EDMONTON – After five straight wins on the road, the challenge for the Edmonton Oilers now is to turn up the heat at Rexall Place during the bone-chilling cold snap that’s gripped Alberta.
With the mercury plummeting to record lows around the province in the past week, the Oilers open a four-game homestand against the Los Angeles Kings Tuesday after a torrid road trip that saw them win in Detroit, Dallas, Florida, Tampa Bay and St. Louis to jump back into playoff contention in the Western Conference.
Can the Oilers stay hot?
“I think so,” said coach Pat Quinn on Monday. “We’re still trying to find an identity for our group in the sense of what kind of a team we can be.
“We had a rocky stretch there and we weren’t a very good team. We were good for minutes, but then we’d make the big error, it seemed like. We beat ourselves a lot. The last week-and-a-half, we haven’t been beating ourselves.”
When the Oilers jetted to Detroit without Ales Hemsky, out for the season with shoulder surgery, and starting goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, on the shelf with a bad back, they were 2-8-2 on the road and struggling through a 4-11-3 stretch.
Framed by that, an 0-5 trip seemed more likely than 5-0, but the Oilers beat the Red Wings 4-1, then strung together 3-2 wins in Dallas, Florida and Tampa Bay before adding an exclamation mark in St. Louis, coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win 5-3.
They take on the Kings sitting in 11th place with 34 points from a 15-13-4 record.
“I think that it says a lot about our leadership group,” captain Ethan Moreau said. “I remember being down 3-0 and guys like Shawn Horcoff and Steve Staios were really vocal, saying, ‘We need to get points out of this game.’
“There was a real confidence in our ability to come back in that game. There wasn’t a doubt in our mind. It says a lot about how far we’ve come. A month ago, being down 3-0, I don’t think there would have been the same response.”
With Khabibulin out, Jeff Deslauriers has started 11 straight games in goal. After a poor performance in a 7-3 loss to Vancouver Nov. 28 right before the trip, Deslauriers has been a constant storyline for the Oilers, backstopping every win during the streak.
“Everybody is intense and everybody knows what they have to do,” said Deslauriers, who allowed just 10 goals on the trip.
“I think we’re more focused, more ready and more hungry. We know we’re not in a playoff spot and we want to get there. That’s our goal, obviously. Right now, everybody is on the same page. We’re doing the little things.”
While Deslauriers has been the story in the defensive end of the rink, left-winger Dustin Penner has filled the void created by the loss of Hemsky by filling the net at the other end.
Penner capped the road trip with a four-point night in St. Louis and has scored 18-18-36 on the season, playing himself into consideration for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Penner had 37 points, including 17 goals, all of last season.
“Our game came together,” said Penner, asked about the turnaround during the trip. “We started playing the system the coaches wanted to, or at least getting closer.
“There was quite a few things contributing to our success. The simplicity of our game. Getting pucks in deep. Eliminating the other team’s chances. We always bought in, it’s just administering the game plan.”
After Los Angeles, the Oilers complete the homestand against Nashville, Washington and St. Louis, then play in Minnesota Dec. 23 before the Christmas break.
“I think we’re finding out that, in the face of adversity, we can still do good things,” Quinn said. “I like that about this past week.
“Whether that transfers going forward or not, it’s hard to say. We’ve still got to play them one at a time. We’ve got a good team coming in here now, so we’ll have a good challenge tomorrow night to find out how much we have progressed toward being a team.”