EDMONTON – Can exuberance make up for inexperience? Can momentum make it possible to scoff at long odds?
The Edmonton Oilers insist the answer is yes. And now that they’ve climbed to within three points of a Western Conference playoff berth with 12 wins in their last 15 games, who’s to say they’re wrong?
They make a compelling argument.
“The biggest thing for us has been staying tight as a group,” said 18-year-old rookie Sam Gagner. “No matter what’s said or what’s going on around us, the only way we’re going to be successful is if we’re tight in here.
“The thing I see with our team is we’re all willing to back each other up. Maybe it’s a little surprising, but I believe the people in here think we can do it. Nobody quits.”
The Oilers open a three-game road trip in Minnesota on Wednesday, fresh from a 5-3 victory over the Wild on Monday. It was Edmonton’s latest instalment in an exciting, unlikely and unconventional comeback from a double-digit deficit in the standings.
Despite playing without injured first-line centre Shawn Horcoff, captain Ethan Moreau, Sheldon Souray and Raffi Torres, and having No. 1 stopper Mathieu Garon limited to backup duty by an ankle injury, the Oilers refuse to go quietly.
“Those guys have been out for a while,” said Jarret Stoll. “It’s not even a reason or an excuse in here.
“They’re big parts of our team, obviously, but we feel we’ve got a pretty good team right now with those guys out. We’re not dwelling on it. We’re playing well with the guys we’ve got. We know with the guys we’ve got that if we put our best game out there, we’ll win.”
Exuberance? Led by the fuzzy-cheeked trio of Gagner, 20-year-old Andrew Cogliano and 23-year-old Robert Nilsson, the Oilers have scored 28 goals in their last six games.
They’ve allowed a generous 19 goals during the same stretch as they prepare for must-win stops in Minnesota, Colorado on Friday and Calgary on Saturday.
“You have to be able to defend,” warned coach Craig MacTavish. “When you absolutely need a game, the offence can be fickle, but you can always rely on the defence.
“When you absolutely need to win a game, sometimes you’ve got to lock it down and win a game 1-0. We haven’t shown that ability this year yet, but we need to have it.”
Momentum? The Oilers haven’t lost two games in a row in over a month. When they stumble, like in a 5-1 loss in Colorado on March 13 and a 4-1 loss against Vancouver on March 20, they’ve been resilient enough to bounce right back.
“We’ve built some momentum by not thinking about games (played) before,” said veteran Steve Staios. “Whether we dropped one or played well, it doesn’t matter.
“We re-focus, re-energize ourselves, sharpen a few areas of our game and go from there. If we can manage to keep that focus, it’s only going to be an advantage for us.
“It’s just been a commitment to each other and a real focus on just dealing with the day, whether it’s a practice day or a game.”
In the 24 games since Horcoff went down, Gagner has scored eight goals and added 19 assists for 27 points, a stretch that included a nine-game points streak.
Cogliano, who scored twice against Minnesota on Monday, earned a place in the NHL record book with three consecutive overtime winners – against Columbus, Chicago and St. Louis.
“We’ve learned how to overcome throughout the year,” Gagner said. “We’re getting better and better. We’re starting to find our game and make a run for it. It’s been a fun ride.”
The wins haven’t necessarily come the way MacTavish has drawn them up, but the Oilers are earning points.
“That’s the definition of a good team, in my mind,” MacTavish said. “You can overcome a bad break or you overcome a bad goal. As the strength of your team grows, you can hide some of the weaknesses you’re going to have game in and game out.”
Notes: – The Oilers added goaltender Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers to the roster on emergency recall Tuesday from the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League.