SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers running into trouble

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:23 AM ET

MONTREAL -- Can you fear the bums, Fernando?

Pisani and the rest of the Edmonton Oilers most certainly can.

They knew better than anyone else, long before the Ottawa Senators beat them Thursday and the Toronto Maple Leafs outshot them 40-18 Saturday, that there's nothing scarier in a playoff stretch drive than a loser with nothing left to lose.

"Those are scary teams because they can just relax and go out there and play," said Pisani. "Every team in the league is good to begin with, so there's no easy games for us anyway. Then you add the fact that these teams are playing without any pressure on them and they become very tough to beat."

Tell them about it.

Actually, no one needs to tell them anything. The Oilers were one of the scariest losers in the league when the pressure was off last March. They rattled off win after win after win, dancing through overtimes and shootouts like they were shinny games.

"There's something to be said for playing the game loosely," said head coach Craig MacTavish. "I don't like that position, I don't think anybody does, but those teams are dangerous. Ottawa is dangerous because they have some high-end players, Toronto is dangerous because they have guys who are getting an opportunity to play more."

The Oilers remember how free and easy it felt to be playing with house money last year, orchestrating that 14-5-1 run and climbing from 13th to within the shadow of a playoff spot.

"We were really enjoying ourselves, having fun and coming to the rink every day with a positive attitude," said Gagner. "When you're having that much fun it's easy to play loose. That's the kind of energy we need to find this year."

They'll need something because they're heading into a minefield of teams with nothing left to lose. After tomorrow night's game in Montreal - a team at the other end of the spectrum given the pressure associated with the Canadiens' 100th anniversary season - Edmonton gets four in a row against bottom feeders Atlanta, Colorado, St. Louis and Colorado.

OUT OF IT?

By the time they close out the month with Phoenix, Anaheim, Minnesota and Anaheim, those teams could be out of it, too.

Or, maybe it'll be the Oilers who crack under the pressure.

They like to think they gained a wealth of experience in last year's run for eighth, and they did gain some, but the stretch drive takes on an entirely different feel when you're on the bubble for 20 games.

Remember, when the Oilers got close enough to taste it in the final week of the season and they weren't playing with house money anymore, they lost three of four games and missed by three points.

Like Lee Trevino once said: The toughest putt he ever had to make was when he was about 15. It was a six-footer in a $10 game ... and he didn't have $10.

Sometimes the hardest games to win are the ones you can't afford to lose.

"I don't know if young guys completely understand that, but they're learning quick," said Steve Staios.

There's no question they're feeling more anxiety in this stretch drive, where everyone is living and dying with every win or loss.

EMBRACE THE RACE

"If you focus on the pressure too much it's not going to help you as a team," said Gagner, adding the Oilers need to embrace the race like they did last year. "We want to be in this situation, we want to be in the playoffs, we just have to find a way to focus our energy in the right spot and not worry about the pressures that come with being a playoff team."

"When we were playing our best hockey, guys were having fun and laughing, that's the kind of atmosphere you need to have now," added Pisani. "Right now, the standings are tight, but you can lose sight of the fact it's a game and you enjoy it."


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