EDMONTON – Back in October, Craig MacTavish said he had visions of his team being division contenders this season.
Instead, the Edmonton Oilers coach finds himself heading into March in yet another desperate fight to the finish.
The Oilers sit in ninth place in the Western Conference, closer to last-place Colorado than to the Northwest Division-leading Calgary Flames.
They are back where they’ve been for a decade – facing a pressure-packed post-season push. The team needs every point and has little margin for error.
“It’s good to have that experience,” said MacTavish, his October optimism tempered by the reality of being in another tight finish. “You know how to keep yourself ready game in and game out, how important the focus is between games to keep your intensity.”
At 29-25-5 for 63 points after 59 games, the Oilers should have intensity in spades as they face Tampa Bay on Tuesday in the midst of a three-game losing streak. In a Western Conference packed as tightly as it is, those three losses have been enough to drop the Oilers from sixth place to ninth.
Beaten 3-2 in a shootout by Calgary on Saturday, the Oilers trail the Flames by 13 points, so any talk of a Northwest Division title is out the window. Just six points up on Colorado and struggling with Denis Grebeshkov and Lubomir Visnovsky out with injuries, the Oilers have more immediate concerns. Top-eight, not top-three, is the challenge now.
“The mental part of the game is the biggest part right now,” said captain Ethan Moreau, the longest-serving Oiler since arriving from Chicago on March 20, 1999.
“When I got here, it was the exact same situation we’re in now. It’s been almost 10 years to the day. I had guys like Bucky (Kelly Buchberger) and Doug Weight to look up to back then.”
Not once during Moreau’s tenure have the Oilers been safely in the playoffs or out of contention at the three-quarter pole. The same goes for Steve Staios, who signed with the Oilers as a free agent in July 2001, and Shawn Horcoff, in his eighth season.
“You put a lot of value in it and you hope the experience can rub off on the younger guys,” Staios said. “We have to have urgency and intensity. It’s not an easy thing to do every night. You have to able to control yourself and prepare properly to have enough energy for the big games.”
Just as the Oilers slipped three spots, Moreau and Staios know it’s possible to climb three places with three or four wins in a row.
“We’re still in it with a lot of other teams,” Horcoff said. “There’s lots of games left and lots of points to be had. We still feel we’ve got an opportunity to win some games and put a good stretch together.
“The parity in our conference is bigger than I’ve probably seen before. The good thing is we’ve been in this situation before, so we feel pretty confident.”
The Oilers missed the playoffs in four of Horcoff’s previous seven seasons. The three times the Oilers made it, they’ve never finished higher than sixth, including 2005-06, when the Oilers got to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final against Carolina after finishing eighth.
“There’s only a few teams who can maybe ease up a little bit down the stretch,” Staios said. “The rest of the teams are playing full out.
“The mental toll is where it’s at. I think you have to be able to frame things the right way, put things in perspective and be ready to play. The physical stuff, you should be able to play hard every night.”
With seven of the next 10 games against teams with fewer points in the standings, starting Tuesday against Tampa Bay, the Oilers have a relatively soft schedule to start the stretch.
Even so, chances are the Oilers won’t know whether they’re out of the post-season a third straight year or back in until the final week. The Oilers close the schedule with a home-and-home series against Calgary. It won’t be the showdown for a division title MacTavish envisioned.
“The hard part is a lot of our team hasn’t been through this before,” Moreau said. “We’ve got some young players. Our leadership group has been through it probably eight or nine times.
“That’s who’s going to have to win us some games. We’re going to have to rely on our veterans.”