Oilers floundering at the half
Robert Tychkowski, QMI Agency
|Edmonton Oilers goalie Nikolai Khabibulin reacts after falling behind on a Dallas Stars goal during the third period of their NHL hockey game in Dallas, Texas January 7, 2012. (REUTERS/Tim Sharp)
EDMONTON - When they left on a road trip they all said would define their season, the Edmonton Oilers were a manageable seven points out of eighth place.
They return home, after just two points to show for seven games and 15 miserable days, an insurmountable 12 points and five teams back of eighth, stranded on the dock while the post-season party yacht sails into the sunset for the sixth year in a row.
This isn’t deja phew all over again, the improvements over the last five seasons are glaring, and reason enough for legitimate optimism in a year or two, but that doesn’t make the latest blood stains any easier to wash off their uniforms.
“You hope you go through all that crap for a reason, that it pays some sort of dividend at the end of the day,” head coach Tom Renney said of those painful lessons learned in back-to-back 30th place finishes.
“You have to hate losing so much that you try to abbreviate these (slumps) and in years to come they don’t happen near as much, or as long. I was hoping that’s what we had done last year.
“We wanted to learn more by winning and winning properly (this year). Obviously this last month hasn’t been exactly that.”
Not exactly, no. Not with just four wins in their last 18 games.
But, October tease aside, the Oilers are pretty much right where everyone predicted they’d be — in the bottom third of the Western Conference. And that was before anyone knew they’d be losing Ryan Whitney, Tom Gilbert, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Cam Barker to injury.
But while the playoff yacht might be little more than music and laughter on a distant horizon now, there are still 41 games left in which to truly define their season. And themselves.
They are somewhere between Unstoppable Darlings Of The Western Conference, a marquee they wandered under during their stunning assault on October, and Hapless Lottery Sucks, which is where they are now.
Where, exactly, they fit in that spectrum will be determined in these last 41 games. True progress is measured in bad times more than in good.
“What you have to do is calm down, step back from the ledge and keep working hard together,” said Renney, adding it was a shock for everyone, inside the room and out, when they couldn’t keep up that glorious first lap pace.
“They came out of the box really well, obviously, and we were Stanley Cup contenders all of a sudden, which we all know we weren’t.
“The guys embraced that standard of play and as time goes on and you have a hard time maintaining that, you fight frustration as much as you do anything.”
He’s got that right. When a team this tired of losing finally gets a taste of winning, it’s tough to go back. And that’s a good thing.
“That’s where you see a little bit of frustration, but at least you’re seeing emotion out of the guys,” said Ryan Jones. “It’s not like we’re going to accept losing in here.”
Not like they have here in the past.
“With the exception of a couple of periods I thought we played pretty well on this trip,” said Renney. “We didn’t get rewarded for it and sometimes a team that lacks the experience and wherewithal to deal with it might feel ‘What else can we do? What else can happen to us?’ We can’t fell into that trap. We have to press on.
“We can’t have a ‘woe is me, we didn’t get what we deserved’ because most of the time you do.
“Sometimes circumstances are a little bit beyond your control, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you just knuckle down together.”