHOVERS

"You don't look at anybody's record, those days are in the past," said Steve Staios, when asked if the Oilers were licking their chops.

"The league's not like that anymore. There was a day when teams could do that, but it's changed. There's too many good players on these teams who can change the outcome of games."

And the Oilers will be up against a schedule that has them playing three games and travelling twice in the first three and a half days - today in Washington, Friday in Carolina and Sunday afternoon in Atlanta.

"Back-to-back, three games in under four days, it's not like we can take anything for granted," said Horcoff.

"The travel is going to make it a little challenging."

Will they come out of it dead tired, or just plain dead? Stay tuned.


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