SLAM!Sports
February 3, 2006
Five games to go
Pre-Olympic countdown has make plenty of NHL teams weary this time around
By TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

The Olympic countdown is seven days. For the Edmonton Oilers it's five more games.

There's an excitement building with the Olympic countdown. But with the players on the Oilers and most NHL teams, the ones who aren't going to Torino, you can see them dragging themselves to get to the break.

The compact schedule has caught up to just about every team other than the Columbus Blue Jackets. And it certainly showed itself with the Oilers last night.

"We just didn't have our normal jump,'' said coach Craig MacTavish. "We were pretty flat.

"We've looked tired the last few games. We're not playing physically the way we normally play. We usually play with a lot more energy. And with Ethan Moreau and Jason Smith out of the lineup, we're missing two high-energy guys right now.''

Most of it is physical. But a lot of it is mental, too. The standings are so tight in the NHL's Western Conference, particularly in the Northwest Conference.

"You keep emphasizing the importance of the games,'' said MacTavish.

HARD TO SELL COLUMBUS AS IMPORTANT

Sometimes it's hard to sell Columbus as an important game even when you draw them a picture.

Five more games to go before the Olympic break. After the Oilers lost 2-1 in an overtime shootout last night when a hockey game broke out in the final five minutes after the two teams played a nil-nil game that even a soccer fan couldn't like.

The Oilers have 63 points in the standings.

MacTavish hopes his team can pump themselves up to get seven points out of the last 10 to get to the break with 70 points.

"I'd take that right now.''

MacTavish, himself worn down and suffering from the flu, could feel it driving to the rink last night.

It was Columbus. Not a game you'd circle when the schedule came out. But this one set itself up like no Blue Jacket game here before.

FIVE-GAME HOME LOSING STREAK

Columbus was looking at the first five-game winning streak in its history with the win. Edmonton was looking at a five-game losing streak with the loss.

For the Oilers, it was either going to be a four-game winning streak or the five-game home losing streak they take with them to tomorrow night's game here against the Vancouver Canucks.

The Oilers left town a week ago looking like their season was going south, found the puck luck they lost back around Christmas, won all three games on the road and came back as the NHL's top-ranked team away from home with a 17-8-4 record. All was well again. Except, well, the coming back home part.

The home thing is wearing on MacTavish's team. He says the Oilers almost can't help coming to Rexall Place tight - the way it's worked this year.

"I found that I came to the game tonight tight. I felt more anxiety. I knew it was going to be a tough game the way Columbus has been playing. I know we were coming off a long road trip.''

It was a Columbus team which went to overtime the night before in Calgary against an Edmonton team which had played five of their last six on the road.

"When you play two on the road, fly home to play Calgary and then fly right back out for three more that's like a road trip to Edmonton in the middle. That's like six straight on the road,'' said MacTavish.

It was a painful game to watch. Until Steve Staios came out of the penalty box to make it 1-0 for the Oilers with 5:08 remaining in regulation, this was hardly an advertisement for the New NHL.

Jussi Markkanen gives up one off his glove hand and it's overtime and then an eight-deep shootout.

It was a game which proved the value of the shootout for the fans. It was essentially the only entertainment value of the game.

But at this stage of the year, it's also wearing on the teams, or at least the ones that lose.

The Oilers are 5-4 in shootouts despite losing that one. But it's still a loss.

"I know how exciting it is for the fans. But the games are so meaningful right now, it's hard to take for us,'' said MacTavish.

Five more. Then, unless you are Ryan Smyth, Chris Pronger or Ales Hemsky, it's eight days off followed by a seven-day mini-camp. Maybe when they get back to the rink Saturday night they'll see the rest stop and do what they have to do to get through.


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