Will the Edmonton Oilers have a better second half to this lockout-shortened 48-game season? And, even if they do, will it be enough to make them playoff contenders in the Western Conference?
I don’t know the answer to that, but Sunday’s all-over-the-place 6-5 nail-biter over Chicago at the United Center – the Blackhawks first regulation time loss at home this season — damn sure was worth the price of admission and kicked off the second half of Edmonton’s schedule with a bang.
Languishing in the basement of the Western Conference when the game began and on a five-game losing streak, the Oilers jumped out to a 4-0 lead and then hung on for dear life to win for just the second time in eight games on this nine-game road trip after being shutout in back-to-back games.
Along the way, the Oilers lost starter Devan Dubnyk, who took a knee in the coconut from Teemu Hartikainen, leaving third-string stopper Yann Danis to close the deal and send the Oilers to Colorado to wrap-up the trip feeling, I’m guessing, pretty good about themselves.
It wasn’t remotely close to the way coach Ralph Krueger would have drawn it up for Game 25, but it was two points for a team that was in the throes of a difficult stretch and starting to look like a bunch that was flat-out beaten down and ready to fold.
"I’m proud of the team to be able to dig this one out," Krueger said after the Oilers improved to 9-11-5 for 23 points going into Denver for a match-up with the Avalanche Tuesday.
People like to call wins like this one "character builders." Maybe so, but if the Oilers are going to make anything resembling a concerted playoff push in the 23 games that remain, character-builders are going to have to take a backseat to points in the standings.
It goes without saying there’s obviously a helluva long way to go, but there is something to be said for the lift, however brief, a win like this one provides. There’s been a lot of heads hanging and shoulders slumping over the past few weeks, and that starts permeate a locker room. "Here we go again . . ."
Against the Blackhawks, Sam Gagner continued to shove it to his critics with two more goals. Captain Shawn Horcoff, who called a team meeting Saturday, made his return from a busted knuckle and scored a goal. Buzz-saw Mike Brown contributed with his gloves on with the 1-0 goal and continues to look like a timely and much-needed pick-up. Hartikainen returned to the fold. Ryan Whitney looked like, well, the player he used to be.
So, what now?
DOWN THE STRETCH
While it’s tempting to say the win over the Blackhawks could set a tone heading into Denver, that tone changes completely if the Oilers revert to recent form against the Avalanche. Given the swings in performance we’ve seen this season, that’s entirely possible. Maybe even probable.
Will the veteran leadership of Horcoff make a difference in the remaining 23 games? Is Whitney finding his game or was Sunday a blip on his way to a new address at the trade deadline? And what of Dubnyk? If he’s not ready to go against Colorado, it’ll be Danis and somebody not named Nikolai Khabibulin tending the twine.
That’ll play out, as it always does, soon enough. Besides, plotting a trend for the Oilers, as we’ve found out, has been next to impossible, so it’s probably prudent not to read too much into what we saw against the Blackhawks.
What I do know is this: for the first off-day in a long time, the Oilers have something to feel good about as they make their way to Denver instead of digesting yet more defeat and disappointment. Likewise their fans, who’ve had precious little to cheer about lately. Take a day to enjoy it.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.