The naysayers and doomsayers have had their say for the better part of two weeks now. It’s time for other voices to be heard. Saddled with a crippling nine game road trip, the Oilers have had little success since leaving Edmonton and Rexall Place. While their position is not enviable, building on tonight’s defeat of the league-leading Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago, the Oilers can still finish in the NHL Western Conference’s Top 8.
The first and best reason is that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has had some terrible luck in the offensive zone while playing well beyond his years in his own end. Additionally, some of the matchups he and his linemates have had to endure on the road have been extremely challenging.
He’s faced the likes of Shea Weber, David Backes, Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathan Toews and so forth.
With the second half schedule being played mainly at Rexall Place, these kinds of matchups will be much easier to avoid. RNH will have a stellar second half and his point total will triple, at least, with better finishing from his linemates and him.
The return of a reasonably healthy Shawn Horcoff cannot be overlooked.
The Oilers are 5-2-1 with Horcoff in the lineup this season and his steadying influence, strong faceoff play, and leadership skills cannot be discounted. He will be the third-line centre that the Oilers have not had in his absence.
Eric Belanger will now play on the fourth line where he belongs both in terms of minutes played and the level of competition that he will now face. Often maligned for his rich contract, Oilers fans should instead focus on what Horcoff brings to the rink night in and night out—an exceptional work ethic and never-say-die attitude.
The Oilers will now play 14 of their final 23 games at home. While they have not been world beaters at home, the fans are primed to be that decisive X factor that all successful home teams need.
Edmonton fans are some of the most knowledgeable and boisterous in the league and once this team gets on the inevitable second-half roll that I am predicting, visiting teams will once again fear coming to Alberta’s capital.
Finally, the kids will not be denied.
While Sam Gagner has been more of a veteran and leader than a kid this season, at 23, I still group him with this fabulous group of young skaters. Justin Schultz, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov will deliver as hoped for by management and fans in the second half of the season.
These budding stars are learning and growing on every shift, and with more team wins in March and April, these youngsters' confidence and individual stats can only improve.