Watching the Oilers can be like watching a kid on the bumper car ride.
When he’s jacked up on cotton candy, going in a straight line and gaining speed, he looks like Paul Tracy.
Then he takes a few hits, gets a little disoriented, gets boxed in the corner, turns right and the car goes left, can’t make it go … and suddenly he turns into Nancy Kerrigan on the hallway floor.
The Oilers haven’t shed any tears over this season — there’s no crying in hockey — but they are certainly an emotional weather vane.
When they’re up, their skates barely touch the ice, like in those back-to-back wins over Dallas and Montreal. When they’re down, the slightest little thing can send them into a manic-depressive funk and you get what happened against Anaheim and Ottawa, and to a lesser degree in the 4-16-3 stretch before that.
“I think it has something to do with age,” said netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, the oldest player on the team. “A lot of times when you’re young, you win a game and you think that you’re playing great. You lose a game and think you’re playing terrible. You don’t get into specifics, you don’t analyze games properly.
“So momentum can really change from game to game and even shift to shift.”
It doesn’t matter how good you are or how long you’ve been playing, whether you’re Tiger Woods or Linus Omark, lost confidence is a real issue in sports — there is an entire industry dedicated to mental teeter-totters in the big leagues. And few teams are at the mercy of their emotions more than the roller-coaster riding, bumper-car driving Oilers.
“You never want to lose that confidence but sometimes it’s just inevitable,” said Sam Gagner. “With the market we’re in it’s just the way things go — the highs feel more high and the lows feel more low and we all have expectations for ourselves and for each other as a team.
“Sometimes that pressure can get the best of you. You have to learn to handle it. You have to learn how to lay off yourself at times and focus on what you’re good at.”
This season has forced all of them, young and old alike, to strengthen their will, because there were times when Rocky Balboa would have said ‘No mas.’
“I’m sure if anybody were being brutally honest … they would tell you there have been times when it’s just been crap,” said head coach Tom Renney. “It hasn’t been as much fun as we wanted it to be, it hasn’t been as successful as we wanted it to be.
“Losing is brutal, that’s the bottom line. You can’t dress it up at the end of the day. You can ask guys to give everything of themselves, to play hard and to practise hard, but it has to equate to more than just ‘I gave it my all today.’ ”
Management wanted to change the mood, and the type of guys who affect that mood, so that if (when) things went south this season there wouldn’t be a toxic cloud in the room.
It might be working. It took a pair of scoldings from the coach and GM, but they’ve pulled out of what looked like a hopeless tailspin.
“When you go through a long stretch like that it begins to wear on you, and being a young team we’re still working our way through it, learning to handle it the best we can,” said Gagner. “That’s the biggest part of the game. If you can learn to be mentally strong and battle through the different things in a game you’re going to be successful.
“You look at Wayne Gretzky, he’s a mental giant. He was able to be so successful because he just kept pushing through no matter what the circumstance was. I think our team is getting better at that.”