Edmonton Oilers a win away from their best start in 23 years

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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

EDMONTON - They haven't all been artistic masterpieces, but the Edmonton Oilers are one win away from their best start to a season in 23 years.

That's a prettier picture than many fans envisioned. With as difficult a schedule as there is in the NHL - 10 of their next 11 games are on the road - the Oilers are 4-0 as they open a three-game trip in Chicago on Wednesday.

While coach Craig MacTavish's team has been far from perfect on the ice, they are flawless in the win-loss column and can match the 5-0 start of the 1985-86 Oilers with a win against the Blackhawks.

"It's important you find a way," MacTavish said when asked about his team's uneven efforts. "There's been one element in almost every game that's hurt us, but it hasn't killed us. We've been able to overcome a negative element in each of the games and win, but we want to continue to get better."

Sophomore forward Sam Gagner, 19, wasn't born when the 1985-86 Oilers stormed out of the gate on the way to a 56-17-7 record and a Smythe Division title. Neither were teammates Andrew Cogliano and Ladislav Smid, for that matter.

It might appear the Oilers have simply picked up where they left off at the end of 2007-08, when they put together a torrid 14-5-1 stretch in the final 20 games in a failed playoff bid, but that's not the case.

Outshot and outplayed in two of their first four games, the Oilers have parlayed exceptional goaltending by Mathieu Garon, timely scoring and a power play clicking at a 5-for-17 clip to four one-goal wins.

"We know we can play a lot better," said Garon, who boasts a .941 save percentage through his first three starts.

"We've found a way to win and we're going to take those wins because sometimes we're going to play great and we're not going to win."

Like any team adjusting to new line combinations and defence pairings to start a season, the question for the Oilers was how quickly they could settle in.

With the additions of Erik Cole and Lubomir Visnovsky, the exits of Jarret Stoll, Raffi Torres, Marty Reasoner, Matt Greene and Joni Pitkanen and the return of Shawn Horcoff, Ethan Moreau and Sheldon Souray from long-term injuries, the Oilers are a work in progress.

"We've had a few lapses," said Cole. "It's certainly a good start, but we want to see what we're capable of as a group.

"There's going to be a lot of different matchups and combinations. Not just in the course of a season or a week, but in any given game. I don't think the (5-0 record) is something we're focusing on. We want to win games and play well."

Gagner doesn't have a point yet. The top line of Horcoff, Cole and Ales Hemsky is not up to speed. Neither is the trio of Moreau, Fernando Pisani, who is making the move to centre from wing, and Dustin Penner, who has shifted from left wing to the right side.

"You can't win a playoff spot now, but you can certainly lose one," said Gagner. "We need to continue to push each other to get better every day."

The Oilers were outshot 33-19 on opening night against Colorado, but won 3-2 on two goals from Penner and 31 saves by Garon. They overcame a shaky start in Anaheim on Oct. 15 to beat the Ducks 3-2.

Edmonton's most complete 60 minutes came in a 4-3 win over the Flames in Calgary last Friday with goaltender Jeff Deslauriers making his first NHL start. The Oilers followed that with a 3-2 win over the Flames the next night at Rexall Place.

"Good teams find a way to win," Gagner said. "I think it's been a great learning tool for us, being able to clamp down on leads. Every single game has been a one-goal game.

"That's the kind of hockey playoffs is about. For a young team, the more we're able to win these games in regular season, the more confidence we're going to gain."

With 10 of the next 11 away from home, that 4-0 record can't help but buffer the rigours of the road.

"We can all do better," Garon said.



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