In it together

Robin Brownlee
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.

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A sports writer since 1983, including stints at The Edmonton Journal and The Sun 1989-2007, I happily co-host the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260 twice a week and write when so inclined. Have the best damn lawn on the internet. Most important, I am Sam's dad. Follow me on Twitter at Robin_Brownlee. Or don't.
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#51 The Towel Boy
January 21 2009, 09:04PM
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Wanye Gretz wrote:

Our anti bandwagon jumping police chief has returned in the nick of time. Think - when he left on Vay-Cay this site was positively rocking with rage at MacT. Every Oiler was a bum and Hemsky was on his way out the door. Now look. I love being an Oiler fan. Also, can I get in on this ham sandwich bet you and Swany have going? MMMMM Ham Sandwich

I love this fickle mob that is the Nation! It's like ancient Rome.

I have it on good authority that the Fire MacT Bandwagon (tm) is currently up on blocks in baggedmilk's front yard and is currently being used as a breeding ground for a pack of ferrel cats.

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#52 RobinB
January 21 2009, 09:36PM
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The Towel Boy wrote:

I love this fickle mob that is the Nation! It’s like ancient Rome. I have it on good authority that the Fire MacT Bandwagon ™ is currently up on blocks in baggedmilk’s front yard and is currently being used as a breeding ground for a pack of ferrel cats.

Let the Oilers drop three out of four after the break and that'll change. The panic level around here is roughly equivalent to that of a clerk working the graveyard shift at a 7-Eleven on the wrong side of town when seven gangstas wearing hoodies and packing spray bombs roll into the parking lot. One eye on the door, the other on the panic button.

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#53 Dennis
January 21 2009, 11:57PM
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RB: I don't think I've read your take on the Garon move but considering your view on the likelihood of Roli being able to carry the mail on such a demanding route, I think I have a pretty good idea what you'll say.

And I don't think DB expects the PK to keep running at 87% but I'll get on board with him that it's taken a turn for the better. And this is from a guy that was hard to convince of that possibility. The biggest difference I've seen is that now the PK's creating chances which obviously tells us they're no longer sagging at the blueline and letting the other teams enter willy-nilly and/or they're being more aggressive in the other end.

I'm hoping things might even cement more positively when 34 returns and the Oilers have five PK forwards to run with; ideally they'd run a 34-13 or 34-78 combo and then we'd have six PK forwards and thus could sustain a high tempo kill-throughout.

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#54 RobinB
January 22 2009, 07:11AM
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@ Dennis: Yes, it has taken a turn for the better, but the initial suggestion that the PK will continue to operate at the 87 per cent its been at in the short-term for the next 36 games is optimistic in the extreme.

The Oilers have been at 84.6 and 84.7 the past two seaons. Given that this group spent much of the first half at 72 per cent, I'll stick with my suggestion that they'll be at 78-80 per cent over the final 36 games. If they can end up at that 78-80 per cent mark overall, that's pretty good with the horrible start they had.

And you'd best re-think that 34-13 combination. Who wins the face-offs?

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#55 Darcy
January 22 2009, 07:37AM
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RobinB wrote:

Gord wrote: The daughter of one of my former co-workers was the teacher of Peca’s son. Peca’s wife was always complaining to the teacher about how much she didn’t like the community and didn’t feel welcome. What you say jibes with what I heard from several people close to the team during Peca’s stay here.

I see to remember the basis for all of that was for some reason an Oiler staffer convinced them to live in Ardrosson, and she hated the distance from the city, and how small Ardrosson is.

Am I wrong on this?

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#56 Malc
January 22 2009, 08:08AM
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Rob wrote:

I see NO point in re-visiting or re-aquiring tweener players like Reasoner who are quite soft and are used in questionable situations by the coach. Like when Reasoner was last here being out on the ice in the final seconds of a critical game when offensive players are sitting on the bench.

I am so tired of comments like these on Reasoner and the coach. He is put out in situations like this to WIN THE FACEOFF. He often went out, won the draw, then went immediately to the bench for a change.

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#57 Ender the Dragon
January 22 2009, 08:40AM
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@ Malc: Well-stated.

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#58 rindog
January 22 2009, 08:46AM
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@ Malc:

And he and other similar type players have also been put out on the PP or as an extra attacker to tie a game late.

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#59 RobinB
January 22 2009, 08:53AM
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@ rindog: You guys are right. While MacT's comparison to Joe Sakic was the epitome of overstatement, there's no question Reasoner was a handy guy to have around.

He was well-rounded, solid on face-offs, defensively reliable and had a history as an offensive player when drafted.

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#60 rindog
January 22 2009, 09:26AM
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@ RobinB:

I just don't think he was handy enough to play on the first line for large chunk of games (splitting with Stoll) down the stretch last year (when Horcoff got hurt).

However, in MacT's defense (did I just say that?), I know we didn't have many other options (with the roster declaration) but we had to have someone else....didn't we?

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#61 Dennis
January 22 2009, 02:59PM
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RB: There would be no reason to let that 13-34 tandem take face-offs.

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#62 swany
January 22 2009, 03:54PM
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RobinB wrote:

@ Wanye Gretz: Swany already bailed on his 87 per cent theory and tried to slip in top-10 (82-83 per cent) in its place. That’s still a bet I’ll take over the final 36 games. As for you, you’re on. But let’s go with the “bologna sandwich” you made so popular at the Remand Centre on Friday nights.

Robin I just went back though the thread and I said why can't they keep up that pace, I didn't know it was 92%, but I feel they will be in the top 10 between 82-87% for the rest of the year. A ham sandwich and a signed Gagner stick for my 10 year old son. If they don't name your price.

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#63 RobinB
January 22 2009, 07:19PM
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@ swany:

Regardless of the PK outcome, if you want, I'll see if I can get you and your son into an Oilers practice before the end of the season and you can meet Sam G. Send me a message on Facebook with your real name and we can try to pick a date.

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#64 speeds
January 22 2009, 11:10PM
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RobinB wrote:

And you’d best re-think that 34-13 combination. Who wins the face-offs?

Why do they need to be on the ice for faceoffs, if that is a concern?

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#65 RobinB
January 23 2009, 07:39AM
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@ speeds: Is there some question 13-34 would be a concern? Have you looked at their face-off percentages?

I'd like to see more of Cogliano on the PK because his speed poses the threat of a counter-attack, but relying on changing on the fly to keep 13-34 on the ice together but out of the face-off circle when you're already a man down can be tricky.

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