"We're feeling pretty good about what we're doing and we'd like to be in the playoffs." With that Devan Dubnyk summed up what has happened to the Edmonton Oilers, and what they want to happen. It's been a head spinning 10 days for the Oilers. Around 9:00pm Edmonton time, the night of March 8th, it was the lowest of lows for the hockey team. What's the old joke? The team was so low they could play handball against the curve. Yes, the bottom of the barrel had been hit. Shutout by Nashville 6-0, which was on the heels of a 3-0 shutout loss to Detroit. Last place in the conference was calling and the team wasn't far from last place overall. It wasn't supposed to be like that, and now it isn't.
Things can change fast when you play every second night or 3 games in 4 nights. It's been the case for every NHL team including Edmonton. The Oilers have taken the 4 games since Nashville and gone about their business at a brisk, successful pace which has them contending for a playoff spot. Let me say that one more time, contending for a playoff spot. It's what the Oilers have been hoping and praying for ever since the 2006 run. Every training camp since, the longest serving Oiler Shawn Horcoff would say "We hope to be playing meaningful games in March and April." Unfortunately for Horcoff and his teammates that hasn't been the case. Normally by this time of the hockey year the Oilers have been relegated to spoilers. With their playoff hopes dashed they were left trying to do the same to others. Not this year.
They aren't also-rans but instead they are running with all the other teams clamoring for playoff positioning. 7 out of a possible 8 points allowed the Oilers to hit the sheets on St.Patrick's Day in a legitimate chase for the post season. Two points out of the 8th and final playoff spot, and the team holding down that position just happens to be next on Edmonton's schedule when San Jose visits on Wednesday. There has been a turnaround on the ice and in demeanour. With a 'behind the scenes' job I get a chance to see things that the public doesn't get to see. What I saw I didn't like. It has nothing to do with lack of effort, or lack of interest or anything about how the team was approaching games. Instead it had everything to do with the way they were carrying themselves.
This was one beat up crew of hockey players. Physically that happens when you are on a 9 game, 17 day trip and included in that are two sets of back to back games. What was more concerning was the mental and emotional aspect. I'm not trying to play Doctor Phil. The Oilers have a first rate, world renowned team psychologist in Kimberley Amirault so they don't need my dime store analysis. However, all you had to do is see this team after games, on the bus, the plane or at the hotel and the losing was wearing on them. It wasn't just from this year but a cumulative effect of the past few years. I wasn't too concerned about the vets, but the kids faces and body language weren't telling a very positive story. They were down and only one thing could pick them up: Wins, points and a push for the playoffs. They all go hand in hand for a team and a group of players who are once again enjoying the game of hockey and remembering how much fun it is to win.
Gene Principe is the host of Oilers games on Sportsnet West and Sportsnet Oilers.