Oilers confident ahead of make or break stretch of season

Connor McDavid, Coach Hitchcock and Cam Talbot discuss what has been a frustrating stretch of results, but McDavid points out that they’re still only 3 points out of a playoff spot, with half a season left.

EDMONTON — Blessed are the Edmonton Oilers, to be a .500 hockey team on Jan. 10 and still be just three points out of a wildcard spot.

But here’s what we know: That won’t last much longer. So as they open a stretch of six home games in their final seven games before the All-Star break — only two against teams currently holding down a playoff spot — it is fair to say we’ve reached ‘make or break’ time here in Edmonton.

"Put a few games together here and we’re right where we want to be," said a chipper Cam Talbot, who gets the start in goal against the visiting Florida Panthers Thursday. "If we don’t look too far ahead, don’t focus too much on the standings, then we can really start to build something here.

"You can’t look too far ahead, think about what’s going to happen in February. It starts with me tonight. I have to have a good start."

Teams that miss the playoffs routinely — and that has been Edmonton, in 11 of the past 12 seasons — can always point to a stretch like this one, often that went south. Last season the Oilers crawled up to a .500 record just before Christmas but couldn’t hold it together.

"There’s a big difference between last year’s team and this year’s team," assessed Milan Lucic. "Last year, I don’t know… It just wasn’t there. This year we’ve definitely shown some times where we’ve shown we can compete. Where we have a lot of non-quit in our game.

"We’re in control of our destiny. It’s a big moment for all of us."

Edmonton is coming off a 2-2 road trip that, on the surface, sounds OK. But the two losses — 3-0 at Los Angeles and 7-2 at San Jose — were games in which the Oilers weren’t nearly good enough. It’s a roller coaster that tests the coach, to be sure.

"It tests you on whether you’re committed to the process, or if you just want to win," Ken Hitchcock said. "We will want to win, but are we committed to the process? The answer is yes."

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There is a point in every season where the leaders have to lead, and it is accepted inside this Edmonton dressing room that we have reached that moment in the 2018-19 campaign.

"Hitch kind of addressed that after the L.A. game," said Talbot. "We need leaders to come out and be our best players. It starts with myself in net. I’m one of the leaders on this team, and I’ve got to be one of the guys who pulls us along."

"It starts with the leaders, right?" echoed Lucic. "The older guys, the guys who wear the letters on their jerseys, to not let frustration seep in. I feel like, the last 10 games, frustration has set in at times, and kind of taken over."

That emotion would describe Lucic well, after an epic scoring drought saw him score two goals in the calendar year 2018. He opened the New Year with a goal in San Jose, and goals notwithstanding — can you say that about a $6 million player? — his overall game has been good.

"This is as good as he’s played since I’ve been here," Hitchcock said. "His board play, his forecheck, his positional play on the ice has allowed him to be a really good player right now.

"His decisions are quicker, his movement on the ice is up to speed with the game, and if this is the player we’re going to get for the balance of the year we’ll have a really effective player."

Lucic will play left wing on a line with centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and right-winger Jesse Puljujarvi Thursday. It was Nugent-Hopkins who fed him for a goal Sunday night, just Lucic’s second of the season.

"I’m not Connor (McDavid), Joe Thornton, or any of those guys who, every game their mindset is to score," Lucic said. "For me, it’s simplifying and worrying about the things that make me a good player. Scoring comes as a result of me playing a certain way."

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