SUN Hockey Pool

Gagner is finding his game

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

A quick look at the standings reveals the Edmonton Oilers are worse off now than they were prior to departing on last week's three-game road trip.

Despite picking up three points on their travels through St. Louis, Detroit and Minnesota, the Oilers have slipped in the Western Conference standings and currently find themselves out of the playoff picture.

Yet it's not all doom and gloom.

To get back in the race, the Oilers have to start stringing some wins together, which has been an issue so far this season and could continue with four of their next five games on the road.

But it's not yet at the point where they're going to have to put together an improbable run like they did towards the end of last season.

At this time last year, the Oilers were two games under .500, they had just lost their top centre in Shawn Horcoff and decided to shut down their most dangerous defenceman in Sheldon Souray, who needed shoulder surgery.

The playoffs looked completely out of reach, yet by winning 16 of their last 25 games, the Oilers nearly snuck into the post-season, falling three points short.

This year, the club is three games over the break-even mark with 29 games left.

The Oilers host the Montreal Canadiens tomorrow, then head out on a western excursion that will take them through Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Dallas.

Three of those games are against teams they're competing with for those final playoff spots in the conference. The other is against the powerful San Jose Sharks.

Despite having lost four of their last five games, there are signs that a turnaround is possible.

"I think the battle level is there, we're playing with a lot of intensity," said Oilers centre Sam Gagner.

"This (Minnesota) was a tough game to lose. We had a lot of chances, but their goaltender played well and made some really good saves and they were able to pull out the win. But we have to bounce back, put in another good effort in our next game and hopefully come out with a better result."

Gagner scored the tying goal in Sunday's 3-2 shootout loss to the Wild.

"Sam is starting to play well ... he's starting to get his game going," said head coach Craig MacTavish.

"At this level the league is too tough, you have to have help and you have to be on top of your game. Now Bobby Nilsson is going well, Sam is going well and that line is going well with Erik Cole on it."

Against the Wild, Gagner showed some of the form that made him such an integral part of Edmonton's offence last season.

Until recently, this year has been a struggle for the sophomore forward, who's had trouble dealing with the added expectations and increased attention.

But if the Oilers are going to make a move up the standings, they'll need Gagner and the rest of the youngsters to start producing. With Souray, Horcoff and Erik Cole, they have a better supporting cast; it's just a matter of getting all of them on the same page.

It's evident the Oilers aren't good enough to pull out victories without all cylinders firing and they're going to need Gagner, Nilsson and Andrew Cogliano to step it up a notch.

"It takes everybody; you can't have two-and-a-half guys on a line playing," MacTavish said.

"You have to have three guys ... and I see that hunger again. Sam's making a lot of plays and a lot of it is confidence.

"Confidence is a big part of it for young players. They all have to play together."


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