EDMONTON - This season was supposed to be different, but the Edmonton Oilers once again find themselves on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture looking in with time and games running out.
While coach Craig MacTavish not only suggested in the pre-season that the Oilers would be in the post-season mix after two years out but would contend for a Northwest Division title, his team awoke April Fool's Day in 11th place, three points out of a playoff position with five games to play.
With five losses in their last six games, the latest being a 5-3 setback against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday, the Oilers need both wins and help in a final push that begins Thursday against San Jose, the NHL's top team.
"We have five games left and we still have an opportunity to make the playoffs and play for the Stanley Cup," said captain Ethan Moreau on a day the Oilers put forward a decidedly brave face.
"Our practice was upbeat and positive. There were no negative emotions in our practice today."
At 36-32-9, the Oilers couldn't have picked a worse time to lose five of six games. They've seen the Ducks, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild move past them in the standings in the span of a week.
"We can't feel sorry four ourselves right now," said Ales Hemsky, asked about slumping in the midst of a must-win stretch drive.
"We've just go to stay focused. We've got five games left and we just have to do everything we can do to push for the playoffs. We can't look behind at what's happened before."
Much of the talk after the team skated Wednesday revolved around MacTavish's decision to ask for a measurement of Teemu Selanne's stick with 2:11 remaining in regulation time after the Oilers narrowed Anaheim's lead to 4-3 on a goal by Zack Stortini.
Selanne's stick was deemed legal. Instead of going on a power play, the Oilers got the minor penalty. Rob Niedermayer scored into an empty net with Dwayne Roloson pulled to end the drama.
"It ended up being an ill-advised stick call for me that poisoned what looked to be a terrific comeback," MacTavish said. "I made a judgment call that was a poor call at that time and it ended up costing us the game."
Sheldon Souray, for one, wasn't of the mind to let his coach take the fall for the loss.
"We're all in it together," Souray said. "We're not worried about what happened yesterday. Everyone makes mistakes or takes risks. That's part of it.
"We're not worried about that. We're worried about what's going to happen tomorrow. This is no time to be sitting around and thinking, 'What if?"'
With expectations high in October, MacTavish was asked about his future under the new ownership of Rexall billionaire Darryl Katz.
"I've had great support here, by and large," said MacTavish, who needs one more win for 300 victories in nine seasons. "I've been here for a number of years and had terrific support from virtually everybody.
"If I've got less, then it's a hazard of the profession. For me, that's never affected me, whether it's criticism or praise, whatever it is. The thing you have to do as a coach is you've got to find a way to shelve that and just pragmatically try to turn your team around."
Speculation is that if the Oilers miss the playoffs a third straight season, MacTavish will be fired or will resign.
"You have a fixed amount of time to deliver the goods," he said. "I'm not forecasting anything, but it's just a case where you're always evaluated as a coach on how many games you win."
If the Oilers are to turn it around, they'll have to do so without any breaks from the schedule-maker. They face San Jose, the surging Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles and Calgary, twice.
"Last night is done with and we can't do anything about it, as disappointing as it is," said Steve Staios. "It's on to the next game.
"In these situations, you have to be strong mentally, get your energy up and make sure you try to shake off the last game as best you can."