Oilers need to stay nasty

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

The Edmonton Oilers used to be known as Team Cupcake, and it had nothing to do with icing.

They were a sweet spot on the schedule.

They didn't generate offence, they didn't play tough, they didn't protect home ice like they should and they didn't even seem to mind much when opponents took liberties with their skill guys.

In short, they didn't do anything to make anyone the least bit nervous about coming to Edmonton.

The weather here was scarier than the Oilers -- and Ales Hemsky had the bumps and bruises to prove it.

Lately, though, through an airlift of muscle, a new look on defence and an edgier attitude throughout the lineup, they've become a bit of a pain.

"They definitely have a physical presence over there," noticed Dallas agitator Steve Ott, who got knocked over by Dwayne Roloson and swarmed by a handful of Oilers after running Tom Gilbert on Thursday.

"They have a tough, physical team. It starts with Ethan Moreau. There are only a few of those leaders in the league, like Moreau or Jarome Iginla, who bring it on a nightly basis. When you have him kind of leading the way, he drags a lot of guys in. That's where the mentality starts from."

REPLACED

With injured defencemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Denis Grebeshkov replaced by Theo Peckham and Jason Strudwick, and winger J.F. Jacques replacing Marc Pouliot, a lineup that already included Zack Stortini, Sheldon Souray, Ladislav Smid, Ethan Moreau, Steve Staios and Steve MacIntyre got that much tougher.

The Oilers' offence still won't put a knock in anyone's knees, but at least, when you play them now, you usually know you've been in a game.

"We were a little bit on our heels earlier in the season,"said Staios. "We're playing with a little bit more aggression now, which can help with momentum changes and more confidence as a group. And we have the personnel to do that.

"The guys who've come in, and the guys who were in the lineup before, are playing with a little bit more of an edge.

"It took us a while to realize as a group what kind of an effect that has, and now that we've been playing like that we're seeing the kind of success that comes with it."

DIFFERENCE

Stortini, who fought three times in four games on Edmonton's last road trip, has definitely noticed a difference in the club lately.

"We've always had team toughness, but even moreso now with guys like J.F and Theo," he said.

"There are a lot of players here who bring a team toughness element. You can't do everything by yourself; we have a great group of guys here who can do the job."

But as the Ottawa Senators learned the hard way in so many playoffs, stocking the club with third and fourth-line muscle won't do you a lick of good if the guys playing 18 minutes a night are soft.

"It has to be a shared responsibility, for 20 guys to share the burden of being a hard physical team," said Craig MacTavish.

"We talked about that a lot all year, that we were not a hard team to play against. We're getting more consistent physical play out of everybody in our lineup and it's made a difference in the way we've played.

"Hopefully, that will reflect in a little bit more success at home, too. We talked about that a lot early in the year -- we weren't tough to play against.

"Now everybody's kind of just bought into the fact that they have to share in the responsibility of being hard."

They'll probably have to put some of that edge to use tonight when another one of the NHL's grittier clubs comes to town.

"It's always a tough game against Calgary," said Stortini.

"Those guys compete hard and it's always a physical, hard-fought battle. These games are fun to play in."

ROBERT.TYCHKOWSKI@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos