Changed Oilers buying in

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:00 AM ET

None of it really makes sense.

They needed more grit, and added none.

They needed more goals, and added none.

They needed faceoff men, and added none.

And in the one area where they didn't need help, in goal, they ditched last year's MVP and flew in a Russian with a fat new contract.

Yet here they are, 5-2-1 and playing with enough grit to sand a barn, scoring goals whenever they need them, winning more draws than they're losing and above all, wondering how they ever got along without Nikolai Khabibulin.

It doesn't make sense.

How can the same old team look and feel so different?

Tom Renney's short answer: Because it had to.

It was either work together and get better, or go back to the way it's been the last three years, and nobody wanted that.

So, with no alternative but to address their weaknesses internally, they did.

Guys like J-F Jacques, Gilbert Brule, Ryan Stone and a refocused Dustin Penner, all who were invisible last year, either because they never got a look or weren't worth looking at, are now making an impact, and everyone else is getting caught up in the wave.

"We all understand as a staff that this is our team," said the associate coach. "Far be it for us to run to Steve (Tambellini) and ask him to change this and change that, get this guy and that guy. This is our team.

"As a coaching staff, you should pay attention to what's in front of you and that only. It's all a part of nurturing.

"Sometimes it's tough love and sometimes it's an arm around a guy, that's coaching.

"And these players understand that there's some responsibility to be borne by them with respect to a head coach losing employment and a fan base that had become pretty disappointed with them and a management team that held their feet to the fire.

"So I think we have a captive audience, and any team that gives themselves up to coaching has a much better chance to succeed."

They're definitely buying in. Even though Pat Quinn is constantly ripping on them for a whole myriad of mistakes that generally take place when you're being outshot by a 2-to-1 margin, they love coming to the rink.

Penner says last year he didn't have the nerve to even try the rush that led to his highlight goal against Minnesota, where he skated it out of his own end for what amounted to a 200-foot by 85-foot give-and-go across the middle of the ice.

"The way the coaches are here is: 'We'll give you the leeway to make those mistakes, but you have to be a guy who gets back and makes up for it,' " shrugged the poster boy for this team's change of direction. "It's a lot of fun when you want the puck on your stick and you're not afraid to make mistakes."

They still need all kinds of work. They know they can't keep giving up 40 shots a night over the long haul. But they already seem much more resilient, much stronger mentally.

Any other Oilers team blows two of its first three games at home to Calgary -- one at 19:11, the other at 19:58 -- and the weight of it would crush their entire month. They'd be scared to take the ice.

These guys have it in perspective before they leave the rink.

"We're not oblivious to the fact that we have some work to do," said Renney, who compares the process to casting a broken arm. "The team had been broken, so we had to cast it with structure, accountability and a game plan. A new cast is a pain in the ass, it's uncomfortable, you wanted to take it off because it was cumbersome. At the same time you are healing.

"That's what we're doing right now, we're a team that's healing from within. It's a good sign and it's a testament to the players that the responsibility falls on them, too."

ROBERT.TYCHKOWSKI@SUNMEDIA.CA

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