SUN Hockey Pool

Now or never for Oilers

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

After all the carping, complaining, bitching, moaning, nagging and knocking during this mostly sorry season, it had to be somewhat sobering for Edmonton Oilers fans to look at the standings every day for the past week.

Every day during the all-star break they stayed the same.

Sixth place. Twenty-four wins. Nineteen losses.

One overtime loss. Two shootout losses.

Fifty-one points.

What are they doing up there? How did this happen?

The Oilers return tonight against the Buffalo Sabres in just about the best shape Craig MacTavish has ever had his hockey club coming off the all-star break.

In 2006, the Oilers were 30-20-8 at the Olympic break (there was no all-star game), and ended up in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.

Even MacTavish admits it felt strange to be breathing such rare air at the break , considering the way they had their lips wrapped around the tailpipes.

"It was a pretty tumultuous start for the team right through to Game 46," said MacTavish after a player-friendly 3 p.m. practice yesterday.

"We look OK in the standings. We're poised and in good position. We were playing pretty well going into the break.

GAMES IN HAND

"We've got games in hand on most of the teams around us, and we're in all right shape to take advantage.

"Last year at the break, if the wheels hadn't fallen off, they were down to the rims and we were down to an axle and a half."

If one is to continue the negativity associated with this season, I suppose one could carp that it was a damn lousy time for an all-star break to come along.

Before they were so rudely interrupted, the Oilers were 7-3 since rebooting the season entering the new year.

Edmonton is 4-1 in the second half of the season and 2-0 since finally slaying the tree-headed monster in goal.

With a three-game winning streak, three-game home winning streak, six wins in their last seven and Ales Hemsky returning from 10 games out of the lineup to score two goals in each of his first two back, the break interrupted the team's best hockey of the season.

It also interrupted the only fun the players and fans have had together in a season which had been seriously short of entertainment value for season ticket holders.

"It was a nice way to go into the break," was MacTavish's spin on it after he gave them a break, deciding not to try skating the rust off them.

"Rob Daum came to me and said 'You asked me to remind you not to skate the guys next year like you did.'

"Last year, we came back with a stinker."

Two stinkers, actually. A 3-0 loss and a 4-1 loss. Two of those again and they'll be right back where they were.

This is a team ranked 17th on the power play, 25th in shots against, 27th in face-off percentage, 27th in shots on goal and 28th in penalty killing.

Those are not a set of statistics on which to project significant success.

They've also now pretty much used up the 10 extra home games they had in the bank back in late November.

When the Oilers play host to the Minnesota Wild on Friday night, they'll have played 24 games at home and 24 on the road.

FIVE AGAINST WILD

But heading into the final 36 games of the season, the Oilers have 19 games to play against teams currently out of a playoff position -- although that includes five against Minnesota, which sits only two points back of Edmonton, Vancouver and Anaheim tied for sixth, seventh and eighth.

Eleven of the Oilers' remaining games are against divisional opponents.

It's all there for them.

"It was good to get a break but it's good to get back, too," said Shawn Horcoff.

"We feel we've been building something here. We want to pick up where we left off."

Captain Ethan Moreau said it's been a case of high expectations.

"I started to notice we were playing a lot of games where people were talking about how well the other team was playing and how poorly we were playing, and yet we had a similar record."

But that was then and this is now.

"This is the time of year where you start to get some separation. We have to get some separation now," said Moreau.

"It seems like there's always been so much anxiety looking at the standings coming down the stretch every year I've been here.

"It would be nice not to have that."


Photos