SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers need return to October form

The Oilers celebrate a goal against the Sharks at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alta., Jan. 23, 2012....

The Oilers celebrate a goal against the Sharks at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alta., Jan. 23, 2012. (CODIE McLACHLAN/QMI Agency)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:46 PM ET

EDMONTON - The goal of the rebuilding Edmonton Oilers has always been to turn the clock back to 1984, an ambitious project that's testing everyone in the organization, but right now they need to set their time machine for a little detour.

Back to October.

When Edmonton started the season fresh and healthy and with a clean mental slate, they were the born-again darlings of the NHL.

They had secondary scoring to rival their primary scoring, they had the best goaltending in the league and their team defence was enough to make Jacques Lemaire smile.

That was then -- three months and 27 spots in the standings ago.

Where they are now has been the subject of a long and painful autopsy, conducted in mid-season with the Blue and Orange corpse still twitching on the table.

The results? While injuries, spotty netminding and a sense of hopelessness all played a hand in slide, so did a simple decline in play.

While some Oilers, like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, maintained their pace all year, others couldn't keep it up.

Players who began the year like a house on fire looked a lot like burned-out houses by January. Ryan Smyth's goal production dropped by 66%. Ryan Jones and Shawn Horcoff started fishing pucks out of their own net at an alarming rate. Corey Potter wasn't the same. And Nikolai Khabibulin went from 7-0-2 in October to 1-7-1 at the break.

"The last few games there were some goals that I wasn't happy about," said Khabibulin. "And in tight games, because we weren't scoring much, it's hard to win games that way. When you need those saves and I don't provide them, I tend to not feel great about myself."

On and on it went, with one slump fuelling another.

With so many players hitting the wall at once, the week off felt like an oasis.

"Sometimes, when things are not going well, which they haven't been, you try and beat your head against a wall," said Khabibulin, who needed the mental break as much as the physical. "But sometimes it's better to take a different approach -- go away and come back fresh and start over."

Not to discount the physical rest.

"As much as we needed it mentally, when you get older your body doesn't recover as quickly as it did when you were 24 or 25," said Khabibulin. "So a few extra days were good."

Smyth, who put a lot of miles on his 35-year-old legs this year, needed the breather as much as anyone.

"Absolutely," said the veteran winger, who spent the time off with his family in Vail. "Any time you get a chance to recuperate the body in mid-season it really helps. It's going to give you a little jump.

"So hopefully we'll all come back with that extra oomph, both from energy and a with fresh mind-set, too."

Enough oomph that the Oilers can get back to their October stride?

Or was that just a case of a few guys playing over their heads for 12 games?

"I don't think we were playing above our heads," said Smyth. "We came out and showed ourselves and everybody else that we're capable of being a half-decent team. We got hit with some injuries and that was a factor, for sure, but aside from that we are down here (29th) for a reason and we have to find a way to keep climbing up."

Tom Renney says if they were able to 8-2-2 before, they should be able to do it again.

"I don't see why not," said the head coach. "We remember what it felt like. We certainly recall the commitment to what we had to do to have success.

"We're not in the excuse-making business, we're here to win hockey games and we have that as a reference point, if nothing else."

They're also as close to where they were in October as they've been all season. They're fresh, they're healthier, they have a clean mental slate and, just like in October, play eight of 12 games at home.

"We want to get back to level again and we know we're capable of doing it," said Smyth. "We're starting to get some bodies back, which will help. And we still have 33 games left."

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca

@SUN_TYCHKOWSKI


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