In the New York Islanders, the Edmonton Oilers will not only be facing a team at Rexall Place tonight that’s dead-last in the NHL, but an outfit that’s lost 12 straight games on the road. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as fans have come to, ahem, understand after watching the Oilers toss out the welcome mat for road-shy homebodies like the Florida Panthers and the Ottawa Senators, the answer is “plenty.”
While the Islanders are so lousy on the road with those 12 straight losses and a record of 5-15-2 they need a note from their moms before leaving Long Island, the same was true of the Panthers, who beat the Oilers 2-0 here back on Dec. 11.
Likewise the feeble Senators, who straggled into town Dec. 30 with 12 straight losses on the road and promptly put an end to the Oilers three-game winning streak in a 3-2 decision.
Is it any wonder, then, reporters were quick to cut to the chase with coach Craig MacTavish after the morning skate today? The Oilers wouldn’t be, well, stupid enough to underestimate the 12-24-4 Islanders, would they?
Well, would they?
Talk is cheap
“Predictable question,” smiled MacTavish when Mark Connolly of the CBC asked the obvious question this morning. “We all know we’ve been down this path before.
“The margin of error, the line between winning and losing is so fine that you just have to be prepared every night. You’ve got to give your best effort every night. You look at their record. They’ve lost some games, but they’re all close games.”
As deep as the Oilers have been in Western Conference standings for most of their 37 games, it’s not like they’ve faced a lot of teams below them in the NHL pecking order.
But the Panthers and Senators were two of them — and not just teams lower in the standings, but teams there’s absolutely no reason NOT to beat for fun. The injury riddled Islanders, even with former Oilers Doug Weight, Bill Guerin and Mike Comrie looking to shove it high and tight to their old team, are one of those clubs.
So, after pissing away four points they might well need on the way to winning the Northwest Division title, you’d think MacTavish’s men would be blowing snot bubbles and ready to rumble tonight, no?
“We’ve got another big challenge here tonight and another team we can’t take lightly just because they’re not up there in the standings,” said Sheldon Souray.
“We’re not going to overlook this game, for sure. It’s going to be another challenge for us.”
If the Oilers have a fatal flaw — one that’s bitten them more than once in the last decade during their annual quest for sixth, seventh or eighth place in the conference — it’s that they’ve failed to bank points that have to be automatic. These are two of them.
Last season, the Oilers went 14-5-1 in their final 20 games and still missed the post-season by three points. I can think of at least six points they had no business not getting. Do the math.
Every team, even the good ones, phone it in once in awhile and give away points. The Detroit Red Wings can get away with it once in awhile. The Oilers? Not so much. They don’t have that margin for error — especially with Ales Hemsky out with a concussion and Shawn Horcoff questionable with back spasms.
“We need to come out with a lot of focus and a lot of energy,” said Sam Gagner. “Hopefully, if we can do that, we can come out with the two points.”
What could possibly go wrong?