SUN Hockey Pool

Top line sputtering for Oilers

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

Take away Ales Hemsky and Edmonton's first line is bound to sag, that's no surprise, but at times during his five-game absence it's looked like bikini night at the old folks home.

Hemsky went down Dec. 28 in Nashville and since then Shawn Horcoff and Dustin Penner have combined for one goal.

On the power play, an area that let them down in Wednesday's 4-2 loss to Vancouver, they've scored once in 17 opportunities.

Penner has a goal and an assist and is minus six in the five games. Horcoff has been better, five assists, but is still minus five over the same stretch.

If the old adage about making sure you get more than you give up is true, Line One is hurting more than it's helping lately.

"Obviously losing Hemmer was a big loss for the team and for me and Horc as a line," said Penner. "We worked really hard to develop the chemistry we had, and it's been missing.

"Everybody else has to play 3 or 5% better and hopefully that makes up for what we lost in Hemmer."

They've definitely struggled to find the right fit since Jordin Tootoo hit Hemsky into the training room. Liam Reddox played a few games, then there was Wednesday's short-lived experiment with Gilbert Brule. Neither combination worked.

Erik Cole, who had zero luck on the left side of the first line earlier this year, looked a lot better on his natural right side in the third period Wednesday, scoring a goal and bringing the unit to life, although not in time to save the game.

Head coach Craig MacTavish isn't sure if he'll leave Cole there or put him back with Sam Gagner and Robert Nilsson, a trio that's been very good for a few weeks now. But he clearly needs more from his No.1 line, and it's incumbent on Horcoff and Penner to deliver regardless of who's playing with them.

"It's not going to be as productive without Ales, we all know that,"said MacTavish. "Gilbert, it was a tall task for him to be in such a prominent role at this stage; his game isn't suited to that level of responsibility when you play against the Sedins. And Pens wasn't skating early, so it was a real stretch; Horc had to work both ends of the ice.

"It's hard for Horc when he doesn't have the support. We definitely need Pens playing the game that he can play."

Penner will be the first to tell you that. He had a great night in Dallas, pounding Landon Wilson, scoring a goal and playing hard all night, but he hasn't been around much the last two games.

"I have to get into it right away instead of (easing in)," he said. "I have to be ready from the drop of the puck."

Hemsky rode the bike Wednesday night and felt well enough to ride again yesterday, but a return tonight against San Jose might be wishful thinking.

"Just the sign that he was on the bike is a good sign," said MacTavish. "We'll see his progress, but we're probably still a little ways away."

Horcoff, bothered by a bad back, is playing a ton of minutes, 23 or 24 some nights, which has to be wearing him down.

He missed the morning skate before the Islanders game and didn't practise yesterday. He says they all just have to grind their way through this.

"Hemmer's close now, hopefully, and with (Fernando Pisani) close to coming back, maybe after the all-star break, things are looking pretty good," he said. "We just need to weather this right now."


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