Oilers now focusing on returning to form, not playoffs

The Edmonton Oilers celebrate a shootout win over the Calgary Flames. (Jason Franson/CP)

“We’re going to make the playoffs.” Cam Talbot looks you right in the eye as he says it.

The Edmonton Oilers goalie is a true pro. And a true pro knows that the negative thought, no matter if you are coming out of the All-Star break 10 points south of a wildcard spot with five teams to pass, can never be allowed to enter the mind of a winner.

Alas, mental strength has been an issue here in Edmonton this season. A team that allowed itself to believe things would come around naturally spent the first half of the season waiting for things to turn. Somehow, nobody really seemed to really do anything about it. The fan base seemed far more desperate than the players in the dressing room, though we learn now that was never the case.

“Early in the year we were putting way too much pressure on ourselves,” said Milan Lucic, whose game — like too many of his teammates — has not been good enough for long enough this season. “Right now, I feel like we shouldn’t put any pressure on ourselves. Let’s just go out and play.

“It’s not a losing attitude. You never know what can happen,” he said. “You saw Ottawa do it three years ago. We (Boston) missed the playoffs because of that.”

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At the All-Star break of the 2014-15 season, the Senators were in 10th place in the East, 10 points behind eighth place Boston. They made up enough ground to become the first wildcard team, three points head of the Bruins.

“We’re going to play like our lives are on the line every single night,” promised Talbot. “Until eight teams have an ‘X’ beside their name we’re not out of it. That’s how we have to approach it.”

The 22-24-3 Oilers practiced at 3 p.m. local time Monday and don’t play until a visit by Colorado on Thursday. They won four of five heading into the break, though the one loss was that 5-0 stinker to Buffalo, their third 5-0 home-ice loss since Christmas.

“That Buffalo game,” Lucic said, shaking his head. “It felt like we were on a five-game losing streak.”

It was a microcosm of their season. A team picked to make the playoffs by every prognosticator has fallen flat, and it’s a huge disappointment.

The coaching staff, which will undergo a forensic examination this summer by upper management, has struggled to maintain an overall belief on a 103-point team last season that’s on pace for just 79 this year.

“There is belief. Until it’s completely taken away from you, there’s belief,” promised head coach Todd McLellan. “But (playoffs) are not a discussion point when we get into the locker room. It’s about fixing our game and getting playing the right way. Playoffs are a pipe dream if we play the way we played against Buffalo.”

Really, what this team needs is to regain its form. To remember what it’s like to be an elite club. Even if you miss the playoffs in the end, which is almost a certainty, at least a team can go into the summer with a recollection of what their top level feels like.

“There is a carryover,” said Lucic. “Creating that belief of an elite team, playing like an elite team, it carries over. It’ll have value. The mindset in the summertime is, ‘OK, we’re going to work even harder this summer to get back to that elite level we created for ourselves.’”

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As for the coach, he can barely say the word ‘playoffs’ right now. He’s just trying to get his team to play consistently at a high level, a task that has proven harder this season than anyone thought possible.

“We have to play extremely well for an extended period of time. That’s the reality of it. The extended period of time is secondary. The playing well comes first, and that’s what we’re striving for,” McLellan reasoned. “Forget about the playoff talk on our behalf in the locker rook — it doesn’t happen. It’s about playing right and competing. Getting our game up to where it needs to be.”

The Oilers, it was announced at the All-Star game, will open next season on a trip through Germany and Sweden, where they’ll face the New Jersey Devils in their 2018-19 opener.

They’ve got 33 games left to figure a few things out. It would not be wise to waste them.

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