Oilers ready for a run

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

It doesn't take long to recognize the Oilers who've been here a while - they're the ones soaking up the view from this season's stretch drive. They're the ones savouring deep breaths and admiring up the scenery.

That's understandable, of course, since typically at this time of year all the Oilers ever see are other teams' butts.

They've never needed a mirror for their annual rear view.

That's what happens when you always begin the race in 12th or 13th spot; the sights, sounds, and, yes, even the smells, are never quite as pleasant.

IN GOOD POSITION

This time, however, Edmonton's starting blocks aren't located at the bottom of the Western Conference barrel. It won't take a miraculous charge just to get a whiff of that eighth place team.

"This time we're right there," said centre Kyle Brodziak. "It's as tight as you can get and we're right in the thick of things. It's important that you're not looking up, not chasing teams, because that's when things are out of your control.

"That's the biggest difference this time; you're a lot more in control when you're in the position that we're in right now. If we keep winning we're in the driver's seat."

This is traditionally the strongest surge of Edmonton's season. Last year they went 14-5-1 down the stretch, starting with a Feb. 24 win over Colorado. In 2003-04 they went 13-3-7; In 2002-03 they went 10-3-4; In 2001-02 they went 12-4-4.

The only years they didn't have great finishes were 2005-06 (when they went 9-5-3 but got in and advanced to the final), and two years ago when they were so depleted by injuries you can't even count it.

Otherwise, this is their time.

"It seems like very familiar territory for us because we've been in this situation so many times," said head coach Craig MacTavish. "You can draw on those experiences and hopefully that helps you perform better under the pressures."

It's a lot more refreshing when you're not facing insurmountable odds, but there's a flip side to that. During all those valiant charges of the past, the Oilers had nothing to lose. This time they do.

There's a lot more pressure knowing a playoff spot is pretty much theirs to lose, and if they lose it it's going to get filed under 'Choke Job.'

"It's exciting, it's the way you want to play the game, with as much on the line as possible," said MacTavish, who admits this is a much different charge. "We were out of it last year and we drew ourselves back into it, so maybe we were a little looser than we are right now."

But this time they won't have to win 16 or 17 of their last 22. MacTavish figures a five-game win streak, then .500 the rest of the way should be good enough to get them in. It's a formidable mountain for a team that hasn't won four in a row since October, but it's doable.

"We all know it's crunch time," said Andrew Cogliano, who provided the signature moments of last year's charge, scoring three consecutive overtime winners in early March. "And as of right now we're in a really good spot. A lot of guys are playing very well right now, and guys who weren't playing as well as they wanted to early on are starting to pick it up.

"We're getting a few guys back from injury ... for the most part everything is falling into place."

FRIENDLY SCHEDULE

Including the schedule, which is set up for them like bowling pins on Fred Flintstone's favourite lane. Nine of the next 12 are against teams below the playoff cutline. Six of their last seven are at home.

"It's favourable," said Cogliano. "We have a lot of home games, which is a plus. Our big trip is against teams that have been struggling. I think we're in a very good spot for the playoffs. It's up to us."

ROBERT.TYCHKOWSKI@SUNMEDIA.CA


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