THE END OF ELPH???

Three straight wins with three different goalie and five wins in their last seven games and all of a sudden the Oilers look a competent NHL team. Sam Gagner has a point in four straight games, Taylor Hall is suddenly tied with Gagner and Dustin Penner for the team lead in goals with eight, Ryan Whitney leads all NHL D-men in assists with 20 and even Jim Vandermeer is playing well.

The question that needs to be asked; Is this team for real or was it just a short blimp on the ELPH screen?

Before many of you Kool-aid guzzlers get your shorts in a knot and call me negative, read the article.

Last year from Dec 3rd to Dec 11th the Oilers won five straight on the road with wins in Detroit, Dallas, Florida, Tampa Bay and St. Louis. They returned to Edmonton with a record of 15-13-4, but despite five straight wins the Nation wasn’t bursting with excitement.

That team was held together with papier mache and most knew it was only a matter of time before they came unglued. After that stunning five-game winning streak the Oilers lost 20 of their next 21 games. From Dec 15th to Jan 30th, you celebrated one measly victory, a 3-1 win v. Toronto at Rexall Place on Dec 30th. It was six-week stretch many of you have erased from your memory.

 

My late father would have turned 67 today. He was a die-hard hockey fan, but he never got too excited or upset after a win or a loss. IIn the past seven games after watching the top-three lines score, all three goalies play well and all three defence pairings play decent, he might have been inclined to believe this team was ready to compete.

I’m not fooled into thinking that three games means this team is ready to make a push for a playoff spot, but I’ve seen a lot of improvement the past two weeks and right now I’d lean towards them slowly creeping up the standings, than falling back into the bottom five in the NHL.

DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THIS YEAR AND LAST

Even the most optimistic fan knew that without Ales Hemsky, Nikolai Khabibulin and a brittle Sheldon Souray last year’s team wasn’t going anywhere. They had POS and Robert Nilsson shuffling in and out of their top-six. They had two rookie goaltenders, aging veterans who were past their prime and a coach with a temper shorter than your woman’s when she falls into the toilet in the middle of the night because you left the seat up.

You didn’t think they would lose 20 of their next 21, but very few were fooled into believing they could compete.

I think this team is different.

Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi are only going to get better as the season progresses. Khabibulin and Hemsky are healthy (for now), Gagner, Cogliano and Brule are still improving and aren’t on the downside of their career, and Tom Renney has proven to be a patient teacher. Renney refused to put Hall and Eberle in pressure situations early in the season because he wanted to protect them. Then he sent them a subtle message that they needed to be more than offensive players by benching them in the 3rd period of a meaningless blowout.

Since that benching Hall has gotten much better in his own zone, and it has resulted in a big improvement in his +/- and now he is a co-leader in goals. Eberle hadn’t scored in 15 games until last night, but he has looked more comfortable and is starting to live up to his reputation of making big plays in late-game pressure situations. The kids don’t seem to get nervous when the game intensifies.

I don’t think this team is a playoff contender, and barring major injuries I don’t see them being able to stick with Wanye’s plan of Exciting Last Place Hockey. As long as the injury bug doesn’t hit this team, I don’t think they will garner another lottery pick for Steve Tambellini and staff.

DYING A SLOW DEATH

This team isn’t bad enough to finish 30th, and I hate to say it, but I don’t see them being a lottery team either. Don’t get me wrong, this team isn’t ready for prime time, and I’m sure we will witness a few more one-sided loses, but the kids are finding their groove and it looks like they are finally getting a grip on how to play away from the puck, and how to eliminate the glaring giveaways from their game.

Like any young team, they will forget these lessons from time-to-time and they will still give you ample opportunity to yell at your TV, curse a player’s name, demand someone get traded or assigned to the minors and proclaim "fill in blank" is overpaid. However, they will also present you with feelings of pride, hope and belief like they did this week, and those games will start to become more frequent as we enter 2011.

ELPH was put to rest on December 2nd, 2010.

For many, you left way too early. Wanye and company were just starting to know you, but, alas, Hall, Eberle, Gagner and the rest of the youthful, exuberant Oilers were too naive to know they should have kept you around.

I doubt MOTRPH (middle of the road place hockey) will be able to capture the hearts and imagination of Oiler fans the way ELPH did, but I just can’t see the Oilers being capable of keeping ELPH alive.

My heartfelt condolences go out to Wanye, who I know will be crushed, when he realizes ELPH is gone. This weekend when you are out Christmas shopping or nursing a hangover think of Wanye, and raise a glass to his beloved ELPH.

He will be missed.