SUN Hockey Pool

All in their heads?

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

The last thing the Oilers need right now is to be playing one of the best teams in the league.

The only thing worse would be playing one of the crummiest teams in the league.

OK, so you never know for sure what you're going to get with the Schizophrenia Gang.

They rise up and hand the Sharks one of only two home-ice losses this season, then they sit idly by while Ottawa waltzes into Edmonton and snaps a 12-game road losing streak at their expense.

One night they'll run the surging Dallas Stars right out of the building, and two days later let the lowly Islanders jump out to a 2-0 lead and have to get bailed out by the fourth line.

UP AND DOWN

All too often this season the Oilers have played up or down to the level of their opponent - more down than up lately, as recent losses to Calgary and Vancouver will attest - and it's turning into a recipe for disaster. Or, at least an early summer.

They end up losing gimmes to the dregs of the NHL and losing hard-fought heartbreakers to the elite. It's only halfway through the season and the Northwest Division title is already out of reach. Now, just making the playoffs seems a tall order.

"It's been an interesting year for us, some of the ways we're winning and some of the teams we're beating and some of the teams we're losing to, and the way we're losing," said defenceman Sheldon Souray, about the only player who shows up and plays hard every night.

"It's up to the guys who've been down this road before to show a little leadership and experience and a little consistency and everyone else will follow."

Tonight, with the first-place San Jose Sharks in town, and in full snarl after a beat-down in Calgary, we know the Oilers will come out hard. But will it be enough, or just another hard-fought loss rendered less tolerable by of all those gimmes they should have drained.

"We can't concern ourselves with the other teams," said Dustin Penner. "It shouldn't matter what the other team brings, or who's on the other team."

Yet it seems to.

"If we can just tidy up a few of the details in our game and have that competitive level raised, we'll find that consistency," said Souray. "But if we come in and think it's going to be an easy night because we're playing the Islanders or Ottawa, we're going to be in trouble."

"Obviously it's all mental," adds Penner. "It's not like we go out there thinking, 'OK, let's play to their level.' "

Although, that might be a good game plan tonight.

"We have to keep doing what we're doing against the better teams," said Sam Gagner. "We're playing well, we're playing up to their level. I shouldn't even say up to their level because we're a really good team, too.

"We just need to bring that same level of focus every game if we're going to get over that hump. We know we're a good team and we know we can play with any team in this league, we just have to keep the consistency."

In the Sharks, however, Edmonton might be biting off more than it can chew. They're tough enough as it is without coming off a loss and a bag skate.

TOUGH CHALLENGE

"We all know what we're faced with," said head coach Craig MacTavish, whose club mailed in the first 40 minutes of Wednesday's loss to Vancouver. "But I welcome the challenge. It's exactly what we need. They're a big, strong team that's going to get the puck to the tough areas. We have to battle and that's exactly what we need to do. It's going to be a good measuring stick for our team."

Huge.

"They're all important, there's no fuel that needs to be added to the fire," said Souray. "Every day we get our motivation by looking at the standings and not being in a playoff spot."


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