EDMONTON - Shawn Horcoff’s only wish when he injured his knee in the first week of December was that he wouldn’t have to come back as an arson investigator.
He wanted to be part of a playoff drive, not sift through smoking ruins in search of answers.
But wishes don’t always come true and as he prepares to make his return to the lineup Thursday against Dallas, Horcoff joins a team that’s up to its ash in problems.
“It’s been tough,” said Horcoff, admitting it’s a sick, helpless feeling to watch an entire year slip away in front of his eyes, 60 frustrating minutes at a time. “The only other time I’ve been hurt was season ending shoulder surgery (in 2008). That was different, I knew I was done for the whole season. It’s tough when you know you’re coming back and there’s lots of hockey left to be played. You feel bad, you want to be out there helping the guys, especially when they’re going through what they have been lately with their struggles.”
The Oilers had a 10-12-5 record when Horcoff injured his knee - the team he’s returning to is 14-24-7, too far out of the playoff race to even lie about having a chance. But the captain insists they’re not playing out a 37-game string here.
“Just because you’re put of the playoffs doesn’t mean you can’t put emphasis on hockey games and growth,” he said. “We have to be creative and find some ways to push each other. I don’t really buy the excuse that we’re out of the playoffs so we have nothing to play for. You have your job to play for.
“We’re professionals here and these kids are young, they’re just starting to learn, so every game should be a challenge. You have to get them experience and you do that by challenging them every game to be better.”
The Oilers are 10-10-4 with Horcoff in the lineup and 4-14-3 without him. But the problems run deep and they are without Ryan Whitney, Ales Hemsky and Jordan Eberle, so it remains to be seen what kind of an impact one player can make.
“I haven’t played in six weeks,” said Horcoff, who’ll wear a brace on his knee. “I’m not putting too many expectations on myself, just bring a lot more experience. I’m going to do my best to get guys prepared in here early to start games.
“If there’s any way we can start games better it will give us a lot better chance. We’re a great second and third period team. We have to prepare a little better at the start because it’s tough in this league when you fall behind.”
Same goes for a season.
Constant losing can cloud a hockey club’s thinking, and there’s no question the mood in the Oilers dressing room is sagging, but Horcoff thinks that any similarities between last year’s death march and the final three months of this year are purely coincidental.
“We’re human, (disappointment) is going to happen,” he said. “Guys want to win, people are going to get frustrated,” he said. “Last year it was ‘Where do we go from here?’ We had turmoil. This year it’s 180 degrees different, we’re building toward something.”
So while there is obviously some letdown in coming back to a team that’s out of the playoffs with 37 games to go, but it’s not all bad.
“I feel excitement, I think we’re close, we’re really close,” said Horcoff. “Obviously playoffs are going to be tough, but you have to work toward something going into the summer. “When you finish strong in a season it has a tendency to carry on for the next one. We want to go into the summer feeling good about ourselves.”