'Tiny Tots' shining for Oilers

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:56 AM ET

The irony of Edmonton's situation isn't lost on anyone.

A team that was supposed to be long on undersized talent and short on toughness and grit is winning more battles in the alley than it is on the scoreboard.

Twice in the last four games Edmonton dragged a hockey game into the alley and gave as good as they got - only to drop a pair of 4-1 losses to Dallas and Calgary.

And in the two games they did win, both were rooted in hard-hitting bad intentions.

Wasn't it supposed to be the other way around? Weren't Edmonton's small forwards supposed to be all flash and no crash? Weren't the Tiny Tots supposed go away and wilt when the other side flexed its muscle?

But on a night where there was precious little silver lining to the grey cloud hanging over Edmonton, head coach Craig MacTavish was proud of the way his rookies stood up for themselves in a mettle-testing edition of the Battle of Alberta.

"The encouraging thing for me was the play of our young guys," said MacTavish. "(Andrew) Cogliano played well, looked great. (Sam) Gagner, he battled as hard as anybody, won as many battles as anybody.

"You don't have to be six-foot-five to go in there and win a battle. Those two guys played very well for themselves."

Gagner played more even strength minutes than any other Oilers forward (16:00). Robert Nilsson was second at 14:54 and Cogliano wasn't far down the list at 12:59. Instead of having to hide them or protect them, MacTavish had them out there in the third period trying to steal away Calgary's momentum. They almost did, with Nilsson scoring and Cogliano hitting a post a few minutes later.

"Everybody battled hard and supported each other," said Gagner, who played above and beyond his 191 pounds in Calgary. "In that regard it was big for us, we came together as a team. Hopefully we can carry that emotion into the next game and bring some execution with it.

"We did a lot of things right, that's something we can carry into the next game."

It might be too late for all of this to matter this year, as the Oilers remain a longshot to make the playoffs, but it bodes well for the future to know that in addition to talent (five of Edmonton's top 10 scoring leaders are rookies, Cogliano, Gagner, Nilsson, Tom Gilbert and Kyle Brodziak, there's plenty of heart behind those hands.

"We still battled for each other, that's really positive," said Nilsson. "Sammy is playing unreal right now. Cogs has his legs, it's fun to see when the younger guys play like they do."

LAD GETS MAD: LADISLAV SMID'S EDGIER SIDE IS SHOWING, TOO. NOBODY THOUGHT OF HIM AS A PHYSICAL DEFENCEMAN WHEN HE FIRST BROKE INTO THE LEAGUE, BUT HE'S A BIG GUY AND LATELY HE'S DECIDING TO PLAY UP TO HIS SIZE.

He's already had a couple scraps this year, including one in Calgary against Matthew Lombardi and is a lot more territorial about the front of Mathieu Garon's net.

"He's been playing that way for a while," said MacTavish. "He's a physical presence every night, and you need that. He's getting to be a nasty guy to play against. The opposition certainly knows when he's on the ice and he's going to back it up.

"It doesn't mean he's going to drop the gloves and fight on the first shift, but he's going to play a good physical game."

LEADING EDGE: IT'S NO COINCIDENCE THAT THE OILERS GREW A LITTLE TALLER AND PUT ON A FEW POUNDS OF MUSCLE WHEN ETHAN MOREAU CAME BACK FROM HIS INJURY. HE'S BEEN LEADING BY EXAMPLE AND INSISTING THAT EVERYONE ELSE, REGARDLESS OF SIZE, FOLLOW SUIT.

"It's kind of been our mantra here for a while," said Moreau. "We wanted to initiate the physical play. Just play tough and gritty and make up for the lack of offence we might have on some nights with the loss of (Shawn Horcoff, Raffi Torres and Sheldon Souray).

"We're just trying to play our game and make it hard for teams to play against us, which I think we did. We just didn't have the skill game that we needed."

Ironic, isn't it?


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