January 21 2009 12:07PM
They're in it together now. If for no other reason than that, I like the Edmonton Oilers’ chances of making the playoffs a lot more today than I did when this season began.
It's not so much because the Oilers hit the NHL all-star break with three straight wins and are sitting in a playoff position after Tuesday's 4-3 victory over Columbus -- two of the three wins came on the back of Ales Hemsky, who has been magnificent since his head stopped spinning two games ago.
What I see when I look at the Oilers and what I hear when I talk with players is a team that's, well, a team after spending the better part of half the season as a bunch of individuals wearing the same jerseys.
The Oilers are 5–1 since they held a players-only meeting after a 4–1 loss to San Jose Jan. 9. I'm not offering this as a news bulletin because it's been written about here and in the local dailies and discussed on the radio, but it was a heart-to-heart that had to happen, and one that's been the catalyst for a fresh dynamic in the dressing room and a better team out on the ice, where the proof is always in the pudding.
They have a chance now.
Bridging the gap
"It's up to the guys who've been down this road before to show a little leadership and a little experience," said Sheldon Souray, a key cog in a veteran core that was being questioned 20 games into the season. "If you do that, every one else will follow."
Anybody who's been paying attention heard the talk of a "rift" in the room as the Oilers struggled in the first 40 games. To be fair, characterizing the situation as a rift was an overstatement.
It was more of a disconnect, a failure to communicate, between the 30-something veterans -- Souray, captain Ethan Moreau, Shawn Horcoff and Steve Staios, to name just four players -- and youngsters like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson, Marc Pouliot and Ladislav Smid.
By any name, the lack of cohesiveness was apparent to anybody who spent much time in the room. Having looked and listened for awhile -- and having people I trust tell me about circumstances I hadn't actually seen first-hand -- I referred to it as "the mix" during the pre-season.
Whatever was said during that players only meeting -- I haven't been told specifics -- talking the talk has translated into walking the walk. Not to get all cornpone about it, playing for the guy next to you and not just for yourself means something now. This is a team everybody, regardless of age, is taking ownership in. The difference is noticeable.
Down the road
Now, before anybody accuses me of hopping on the bandwagon with 36 games to play, I'm still not sold that this is a playoff team. Climbing into a post-season position at the 46-game mark is one thing. Holding onto it is quite another.
This is a team with flaws and question marks:
- The penalty killing remains a weakness.
- How long can coach Craig MacTavish ride red-hot but old-as-dirt Dwayne Roloson?
- Can GM Steve Tambellini find a shutdown defenceman (we just saw one wearing Columbus silks in former Oiler Jan Hejda)?
- Where does Gilbert Brule, assigned to Springfield today with Liam Reddox, fit in the mix?
- Will Erik Cole and Dustin Penner be better in the final 36 games than they were in the first 46? I'd say yes on Cole and I-don't-know on Penner.
- Will Souray and Hemsky stay healthy and be as prolific the rest of the way as they have been?
For all the questions, though, know this: if the Oilers come up short, they'll do it together. If they go down, it'll be swinging. They're in it together.
That wasn't always the case.