It's gettin' crowded!

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:19 PM ET

LOS ANGELES -- It's like being stuck on an over-crowded elevator. With people you don't like. For two months.

The Western Conference stretch drive is no place for the claustrophobic.

With six points separating fifth and 13th place heading into last night's games, you've got nine teams trying to cram into four spots like fat clowns in a Volkswagen.

Every game is do or die. Every road trip is the biggest road trip of the year.

Lose two in a row, it's the end of the world. Win two in a row and you're flying Jaromir Jagr over from Russia.

So, as the Oilers open the... wait for it... biggest road trip of the year -- four games in six days in Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose and Dallas -- they're quite prepared for the emotional volatility that will be tracking them every step of the way.

"I've never seen the league like this, how tight it is," said captain Ethan Moreau.

"The stress level is pretty high. You try to deal with it and not think about it, but in the market that we live in, you can't get away from it. There's no easy way to deal with it; just play hard."

Or else. Because there are no easy marks in the NHL anymore.

Chicago is good now. Columbus is good now. Everybody is beating everybody.

Los Angeles, which finished with 71 points last year and 68 the year before that, used to be everybody's favourite road trip - nice weather, palm trees, easy wins.

Not anymore.

It's pouring rain here, and at 7-2-1 in their last 10, the Kings are one of the hottest teams in the NHL.

"It's a sign of the times," said Dustin Penner. "You have to watch your back for everybody; the teams in front of you, the teams behind you.

"And we're right in the middle of the pack, so there's 30 more playoff games to go."

It's not easy keeping their sanity, but so far the Oilers have done a decent job of not getting caught up in the euphoria when things are going well, or the panic and despair when things are going poorly.

"You have to break it down to one game at a time," said Steve Staios.

"It's the biggest cliche in the world, but it's the mentality you need to have to save energy and keep yourself up for the game. If you look too far ahead, or if you look back at all, you're going to wear yourself out."

"I think it's more exciting than it is nerve-wracking," added Penner. "And the suspense will build even more as the games whittle down. We're doing everything in here possible to be on the right side of that."

A winning trip would help, but it won't come easy given that San Jose, Dallas and L.A. are a combined 19-7-4 in their last 10.

Even the Coyotes, perennial doormats in the West, are still in the chase, just three points behind Edmonton.

"Aside from San Jose, the other teams we play are all right in the mix, right in the hunt with us," said Kyle Brodziak.

"These are all teams that we're right in the battle with, and I think it's going to say a lot about our team how we respond to the challenge of the four-game trip."

The next six days will also go a long way to helping management decide how to approach the impending trade deadline. A great trip tells them to try and load up for the playoffs, a bad trip might move them into the sellers' bracket.

"We have to play like it's the playoffs," said Ladislav Smid. "There's a lot of teams that want to be in those playoff spots, so when you're playing them head-to-head like this, you have to take advantage."

Or they will.

"It's the way the league is set up now, every team is so close, from 15th to about fourth or fifth in the conference," said Brodziak.

"You can't throw away two points at any time in the season or it will come back and bite you for sure."


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