SUN Hockey Pool

Road trip a real test for Oilers

After playing eight of their first 11 games at home, the Oilers are leaving on an extended road...

After playing eight of their first 11 games at home, the Oilers are leaving on an extended road trip that will test whether the team's current success is for real. (Codie McLachlan, QMI Agency)

Robert Tychkowski, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:42 PM ET

With 10 of their next 12 games on the road, this is where the Edmonton Oilers find out if they’re for real.

It’s been an out-of-this-world start for the two-time cellar dwellers, but with eight of their first 11 at home, it’s hard to suggest that all of the evidence is in.

These next 12, however, will tell the tale.

“I think so,” said defenceman Tom Gilbert, as the Oilers readied themselves for a six-game, 12-day road trip, followed by a two-game homestand, followed by four road games in six days.

“We have some young guys who haven’t experienced this kind of schedule before and we’re playing some challenging teams in their buildings. It’s going to be a pretty tough stretch.

“And based on how we do, how we play, how we compete in other people’s buildings, it’s going to be a deciding factor in how we finish this year.”

If they make it through this stretch with a winning record, they should start booking those playoff dates. And that’s not an optimistic overstatement — since 1993, 77.5% of teams that held a playoff spot at U.S. Thanksgiving (Nov. 24) ended up making the playoffs at the end of the season.

“This is a big run for us. This road trip might make or break our season,” said winger Taylor Hall. “And by the end of November we’re playing 14 games in 27 days; it doesn’t get any easier.”

It’s an important proving ground not just for the team, but for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who’ll be making his first extended road swing of the year.

So far he’s had a pretty easy go of it, with head coach Tom Renney picking and choosing his spots. That will be less of an option on the road, where opposition coaches will sic their biggest and best defenders on him.

“It’s my first big road trip ever in the NHL, so it’s going to be key for me to try and get in there and just keep playing my game,” said the 18-year-old. “I’m going to see some different defencemen that I’ve never played against before and in some buildings that I’ve never played in before.

“When you’re at home the fans are all for you. On the road it’s completely different — they get the last change, the atmospheres of the rinks will be a lot different. I’ll have to prepare myself for that.

“It’s going to be a really big month for us.”

Last change, last into the face-off dots, travel schedule — all of the things Edmonton had in its corner for eight of the first 11 are working for the other side now. But the emotion in the buildings might be the toughest thing for a young emotional team to overcome.

“Fans do play a huge role,” said Tom Gilbert, looking ahead to rowdy venues like Montreal, Boston and Chicago. “It’s funny how sports works — if a team gets momentum at home the ball just seems to keep rolling for them and things just seem to go their way.

“It’s like an adrenaline rush sometimes. If you can balance that when you’re playing on the road, block the crowd out, just go out there and focus on your game, it just gives you a better chance.”

Nugent-Hopkins says he’s most looking forward to Montreal.

“You watch the games and see how crazy it is in there,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty fun going there and playing in that atmosphere.”

As for the last-change stuff, Hall says Edmonton’s balance might make that less of an issue than it’s been in the past.

“Horc and Smytty are playing great and Hemmer is coming back soon,” he said. “This isn’t a one-line team by any stretch. Our team is getting a lot of respect in a lot of different categories for a lot of good reasons.”

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca

@SUN_TYCHKOWSKI


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