EDMONTON - With their playoff hopes virtually ended, Edmonton head coach Ralph Krueger said the Oilers must use their final six games to learn valuable lessons for the future.
The day after their sixth straight loss, Krueger admitted the team "still didn't have the foundation" to truly be a playoff team this year and the players now must focus their attention on upcoming seasons.
"It's now having to understand what we do in this final stretch, this is very, very important for us heading into the future," the first-year head coach said Thursday. "To play teams that are division champions, three of them … is a huge test of our character. It’s going to be very important to look these division champions in the eye and try to understand in every single game what we're missing. And try to play these teams even up.
"We have the opportunity to really learn lessons that will take us into the summer so we can begin immediately, one day after the season, working on where we can get better, what is this gap (between themselves and division champions) about."
The Oilers were in eighth place and riding a five-game winning streak two weeks ago but have lost their last six to fall to 12th in the western conference, eight points out of a playoff spot. They travel to Denver to play Colorado Friday night before returning home for four of their final five games, four of those against division leaders Vancouver, Anaheim (twice) and Chicago.
Edmonton's home record is the third worst in the NHL at 8-8-4.
Coming after the Oilers appeared on its way to achieving a major goal of making the playoffs, the losing streak has been shocking for the players and the coaching staff.
"We were totally on plan at Game 35," Krueger said. "You get to Game 35 everything worked out, with all the setbacks we had …. so to be where we are today is why it's difficult to regroup. We reached quite high, from 29th place, to truly believe the possibility of making the playoffs and to have that taken away the reality is extremely painful. And it should be painful and we should feel that."
Krueger said it's vital the players and management figure out why they were a playoff team at the 35-game mark and also-rans six games later.
"What happened to us, why didn't we have the energy to sustain that? Why didn't we play those games in Vancouver and L.A. at a different level and figure out what that gap is, how we can close that gap?”
Shawn Horcoff and Ryan Smyth have suffered through the agony of a lot of Edmonton's non-playoff seasons — this will be their seventh straight — and both admit this may be the most disappointing of them all.
Horcoff, the team captain in his 11th season with the Oilers, said this year has "probably been the toughest because we were right there six games ago."
Horcoff admitted part of the reason for the current losing streak is partly because the Oilers played top-tier teams — Vancouver, Anaheim and Los Angeles — and then couldn't recover from the shock of losing all three games and seeing their playoff hopes fading.
"We played some good, playoff teams, league leading teams," Horcoff said. "They upped their game and we couldn't find a way to respond to that."
The team captain said the players' attitude is that they want to finish the season strong but because there's been such a "mass disappointment, a huge emotional let down. We've had trouble getting over that."
Smyth, a 16-year NHL veteran — 13 of those with Edmonton — said the finish is particularly disappointing "because of the assets we have here."
"We thought we were a playoff type of team and not to be there is so disappointing," he added.