SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers enjoy not sucking

Edmonton Oilers' Jordan Eberle (L) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins celebrate a goal against the Minnesota...

Edmonton Oilers' Jordan Eberle (L) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins celebrate a goal against the Minnesota Wild on November 30, 2011. (REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber)

Robert Tychkowski, Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:05 AM ET

It’s December in Edmonton and nobody is embarrassed to look at the standings.

Two months into the season and they need wins for the points, not the learning experience.

After back-to-back years in 30th place, when the season would be over right about now, the Oilers have rediscovered what it’s like to not suck.

And it’s kind of fun.

“It’s energizing,” said Sam Gagner. “There were times toward the end of last year, and the year before, that when you came to the rink you knew no matter how good you played you were not getting out of 30th place.

“That can be frustrating at times. You try and keep your head up but it does weigh on you.

“This year it’s definitely been more fun coming to the rink knowing we have a shot every night and if we play our best hockey, chances are we’re going to win.”

The dark cloud is lifting and so is the weight on their shoulders. Shawn Horcoff, for one, has been waiting a long time for an atmosphere like this.

“It was hard the last two years when you’re out of it by now and you’re, like, ‘(Bleep) four more months of this,’ ” he said. “How do I find motivation? Especially as the captain. You’re going to games and nobody’s saying anything, but you owe it to the fans and you owe it to yourself to be professional and to find ways to bring motivation.”

There are still nights when you watch this wildly inconsistent team and realize the evolution is far from complete and the maturation process will provide as many headaches as thrills, but the high end of their game is as good as anyone’s.

Knowing that, and knowing the other guys know it, beats the heck out of feeling like a loser.

“I didn’t usually like to watch the standings at all,” said defenceman Ladislav Smid. “(Playoffs) wasn’t going to happen, we kind of knew it.

“It was mentally hard the last few years. You don’t want to end up in 30th two years in a row. It felt awful. You had a coaching staff who gave their best to us, you had great guys in the locker room who were working hard and the result was 30th place. That’s not an ideal situation.”

Now, the motivation is easy — it’s in the standings, in the wins, in the fact that they’ve got game enough to hang with anyone. Now, every night matters. The playoff cutline is right there. First place in the Northwest Division is just a few well-placed wins away.

“Every game means something,” said Horcoff. “We left that last game (3-2 shootout loss to Minnesota) frustrated, we left a point out there. In the past we’d be, like, ‘Whoop, we got a point there!’ Last night everyone was pissed off and felt we should have had it.”

That they’ve lost three in a row and seven of their last 10 tells you they’re not they’re yet, but there’s no doubt where this program is headed.

“This is probably exactly where we expected to be,” said Horcoff. “You’re going to see some great games from us and you’re going to see some (crappy) games from us and then you’re going to see games where we play great, but not for 60 minutes, and end up doing the little things that immature teams do.

“But when we play great games there’s no team we can’t beat. It’s just nice coming to the rink every day knowing that.”

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca

@SUN_TYCHKOWSKI


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