EDMONTON – The only thing as elusive as a Western Conference playoff position for the Edmonton Oilers this season has been consistency, and that’s probably not a coincidence.
Forty games into a season in which coach Craig MacTavish said the Oilers would contend for a Northwest Division title, he still doesn’t know for sure which version of his team will show up.
Looking like champions in some stretches and chumps in others en route to a 19-18-3 record, the Oilers hit the halfway mark of their schedule against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday at Rexall Place.
Which version of the team will file out of the dressing against the last-place Blues is anybody’s guess.
“There’s nights when it looks like we can play with every team in the league and win,” said Shawn Horcoff. “There’s nights when we play the worst teams in the league and we come down to that level.
“That’s our biggest problem. We seem to play to the level of our opponents, for whatever reason that is.”
Beaten 4-1 by San Jose on Friday, the Oilers have run the gamut from very good to surprisingly bad through 40 games. The loss to the Sharks prompted a players-only meeting after the game.
“We have to play night in and night out,” said veteran defenceman Sheldon Souray. “It’s up to the guys who’ve been down this road before to show a little leadership, experience and consistency and everyone else will follow.”
Edmonton’s only real constants have been a porous penalty-killing unit that’s ranked 28th overall and the failure to establish itself on home ice as the Oilers will face the Blues with an 8-8-3 record at Rexall Place.
“I think we’re in the mix with 15 other teams where anything can happen on any given night,” MacTavish said. “Maybe 20 other teams.
“There’s probably five teams when you should win and, then, there’s another 20 teams and, on any given night, anybody can win. We’re in that middle mix. It’s a tough grind. A lot of things have to go right to win.”
The Oilers have had their moments. They squeezed four wins from a gruelling seven-game road trip in November, including victories over Philadelphia, New Jersey and the New York Rangers. They played extremely well but lost 1-0 to Boston on Oct. 27. They beat the Sharks 3-2 in San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 6.
“The difference between the top teams and the teams that fight it out for seventh, eighth and ninth is the top teams find that consistency,” Horcoff said. “If it was easy, we’d have figured it out by now.
“It’s not for lack of trying, but we can’t put our finger on it. The good news we know it’s there. There’s been times when we’ve seen ourselves play some really good hockey.”
The bad news is that just when it appears the Oilers are ready to make a move forward, they take a step back. Their home record includes a 3-2 loss to Ottawa on Dec. 30 against a Senators team that had lost 12 straight on the road.
Edmonton needed a two lucky goals Jan. 5 to get a 3-2 win over the New York Islanders, who also arrived with 12 straight road losses and were last overall in the NHL. The Oilers were booed off the ice in a 9-2 loss to Chicago Dec. 16.
“You prepare for Ottawa and everybody is under the assumption it’s a gimme game,” MacTavish said. “When I look at their lineup, I see a pretty solid NHL team, as I do most nights.”
With the Blues being last in the conference and 6-12-1 on the road, it would seem the Oilers have a pretty good chance of wrapping up a five-game homestand on a winning note.
Or do they?
“There’s no easy games in this league,” Horcoff said. “There’s some bad records, but there’s no easy games.”