EDMONTON – As they enter the second quarter of the season out of the Western Conference playoff picture, improving on a 2-2-2 home record is high on a lengthy list of things to do for the Edmonton Oilers.
Playing .500 on the road, which the Oilers did with a 7-7-0 record, is considered acceptable. At home? Not so much. With 13 of the next 20 games at Rexall Place, the 9-9-2 Oilers know they have to give their faithful more to cheer about if they intend to make a move in the standings.
“We need to be better at home. We all know that,” coach Craig MacTavish said Monday as his team prepared for Wednesday’s game against Los Angeles. “We need some energy here in our own building.
“You have to have the mentality at the start of the game that you’re going to come out and make it difficult on your opponent. We really haven’t done that. We’re going to be hard to play against. That’s our objective.”
Talk going into the season was that so many road games might put the Oilers in a big hole, but three straight losses – to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings – at Rexall Place have done as much to keep them out of the top eight.
“If you’re going to be a successful team in this league, you have to be good at home,” said forward Erik Cole. “It’s plain and simple. One thing I’ve found here is it’s a little bit tougher. You come to the rink, you have to earn the fans’ excitement. They’re so hockey savvy, they’re not just going to show up and create the atmosphere. They want to cheer, but you have to give them something to cheer about.”
Now, the schedule tilts in Edmonton’s favour – in terms of home games and level of competition.
Of their next 20 games, four come against the Vancouver Canucks, who just lost goaltender Roberto Luongo to a groin injury. Three are against the Dallas Stars, who just lost captain Brenden Morrow to a knee injury.
“From here on out it’s not who we’re playing, it’s how we’re going to play,” said Sheldon Souray. “If you look at the schedule, to be .500 isn’t bad, but we have to do something with it now. We know we have to play better. We have to win some home games.”
The Oilers play Los Angeles twice and St. Louis, Phoenix and Colorado once each. All are below them in the standings. They play the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators – non-playoff teams, as of now, in the Eastern Conference.
“We don’t think we’re as good as Detroit, but we don’t think we’re where our record shows us,” Souray said. “We’re holding ourselves to a certain standard this year because we have the pieces of the puzzle. We’re a better team than our record shows.”
Given the circumstances, scheduling aside, the Oilers could be a lot worse off than .500 as the Kings come calling.
MacTavish is still juggling three goaltenders. He’s yet to find a first line he’s happy with. He’s questioned the team’s toughness and gamesmanship. Top-six forwards Shawn Horcoff, Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner and Cole have been mediocre. The penalty killing is ranked 29th. The Oilers have been guilty of poor starts and feeling their way into games.
“There’s a lot of areas we feel we can be a lot better in,” said Cole, who has just three goals and seven points. “We don’t feel like we’ve come anywhere near hitting our stride as a group or for some individuals. As we grow as a group, the individual success will come. We haven’t shown what we can really do.”
If the Oilers get their house in order and get the home fires burning, they’ve got an opportunity to make a move.
“There’s lots of room for improvement,” MacTavish said. If we get through the next stage of our season and develop the way we should and get the results we expect of ourselves, it would be very easy to look back and say, ‘What was everybody so upset about?’ We’ve got to see that game.”