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Tencer's Blog: Pack Mentality

by Dan Tencer / Edmonton Oilers
With a win on Friday over Colorado, the Oilers could find themselves back in 7th spot in the Western Conference; wins Friday and Saturday could see them as high as fourth.

Heading into this 2011-12 season, I think the most realistic expectation for the Edmonton Oilers was that they'd improve enough to be a part of "the pack". On the phone this week, St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock told me that he defines "the pack" as any team in between a division leader and a bottom feeder. The Western Conference is so tight, Hitchcock says, that only a truly elite handful are able to separate themselves, while the rest are destined for a season-long fight in the dog pound.

The Oilers are in that fight. They aren't as good as their start suggested and they're not as bad as their recent slide would indicate. Like most everybody in the West, their season has been, is, and will be a roller coaster. The key when you're in the pack is to win enough to not let a bunch of teams get in front of you. A handful of points back of a playoff spot is manageable, but not if you've got to make that up on 3 or 4 or 5 teams. Stay above the cut line, or right up against it, or you're in tough.

The Blues, under Hitchcock, are 9-2-3, while the Oilers are 4-9-1 over the same stretch. Together, they're in a group of 8 teams that are separated by just 4 points. It's that tight through 28 games, and it's going to stay that way through to the end of 82. The point is, an even keel is necessary. Wednesday night against Carolina was ugly. Boy, was it ugly, and the team deserved every ounce of criticism it received after that performance. After all, it's a season of new standards. But, and this is a big but, if the Oilers win against Colorado on Friday night, they'll be back above the cut line.

That's life in the pack, friends. The highs might seem high and the lows might seem low, but it's awfully important to look at the bigger picture and realize that pretty much every other team in "the pack" is going to go through the same thing. By this time last year, the Oilers had already fallen out of the pack. If they can get back on an upward swing and find a few more consistent results, they won't have a problem staying with the group for the rest of this season.

If they want to do that, they'll have to buck an unusual trend that has started to develop through 28 games of this Oilers season. The team has held a lead at some point in 9 of the 15 games that they've lost. Lately, the Oilers have also been the exception to the rule that the team which scores first wins the game. The Oilers have scored the first goal in 8 consecutive hockey games, yet have just 3 wins to show for it.

On one hand, these are tremendous stats. They demonstrate that the Oilers are capable, on a routine basis, of gaining an edge on the scoreboard against any team in the league. On the other hand, the statistics are quite alarming. Too often, the team fails to get the lead across the finish line for 2 points. In their last 6 games, the Oilers are 1-4-1, despite scoring first each night.

I talked to Ryan Whitney a little bit about the problem today, and he suggested a fairly simple solution: chip the puck in more. He says the game is too easy to play for the opposition when they can force you to turn the puck over at the offensive blueline or in the neutral zone, and not chipping the puck in makes the opposition defense immune from a physical forecheck. The simple play, Whitney says, is often the right one. Especially when the team is leading.

I'd say this approach is even more critical given the lack of depth on the blueline and the fact that the goaltending has come back to earth. The team needs to take advantage of every opportunity they can to minimize turnovers and time spent in their own zone. Injured Cam Barker and Corey Potter are still out for the foreseeable future, ditto for the suspended Andy Sutton, and the aforementioned Whitney is still struggling to find mid-season form. The less pressure put on the defense, the better. Even if it's not a pretty game.

You can listen to Dan on Inside Sports weeknights from 6 to 9 on 630 CHED.


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