Magical mystery tour for Oil

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:28 AM ET

Admit it, you're almost tempted to look at the standings again.

The Edmonton Oilers, who've been counted out more times than the Swiss national boxing team, are still hanging around, determined to make the final nine games of the season interesting ... if not stunning.

This month was supposed to be a funeral March, remember? Sheldon Souray, Shawn Horcoff, Ethan Moreau and Raffi Torres were out for the season and the Oilers were stranded in 14th place, some 11 points out of a playoff spot. All that was really being asked of the bedraggled leftovers was that they be respectable down the stretch, don't embarrass themselves like they did last year.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Well, 9-2 in their last 11 is pretty respectable.

And now, against every odds you'd care to imagine, they're close enough to make a real, honest to goodness run for the playoffs.

"I really don't know exactly how we've done it, but we have," said defenceman Steve Staios, eyeing a set of standings that had the Oilers just five back of eighth place Vancouver heading into last night's action.

"This group here deserves a lot of credit for getting ourselves in this situation, being able to play some big games down the stretch. And we feel confident that if we continue to prepare for each game like we have, we're going to be there in the end."

With head-to-head games against the teams directly ahead of them (Phoenix tonight, Vancouver on Thursday and Colorado on Saturday), the Oilers could close the gap on eighth to virtually nothing.

Amazing.

Or they could be out of it altogether.

Either way, it makes for some pretty exciting, high-stakes hockey.

"This week could really tell us what's going to happen with our season," said Dwayne Roloson, who nudged the Oilers into this position with back-to-back victories in Phoenix and San Jose. "We win these games and we're right back in there. What other way would you want it?"

Meaningful hockey in March is more than anyone thought possible a few weeks ago, when the only thing piled higher than the broken bodies were the losses.

"The guys are getting more and more realistic, that there's definitely a shot at making the playoffs," said Curtis Glencross.

"It's going to be exciting here coming down the stretch. It's crunch time. Hopefully we can get in there. I think we can surprise a lot of people if we do get in there."

Last year, in a striking similar situation, the Oilers were 2-18 down the stretch. This time, buoyed by youthful enthusiasm and strong goaltending, they're on the climb.

"You have to give the young guys a lot of credit," said Roloson. "From the beginning of the year to now they've really grown. They're playing great hockey right now, hopefully we veterans can jump on their back and go with them."

But in getting to this point, the Oilers could play free and easy, with nothing to lose. All that's changed now. Now there's as much pressure on them as on the teams they're trying to track down in what amounts to a three-game playoff series with the Coyotes, Canucks and Avs.

"We're going to be playing a lot of hungry teams down the stretch and if we start looking too far ahead we're not going to do ourselves any favours," said Staios.

"It's just another test. We know our fans are going to be behind us. Getting into this situation, where the games mean a lot, we can feed off the energy of the crowd."

PLAYOFF ATMOSPHERE

However this plays out, the mere fact the Oilers managed to create a playoff atmosphere this late in the season is a credit to the character and resilience of a team that everyone had left for dead.

"Honestly, I always think that we're going to get there, somehow, some way," said Staios. "We've done some pretty crazy things here with this team.

"It's been a tough grind, especially mentally, but we're in a good spot here and it's going to be exciting playing these games.

"The sun's out, it's a little bit warmer - it brings back some good memories."


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