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Tencer's Blog: In Sickness & In Health

by Dan Tencer / Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers celebrate a goal against the Ottawa Senators, Nov. 29/2010; The first night of the current five-game point streak.

Riding a serious wave of momentum, the Oilers have earned nine of a possible 10 points in their previous five games and have points in eight of their previous 10 outings. It has been a full calendar year since the team was this hot and with six games to go before the Christmas break, the possibility exists that the club could play itself into the middle of the pack in the playoff race in the Western Conference.

That's an expectation that I'm not ready to put on this club, but I can tell you that the players on the team expect nothing less. Problem is, they head into this next stretch without two of their key offensive players and leaders, as Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff are sidelined long term with groin and knee injuries, respectively. Last year at this time the injuries to Hemsky and Nikolai Khabibulin really started to exact their toll and drive the team downward; this year, I don't expect the injuries to have the same impact. Why?

For starters, knock on wood, their goaltending tandem is healthy...and playing spectacular. Nikolai Khabibulin, who I maintain needs more rest more often to keep up his calibre of performance, has been lights out in three starts since returning from a brief stint away with a groin pull.

Quite simply put, the Oilers would have zero points in their last three games instead of five points if Khabibulin was anything below sensational. In his nine appearances this year, Devan Dubnyk has bordered on the same level of prowess, most recently showcased as he out-dueled Carey Price in Montreal just over a week ago.

When Khabibulin went down last season, it crippled the Oilers franchise in goal. With no disrespect intended to Jeff Deslauriers or Devan Dubnyk, it was obvious that they weren't ready for the workload that was thrust upon them.

How many nights did a bad goal early set the tone? A bad goal late steal a point? Lots and lots. The simple fact that the goaltending, the most important individual position on a team, remains healthy will give the team a chance to compete every night regardless of what's happening with the rest of the roster.

Speaking of the rest of the roster, I don't need to tell you that there's a new attitude in town. Sam Gagner told me a couple of days ago that he thinks the reason why the team will handle the adversity better this time around is that they have a group of players more willing to confront it and deal with it.

Taylor Hall, who has been one of the Oilers' hottest players of late, is an integral part of the team's youthful exuberance.
As Tom Renney would suggest, some of the "poison" has been removed from the dressing room and a whole lot of youthful exuberance and, quite frankly, naievete, has been injected. Even during a six game losing streak, Taylor Hall was adamant that it was still fun to come to the rink and he's one of many young Oilers that are just getting their feet wet in the NHL.

Have you seen this group phased by a poor start or a bad penalty kill or a third period deficit? I haven't. They're far from perfect, but "quit" simply isn't in the vocabulary.

Then we hit the pure skill level of the players that remain. It's a pretty nice option to have the third leading scorer in the AHL on speed dial when an injury happens, isn't it? Linus Omark will join a cast that already includes red hot players like Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Jones and more.

The individual skill level and ability of the average player on this team is significantly greater than it was a year ago and, to this point, they've been able to count on goals from any three of their top four lines on most nights. The center ice position becomes an obvious area of concern, and was before Horcoff's injury to be blunt, but the play of the wingers should mask some of that if it continues.

Finally, there's coaching. I talked to one of the Oil Change producers yesterday and he says his favorite part of working this documentary is getting a front row seat to Tom Renney's communication with the players.

As this individual tells it, after taping Renney's pre-game speeches to his team, he feels like he could run through a brick wall. Renney's players love playing for him, he's an excellent teacher, a meticulous preparer and obviously an inspirational success. He reflects the change in attitude around this franchise and smarter people than me have a ton of faith in his ability to keep this ship from heading south.

I don't mean for this to all come across as Mr. Positive. The team certainly isn't better off without Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky, far from it. I just don't happen to think that the team is going to end up crippled and defeated like they did last year. Playoffs? Let's not talk about that.

But regardless of where this ends up in the standings at the end of the year, I think we're in for a pretty engaging ride to wherever we're headed.
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