SUN Hockey Pool

Dawn of better times?

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:19 AM ET

It's been a long time since the Edmonton Oilers were on the ice so early.

Many players had to go back to their minor hockey days to recall going to the rink for an 8 a.m. practice.

"It's pretty early in the morning to get up," admitted Oilers forward Sam Gagner. "But I think in the long run, it's going to help us out when we get back on Dec. 26, and it's good for guys to get out of here early and go be with their families."

Despite beating the Phoenix Coyotes 4-2 Monday night at Rexall Place, the Oilers had one final skate before heading their separate ways for the two-day Christmas break.

Their schedule resumes on Boxing Day as they travel to face the Vancouver Canucks.

"It would have been easy to say to the guys last night after the game, 'See you on the 26th, ' but I don't think it would have done the 26th any help, having three days off," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish. "That's how finely tuned these guys are. It doesn't seem like much to be off for three days and come back to play a game, but it's a significant thing to overcome, being off the ice for a couple of days when you're finely tuned like that."

The early ice time yesterday allowed the team to begin their Christmas break a little earlier than usual.

A number of players have decided to return home and had flights to catch yesterday afternoon. The rest were just anxious to get their holiday season underway.

"I have to go back double-digit years for sure, to remember the last time I was putting on gear at 7:30 a.m.," said Oilers centre Shawn Horcoff. "It's been a while, but it's good. I'll be getting home by 9:30 a.m., and hopefully my kids will be good to their mom and they'll be sleeping in."

GOOD MOOD

Winning their final game before the Christmas break had the Oilers in a good mood during the brief practice. Had they lost against the Coyotes, it's very likely they would have had an intense practice involving a lot of skating.

"Just seeing the feeling in the dressing room, it's going to make it easier to enjoy Christmas," Horcoff said. "As much as you like to take some days off and get a mental break, it's hard to when hockey is your job and that's the first thing you think about when you get up in the morning.

"But when you win the last one, it's always easier. We needed that. We've had a lot of ups and downs so far this season. Everyone, outside of Hemmer (Ales Hemsky) has been up and down. We have to find a way to get everyone consistently playing a good game or at least two-thirds of the lineup on a given night. If we can do that, we'll be a lot more successful in the second half."

The Oilers are heading into the break a game over .500 but nowhere near their projections at the start of the season.

A number of players have been unable to find the form that made them so successful last year and the coaching staff is under immense pressure to bring it all together.

MacTavish has instructed the players not to think about hockey for the next three days, allowing them an opportunity to recharge mentally. It's probably pretty good advice for the coaching staff as well.

'GET AWAY FROM IT'

"It's hard not to be thinking about hockey a little bit," MacTavish said. "But I'm going to try and practise what I preach, get away from it and enjoy a couple of days with the family."

Following the break, the Oilers will have four games before the new year. Then in January, they'll play nine of their 12 games at home, giving them an opportunity to get back in the race for a division title.

"It's been a tough year, there has been a lot of pressure and a lot of inconsistency throughout the year," MacTavish said. "That largely falls on the shoulders and the responsibility of the players.

"For them, it'll be good just to get away from it a little bit.

"It's a day-to-day grind at this level, especially when you're not winning as much as we should be. Maybe a couple of days away is the best medicine right now."


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