SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers the picture of health

With the return of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for Saturday’s game with Detroit, the Oilers are one player...

With the return of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for Saturday’s game with Detroit, the Oilers are one player away from being the healthiest team in the NHL. (REUTERS/Ben Nelms)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:42 PM ET

Never mind the game sheet from Sam Gagner’s eight-point night against Chicago, save today’s NHL injury report.

It’s a keeper. As far as rare collectibles go, it’s right up there with a picture of Bigfoot making out with Elvis.

With the return of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for Saturday’s game with Detroit, the Oilers are one player away — Tom Gilbert, who is due back any day now — from being the healthiest team in the NHL.

“It’s unbelievable,” said defenceman Ladislav Smid. “We’re finally going to be healthy, have 100% of our lineup. Now we can show what we can do.”

If you’ve followed this snake-bitten club over the last four years, Edmonton emerging as the healthiest team in the league is like the Hindenburg emerging as the coolest ride at the carnival.

“Definitely not used to this,” admitted Jordan Eberle, who’s only witnessed the carnage here for 18 months. “Especially after last year when everybody was out for the season by this time.”

It’s bad when 11 different players have missed at least six games and it’s still not as bad as last year, but that’s the kind of run it’s been around here.

“Everybody goes through injuries, but for whatever reason it seems like our injuries are always significant and they all happen at the same time,” said Gilbert, who’s seen more than his share of half-staffed Oilers funeral marches in the second half of seasons. “The last couple of years down this stretch was tough, it was really tough.”

After playing the last three months hopelessly undermanned, with players logging more minutes than they should, thrust into match-ups and situations they shouldn’t, the Oilers now have an opportunity to play at full strength for the first time in two years — to see, and to show, what this team is really all about.

“You’ll get a better idea of who we are and what we’re capable of,” said goaltender Devan Dubnyk. “We have a good group of guys in here, a talented group, and we showed at the start of the year what we’re capable of.

“It’s going to be exciting to get everybody back together and keep going here.

“But at the same time it’s going to be pressure on us to go and do it. Not that we were making excuses before, but we certainly have none now that everybody is back.”

They’ll take pressure to perform over an impending sense of doom all day long. And, finally, the dark cloud does appear to be lifting. The Oilers are healthy, they have points in four straight games, Gagner had the eight-point night, Eberle went to the All-Star game. It’s been a while since the feeling around the dressing room was this upbeat.

“That atmosphere this year was really hard for a while, lots of meetings, kind of negative, which it has to be when you’re losing, you have to point out the things that are wrong out there,” added Smid. “But finally it’s kind of turning around.”

Turning, not turned. And there’s a difference. They’re not healthy and happy, just healthy and happier than they were before, which doesn’t take much given where they’ve been.

And, remember, nothing destroys momentum like a visit from the Detroit Red Wings, who are up next.

“There’s some things we all agree we need to tighten up a bit,” said Dubnyk. “But if we can kind of adjust and get better while we’re winning, that’s even better. We want to turn this thing around soon.”

And maybe, for the first time since 2007-08, when Edmonton came from nowhere to make a 14-5-1 charge, February, March and April won’t feel like such a death march.

“There’s a small chance for the playoffs,” said Smid. “But it’s still a chance and we’re going to fight for it.”

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca

@SUN_TYCHKOWSKI


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