DENVER – The Edmonton Oilers are in a race after all -- one to avoid finishing in the Western Conference and NHL basement.
Sitting in 15th place in the West, the Oilers pulled within six points of the 14th-place and free-falling Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night, cruising to a 5-1 victory at the Pepsi Center.
Sam Gagner collected a goal and two assists to back the goaltending of Devan Dubnyk as the Oilers kicked off a five-game road trip with their third consecutive win and third in four meetings against the Avalanche this season.
The Oilers, who have won seven of their past 10 games, have 23 wins and 54 points with 16 games remaining. The Avalanche, who have lost five in a row and 15 of its past 16 games, have 26 wins and 60 points with 17 games to play.
"Everyone talks about getting (the first overall draft) pick," Gagner said. "We've had enough of that. We got that pick last year in (currently injured Taylor Hall) and now we want to show what we're capable of. When you look at it on paper, these games might not seem that important, but it's really important for us to establish an identity and move forward as a group.
"If we have a good last (16) games going into next season, it's going to pay huge dividends."
Ryan Jones, Shawn Horcoff, Alexandre Giroux and Andrew Cogliano also scored for the Oilers, who chased Avalanche starting goalie Brian Elliott (four goals, 19 shots) in the second period.
Dubnyk, a 6-foot-6 rookie, only faced six shots in the first period, but he stopped 19 of 20 shots in the second period when the Oilers grabbed a 4-1 lead and he finished with 33 saves.
The Avalanche got on the board at 15:13 of the period when Ryan O'Reilly knocked in a puck during a goalmouth scramble for his first goal and second point in 17 games.
The Oilers, who have the worst power play in the NHL, scored twice with the man advantage in the first period against an Avalanche team that ranks 29th in penalty killing and last at home.
Gagner opened the scoring at 4:19, just eight seconds after Colorado's Ryan Wilson was sent to the penalty box for high sticking. Linus Omark fired a shot from the right point and Elliott made the stop, but Andrew Cogliano nudged the puck to Gagner on the left side for a shot into the back of the net.
Ryan Jones made it 2-0 at 9:17, a little over a minute after Philippe Dupuis went to the box for tripping. Elliott got a piece of Tom Gilbert's shot and Gagner managed to get his stick on the loose puck in the crease before Jones knocked it home.
"We came out tonight and obviously it was nowhere good enough of a performance at home," said Avalanche coach Joe Sacco, whose team has lost six games in a row on home ice. "I look at our team playing tonight and I see a lot of our younger players not playing with confidence right now. They're in-between the game right now. They're not on their toes; were on our heels, and that's not our identity as a team.
"I can see it in some of our younger players. When they have the puck, they're not making plays in certain areas. It's no excuse. We have to be a better team, especially at home."
The Oilers, meantime, have won three of their past four road games, two of them against the Avalanche by identical 5-1 scores.
Horcoff increased the lead to 3-0 at the 39-second mark of the second period. Magnus Paajjarvi drew two defenders to him above the left circle and passed to an unchecked Horcoff on the opposite side for a shot that whistled inside the right post.
Giroux, playing his first NHL game of the season after being summoned from the minors Saturday afternoon because of injuries, tipped Omark's shot from the right circle behind Elliott at 8:36, prompting Avalanche coach Joe Sacco to replace Elliott with Peter Budaj.
"It was just a tip-in and we were lucky to get it done," said Giroux, who took a 2 p.m. flight out of Oklahoma City and arrived in Denver a few hours before the opening faceoff. "Everyone wants to be in the NHL, so I was really excited about it."
Cogliano converted Liam Reddox's pass on a two-on-one rush for a shorthanded goal and 5-1 lead 29 seconds into the third period.
The Oilers got a scare shortly after when Gagner fell awkwardly into the boards after taking a check from Avalanche defenseman Jonas Holos. Gagner was shaken but eventually got to his skates.
"I took my time getting up because I didn't know what was hurt," he said. "It was one of those things where you can't really control yourself in that situation. It's scary, but I'm glad I'm no worse for wear."
The same can't be said of the reeling Avalanche.
"We're going through a stretch where we have to try to remain poised, try to remain positive and just keep working," Sacco said. "We don't feel good about ourselves and we have to find a way to feel better."
Both teams lost a player before the game even started. Edmonton's Gilbert Brule was scratched because of an intestinal problem and Colorado's Ryan Stoa will miss at least two weeks after undergoing an emergency appendectomy.
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