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Edmonton Oilers rely on scoring to offset loss of blue-liner Pronger

The NHL's Western Conference champions are being touted by some prognosticators as longshots to repeat last spring's fairy-tale run to the seventh and deciding game of the Stanley Cup final.

But the Oilers, who begin their season at home Thursday against the Calgary Flames, say their retooled lineup that emphasizes big guns up front is going to surprise.

"You have a taste of what it's like to go far in the playoffs. Now that we've had that taste, we kind of want to get there again," said forward Fernando Pisani.

Pisani, the hometown hero who had a stellar post-season with 14 goals in 24 games, is part of an offence that can spread the scoring over three lines.

Forwards Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll and Raffi Torres had breakout seasons and are expected to again complement stars Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky.

Joining them is free agent Petr Sykora. The Czech has looked solid at centre in the pre-season, though he struggled in the face-off circle.

Winger Joffrey Lupul - a native of nearby Fort Saskatchewan - has generated the biggest buzz in the Alberta capital. He scored 28 goals last season with the Anaheim Ducks, then came north in the blockbuster trade that sent defenceman Chris Pronger to southern California.

Smyth says the best defence may well be a strong offence.

"Defence first is the old saying, but if they can't get it out of their own end, then we're not going to be playing defence," he said.

The blue-line is the big question mark and the main reason the Oilers are being picked to struggle - The Hockey News has them pegged to finish 12th in the Western Conference and one Las Vegas oddsmaker has them at 25-1 to claim their sixth Stanley Cup.

No one expects the Oilers to replace Pronger. The six-foot-six 220-pound rearguard did it all last year. He played 28 minutes a night, anchored the special teams, shut down the opponent's top offensive threat and led the team in playoff points.

Citing family reasons, he asked for a trade just days after the Cup final to begin what became a summer of transition. A third of the playoff roster eventually walked out the door, including defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, forwards Mike Peca and Sergei Samsonov and tough guy Georges Laraque.

The defence will be led by veterans Jason Smith and Steve Staios. Matt Greene and Marc-Andre Bergeron are also back. Ladislav Smid came to Edmonton in the Pronger deal and free agent Daniel Tjarnqvist signed with the Oilers after spending last season in Minnesota.

Besides Bergeron, the blue-line lacks an offensive threat and will miss Pronger's ability to fire deadly accurate passes to lead the breakout.

"There may be growing pains, but at the same time the defence is anchored by two proven veterans," said Greene.

Smyth added if the Oilers have to win every game 6-5, so be it.

"It's probably the coaches' and goalies' worst nightmare, but as long as you win."

The goaltending will rest on the skill and savvy - not to mention the rebuilt right knee - of Dwayne Roloson. The 36-year-old re-upped with the Oil after a standout performance in the playoffs. He suffered the knee injury late in Game 1 of the Cup final but said it has healed. Jussi Markkanen will handle backup duties.

Horcoff said the team that had known hard times for more than a decade will now face the pressure of being a measuring stick for other squads. Their opponents will be that much more tenacious in the corners. Every night they'll see the No. 1 goalie.

He said if the Oilers struggle, general manager Kevin Lowe will plug the holes, much like he did at the trade deadline last March to get Roloson.

"Kevin has pretty much shown that he's going to start the season with some younger guys (on the blue-line)," Horcoff said. "They're going to get more minutes and they're going to have to run with it."

That's a prediction you can take to the bank.


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