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Avalanche-Oilers Preview @NHLdotcom

After a strong finish to last season - and carrying a young roster with promising talent - the Edmonton Oilers were enthusiastic about getting the 2008-09 season underway.

They had to contain their excitement a bit longer than any other team.

The Oilers will become the last NHL club to begin regular-season play on Sunday, when they host the Colorado Avalanche in the first of six meetings between the Northwest Division rivals.

Last season, Edmonton went 41-35-6 and finished three points shy of Nashville for the final Western Conference playoff berth, but the Oilers won 14 of their last 20 games and retained much of their young core that includes second-year skaters Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Tom Gilbert.

"I think we're all pretty excited," said Gagner, who was fifth among NHL rookies with 49 points last season. "We have a confident bunch in here who's pretty competitive, and for us to succeed we're gonna have to be that way all year. ... Hopefully we can get off to a good start and keep it rolling."

Coach Craig MacTavish's club is even more eager to start after watching every other team begin its season over the past eight days. Four teams have played at least three games and the New York Rangers have already completed four contests before the Oilers drop the puck for the first time.

"I guess the league's going to let us in now," MacTavish said. "It's unusual, to say the least, that we have to wait."

Edmonton is hoping its offensive performance will have been worth the wait. Ales Hemsky returns after the 25-year-old led the team with 71 points last season, and the club bolstered its offense by acquiring Erik Cole in a trade with Carolina in the offseason.

Shawn Horcoff also returns to the ice for the first time since Jan. 29. Horcoff had 50 points in 53 games last season before shoulder surgery, then signed a six-year contract extension in the offseason.

The bigger question mark may be in net. Goalie Mathieu Garon, who's mostly been a backup throughout his career, enters 2008-09 as the Oilers' top goalie, hoping to improve on his 26-18-1 record and 2.66 goals-against average last season.

"It's gonna be up to him to grab it and run with it, and become not only a solid No. 1 goalie on our team, but be one of the better goalies in the league," MacTavish said. "We all know how important goaltending's going to be in this division."

The Avalanche certainly understand, and their situation in the crease may be even murkier. After Jose Theodore bolted via free agency, Peter Budaj inherited the top spot.

Budaj didn't look like a No. 1 goalie in Colorado's opener, making just 15 saves in a 5-4 home loss to Boston on Thursday. The Avalanche outshot the Bruins 39-20, including 20-5 in the first period, but Budaj allowed the winning goal with 2:36 to play in the game. He's still slated to start Sunday.

"We did skate well, we did create enough offensively, but there are areas we can improve," Avs coach Tony Granato said.

It's been 10 years since the Avs last began a season with two straight regulation losses, as they dropped four in a row to begin the 1998-99 season. That season, they still reached the Western Conference finals.

Despite the loss, Colorado saw promising signs from its offense Thursday, as veteran Milan Hejduk had a goal and an assist while youngster Wojtek Wolski also scored.

The Avs have thrived offensively in recent visits to Rexall Place. They dropped their last two games in Edmonton last season, but before those losses they had been 7-1-1 in their previous nine games there. They've still averaged 4.4 goals in their last 11 games at Edmonton.

"They, more so than any other team, have embarrassed us here in our own building over the last number of years," MacTavish said. "This will be a good test for us (Sunday) to minimize the damage that they do in their offensive zone."

Colorado went 6-2-0 against Edmonton last season, with two of the wins coming in shootouts.

Sunday's game will be the 1,000th for Avs defenseman Adam Foote in his career.

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