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Avoiding an Oil Slick (Pacific Division Notebook)

Jason Halstead/Getty Images North America

akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief

 

Speaking at an event for season-ticket holders a couple of weeks ago, Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan, with some of the words he used to address the Oilers’ fan base, sounded less like a first-year coach of the historic franchise and more like what you might hear from Glen Sather back in the 1980s. And rightfully so.

The confidence level with this young Oilers squad continues to grow, and back-to-back wins on the road over Anaheim and San Jose – McLellan’s former employer – to end their January road schedule have the Oilers firmly entrenched in a playoff spot with 64 points, sitting second in the Pacific Division as the All-Star break looms. In those two wins, Edmonton outscored the Golden State squads by a combined 8-1, scoring four goals in each contest. Overall, the Oilers have won seven of their last eight contests, and McLellan believes this should be only the start of things to come.

“This should be the standard,” said McLellan at the event. “This should be what happens every year and that’s what we’re trying to get to, where you’re in the mix, you’re winning more than you’re losing, you have some ups and downs but you’re able to keep the downs a little shorter than in the past. Players are evolving and developing. This is what we’re trying to create as a standard but I don’t think we’ve done that yet. We still have a lot of work in front of us.”

And, boy, is there a lot of work to come, especially when the calendar turns to February. After tonight’s home game against the Minnesota Wild, Edmonton plays nine of its 12 February games on the road, Six of those nine games are against teams currently occupying a playoff spot. Edmonton ends February on a seven-game road trip.

It’s a good thing that the Oilers have built a cushion between themselves and the fourth-place team in the Pacific. It’s also a good thing that they’ve built some collateral with their play away from the new Rogers Place. The two wins last week improved the team’s road record to 15-7-5, the second-best road record in the Western Conference behind Minnesota.

If you want to point a finger at one particular factor as to why the Oilers are on pace to make its first playoff appearance since its Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2006, start with that road warrior mentality the team has now adopted.

“To pinpoint certain moments, I look at our record on the road as perhaps one of our biggest achievements,” said McLellan. “I still go back to the ability to shrink the goals for and against. The only way we even get close to a playoff spot is to get that nearer or in that plus range. To come down from 82 [in previous seasons] to a positive number is a real feather in the cap to everybody that’s involved but the year isn’t over.”

Edmonton’s plus-13 goal differential would be an improvement of a whopping 55 from last season’s minus-42, when it finished with 70 points all year. (This year’s team already had 64 points, with two-plus months left in the season.)

The team also is finding ways to win the close games – both at home and on the road. Of their last 30 games, 14 of those have gone to overtime, while eight of their last 13 victories have come by just one goal.

“We’re having guys step up and making big plays, where in the past, a lot of times I think the Oilers were on the losing end of those one-goal games and not picking up the extra point in overtime and stuff like that,” said forward Milan Lucic, one of the few veterans on the team who can speak of having Stanley Cup Final experience.”It’s just building confidence, no matter what the situation is and having guys step up in big moments and getting some big wins here.”

Because the success-starved Western Canada town is desperate for a winner on the ice, you wouldn’t blame them if they end up being satisfied with just seeing playoff hockey in Rogers Place, which would make the first postseason games those fans would gaze at in over a decade. But McLellan, when asked about the accomplishments his team has already achieved, is looking at what’s ahead.

“When I think about answering it, it’s almost like we’re at the finish line,” McLellan said. “I don’t want to be at the finish line. I don’t want to talk about finishing because I think we’ve got so much in front of us.”

What’s in front of them now is a whole lot of frequent flyer miles, a hellish month of February that might make or break the Oilers’ season.

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