EDMONTON, AB - To be a playoff team, you have to earn that right.
That statement takes on an extra level of importance in a jam-packed Pacific Division picture, with spots one through five separated by a mere three points.
"When everything is bunched up as tight as it is and there are so many teams involved, if you get into the playoffs, you've earned your way in," Head Coach Dave Tippett said Monday. "You're not going to get in just by squeaking through. You're going to have to earn your way in because there are so many teams that are going to be in play."
A crowded division means plenty of meaningful games on the horizon for the Oilers, exemplified in Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames in a Battle of Alberta that will go down as one of the most charged-up provincial duels in recent memory.
The feeling of knowing every next game against divisional opponents is your biggest? The more, the better if you're in the Oilers locker room.
"It's great. We talked about it as a group this morning," Tippett said of meaningful games. "It's where you want to be because to be a playoff team you've got to earn the right to be a playoff team."
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A difficult stretch of 14 games in 31 days in December that yielded a 5-8-1 record has opened up into a relaxed month of January where the club plays only nine games. The Oilers are 3-1-1 this month after their extended five-game road trip and returning to Rogers Place on Monday for their first practice on home ice in two weeks.
"We were gone for 12 to 13 days," forward Alex Chiasson said. "We played five games, so obviously the travel, especially after the Montreal game, wasn't the greatest. But overall, it was a pretty good road trip for us."
"We got two more home games before the break, so those are obviously valuable points with how close the standings are in the west. We have to make sure we come in tomorrow and do a job to try and grab two points."
Returning home for two games against Nashville and Arizona, with plenty of practice time in between, before the ensuing breaks is a stark swap from the schedule the Oilers completed before the turn of 2020.
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"It's obviously a little bit of a different schedule right now than we've had all year. We didn't really have much time to practice all year, so it's nice to get some practices in and get the energy back up," Chiasson said.
"Today was a good step in the right direction. I thought we practiced hard and our execution was good."
How they manage time off and practice to prepare is what Tippett believes the Oilers must concentrate on before the stacked schedule eventually returns in the season's final months.
"If we want to become a playoff team, and we want to be a team that can be successful in the playoffs, this run going on is going to give us the opportunity to earn that," Tippett said. "It's a big part of growing as a team, and I think we've come a long ways in the first half. But the second half is really going to tell where we're at. Our group is focused on that."