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Epic fall from grace for Oilers leaves them looking for answers

Ten months after coming within one win of sipping from the Stanley Cup last June, the Oilers not only missed the playoffs in the Western Conference, they didn't even threaten to contend down the stretch during a hideous freefall in which they won just twice in their final 20 games.

Nobody saw this coming.

"The disappointment is huge," said goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who will extend his season with Team Canada at the IIHF world hockey championship.

"The expectations of the year before, of making it to the final, you expect to get back there. Every guy in the locker room had the expectation of getting back there again."

Faced with overcoming the loss of several players from a team that pushed Carolina to Game 7 - notably Chris Pronger, Michael Peca, Sergei Samsonov and Jaroslav Spacek - the Oilers never filled the void.

Worse yet, Raffi Torres, Joffrey Lupul and Shawn Horcoff all had sub-par seasons. The Oilers suffered long-term injuries to Ethan Moreau, Jarret Stoll and Steve Staios.

Then came the trade deadline deal that sent popular Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders.

Add it up, and the Oilers staggered to a 32-43-7 record and 71 points - a 24-point drop from last season.

"There's lots of blame to go around when you find yourself in this situation," said coach Craig MacTavish, asked to evaluate his season. "I'll take my fair share of it."

With a patchwork line-up that saw 14 rookies play at least one game, the overmatched Oilers went 2-17-1 in their final 20 games. When the season ended with a 3-2 win in Calgary last Saturday, they'd established a franchise record for futility around the net with just 195 goals.

"Tough times," said captain Jason Smith. "To go through a stretch where guys were hurt and big parts of your line-up weren't able to play and not having any success, that was tough.

"I wish I was putting on my skates to start a playoff series. There isn't a guy in the room who doesn't feel the same way. It's been a disappointing year. There's no other way to sum it up."

Stoll, who missed 31 games with post-concussion symptoms but managed to finish fourth in team scoring, had a front row seat for the collapse. Like many of his teammates, Stoll is looking for answers.

"We weren't consistent from the start," he said. "I don't think we ever had that this year and it's one of the reasons we're not in.

"Any playoff team has to be consistent and put together some good streaks during the year. We didn't do that. A lot of us had off-years. You can make all the excuses you want. In the end, we didn't get it done."

Looking ahead, MacTavish is counting on bounce-back years from Torres, Lupul, Horcoff and Fernando Pisani, who got a hefty contract after scoring 14 goals in the 2006 playoffs, but managed just 14 more in 77 games this season.

"It wasn't a gradual descent," said MacTavish, who had the Oilers in contention at 28-24-4 to begin a seven-game road trip in February. "We were competitive for three-quarters of the year, then the bottom fell out.

"I didn't see it getting as bad as what it was, where we couldn't win a hockey game."

The matter of filling the void left by Pronger remains. There's a need for a centre to play with Ales Hemsky. Petr Sykora, an unrestricted free agent July 1, might not be in the plans. GM Kevin Lowe will be busy.

If there's a positive, more liberal player movement under the new CBA should allow Lowe to rebuild and tweak as he sees fit.

"In today's NHL, there's great opportunity and great vulnerability," MacTavish said. "We were absolutely the poster child for vulnerability, as was Carolina.

"We know we're not that far away. We're not as bad as what our record would lead you to believe."

Right now, it just feels that way.

"I've never been through a season like this," said Roloson.

"The way the season unfolded, with the injuries and everything, it was like a snowball effect. It's been frustrating the last little while. Now, that it's over with it's almost like a relief."



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