Here for a long time

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:37 AM ET

The Edmonton Oilers official game plan for the next two months, without getting too technical, is something along the lines of "get while the gettin's good."

At home for the better part of eight long weeks - just six road games between now and February 3 - the Oilers are keenly aware that this is the stretch of their season that will define them as a team.

Contenders? Pretenders? It will all be laid bare over the next 24 games, 18 of which will take place in front of the supportive, and highly judgmental, fans at Rexall Place.

According to popular theory, this is where the nitrous oxide is supposed to kick in and the well-rested Oilers rocket up the standings on a wave of crowd support and home cooking.

But as the players are also keenly aware, it just isn't going to happen. Home ice helps, but it doesn't work miracles. All the nagging little issues that troubled them before will not suddenly disappear just because Paul Loreau is singing the national anthem.

They've spent the last four days warning each other about the dangers of exhaling after the ridiculously scheduled first 26 games and waiting for the points to come to them now that they're at home. How many of them actually heed those warnings will be evident tonight, when they open the marathon homestand against the Florida Panthers, a non-playoff team that's a long way from home.

"There is a risk of feeling a little bit relaxed, that the hardest part of the schedule is over with," said captain Ethan Moreau, who's well aware of Edmonton's propensity for turning in a stinker at the most inopportune moment. "We've shown time and time again how hard it is to win in this league. We've beaten some really good teams and lost to some lesser teams. We definitely learned a lesson in that regard - regardless of who comes in here it's going to be a tough test for us."

Especially now that the expectations and resulting pressure are about to be ramped up significantly.

Playing at home can keep a club fresh and secure, but it can't kill penalties, cure sophomore jinxes, fix an overpopulation problem in goal or overcome slow starts. All that is up to the Oilers, who have nowhere to go but up.

"That's the plan," said defenceman Steve Staios. "Nobody's really satisfied with where we are. We have some strong expectations for each other in this room. We can look back at the schedule and maybe find some reasons why we are where we are, but the bottom line is we aren't where we want to be."

But they absolutely have to be there by Feb. 3 or the season is lost. And it has to start now.

"We're at home for quite some time, so we can eliminate that as a possible reason for poor performance," said head coach Craig MacTavish, who senses a little more fire in the horses the last few days. "I sure noticed a lot more energy and a lot more jump than what we had in the first couple months of the season."

Edmonton's home record this year is only 3-3-2, which might be partially attributed to the fact that many of those home games were one-nighters after they flew in from the road. Or not.

We're about to find out.

"We definitely want to come out with more energy at home," said Staios.

"We want to get our fans into the game early. They don't just get into it because they're there, they want to see us do some good things, compete and play hard. If we can get off to better starts at home, that will take us a long way."

In addition to "get while the gettin's good," Staios, like most of his teammates, believes in another old adage: that which doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

And having survived 18 of their first 26 on the road, he says, left them all the more dangerous coming home.

"There's been a lot of times in the season where we felt we had to pick things up, challenge each other and hold each other accountable," he said.

"We had some good character wins and those are the kinds of things that help a team build."


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