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Improved Oilers not looking too far ahead

Coach Todd McLellan wants them focused on next opponent, not standings

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- Being in unfamiliar territory has not rattled the Edmonton Oilers.

Not only are the Oilers in a strong position to qualify for their first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2006, they are bidding for first place in the Pacific Division heading into Game 50 of their season at the Anaheim Ducks (10 p.m. ET; PRIME, SNW, NHL.TV) on Wednesday.

The Oilers (26-15-8) have 60 points, two fewer than the San Jose Sharks and three behind the division-leading Ducks. Edmonton plays at San Jose on Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET, CSN-CA, SNW, NHL.TV) in its final game before the All-Star break. 

But coach Todd McLellan doesn't want his players looking too far ahead.

"You don't coach or play the standings," he said. "They exist after the game and you can't start chasing things at any point during the season. You play the games that are presented and play them to the best of your ability. You review, evaluate and change, and you move on.

"Good, steady teams do that. I don't hear our guys talk about the standings that we're here or there. They talk about the opponent coming up and getting ready to play again."

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The Oilers have been frequently ready this season. When they defeated the Calgary Flames 7-3 on Saturday, it ended a stretch of 11 games in 19 days when they went 7-3-1.

After 49 games last season, the Oilers were 19-25-5 with 43 points and a goal differential of minus-27. Through 49 games this season, they have 17 more points and a plus-14 goal differential.

"Steady on the rudder," McLellan said about his approach for what's ahead, including the important games in Anaheim and San Jose this week. "There isn't a parade planned in our locker room. There isn't anything that changes on a day-to-day basis.

"It's about the two points that are in front of us. If we can keep it that way, not get too high or too low when things go good or bad, we'll be OK. But we're still a growth team -- I've said that all along -- and we're learning lessons as we go. A lot of them have been positive lately, but it can change quickly."

Forward Jordan Eberle, who's in his seventh season with the Oilers, has noticed the positive vibe around the team.

"There's 100 percent more excitement," Eberle said. "Anytime you're winning hockey games, that's what happens.

"We've enjoyed playing in a city that loves hockey."

Eberle relishes the chance to play games that have ramifications for the division lead well past the halfway point of the season.

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"Obviously you're thinking that, but these are two huge games," said Eberle, who had a two-goal, four-point performance against the Flames. "I think it's kind of enjoyable that you get to go to two teams ahead of you in the standings and you have the chance, with a couple of wins, to maybe go into first place. That's fun. That's what makes hockey fun.

"The biggest thing is that we're playing meaningful games coming down the stretch here."

Forward Matt Hendricks, who played his 500th NHL game Saturday, said the Oilers are aware they have a distance to go in their growth.

"It's a good feeling right now; we're in a good spot," Hendricks said. "We set up some goals at the beginning of the season and so far we're going down the right road to accomplish them. There's growth in our team every day, [but] we see a lot of room for improvement.

"We keep getting better and we're climbing that ladder. There are still a lot of games to be played but where we sit right now, we look like a playoff team. We've played well enough to be in this situation. 

Beyond games against the Ducks and Sharks this week, the Oilers face a difficult February schedule that sees them play three home games and nine road games, though they do have their five-day break Feb. 6-10.

"We need to continue it because these games now are the ones that really matter," Hendricks said, "and games will be tougher and tougher as we continue."

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