EDMONTON -- In a weak and tepid performance in front of a sold out crowd on Fan Appreciation Night at Rexall Place, the Edmonton Oilers watched their playoff hopes trickle down the drain Wednesday night, losing 3-1 in a crucial, must-win game at home to the Phoenix Coyotes, one of the worst road teams in the NHL.
"Our energy wasn't there throughout the lineup when it need to be, early in the game and then into the second period," sighed captain Shawn Horcoff. "In the third it was too late."
The Oilers and Coyotes both came into this game fighting for their lives, four and three points, respectively, behind the eighth and final playoff spot with nine games to go. They both knew that the winner stayed alive and the loser was dead.
But only one team played like it.
Even though the Coyotes had been struggling terribly on the road (one win in their previous nine road games and four regulation wins in their previous 18), they got it done when they needed it.
"It's a challenge for us to improve our road record because that's what it's going to take for us to get a playoff spot," said Phoenix coach Dave Tippett. "We've got ourselves in this hole and the only way we're going to have a chance is if we turn our road record around."
As for the Oilers, they are still alive mathematically, but realistically, four teams behind eighth place with eight games to go, they are finished.
"Until we're mathematically out we always have a chance," said center Sam Gagner. "We've gone through stretches where we've been hot and been able to create offense. You have to get hot at the right time."
The right time, apparently, wasn't Wednesday night.
The Oilers displayed virtually no urgency and energy in a scoreless first period, then the roof fell in on them in the second.
Two bad goals, the second one worse than the first, put Edmonton in the Phoenix death grip, where they remained for the rest of the evening.
Gaffe No. 1 came 37 seconds after the faceoff, when Boyd Gordon scored from almost from behind the end line in the corner, with a centering pass that somehow got through an unscreened Devan Dubnyk. Phoenix is 11-1-2 when they score first.
Eight minutes after that, Dubnyk went out to play a puck behind his net and sent it right to Antoine Vermette, who ripped it right back into the vacated net.
The Oilers generated little offense -- just three second-period shots through 15 minutes.
"Nobody's going to blame (Dubnyk) for anything," said defenseman Ladislav Smid. "He'd been solid the whole game except for a couple of moments. He's been really, really good for us the whole season and we should help him a little more."
The Oilers came to life in the third period, tying it when Nail Yakupov chopped at a loose puck in the crease to cut the Phoenix lead to 2-1 with 12 minutes left in the game. But that would be as close as they'd come.
There is still hope in Phoenix, but with six of their last eight games away from home, the Coyotes know that winning on the road had better be a habit they learn in a hurry.
"If we're going to find a playoff spot," said Tippett. "We're going to have to find a way to be a lot better on the road."
NOTES: Oilers winger Ales Hemsky, who's been on the limp and missed last game with a foot injury, hobbled into action Wednesday, largely because of the enormity of the situation. He is three games shy of 600 for his career. ... Defenseman Theo Peckham, who reported to training camp heavy, has played just four games this season as the coaching staff seems reluctant to forgive. ... Phoenix goalie Mike Smith is 5-1-1 against the Oilers, while Coyotes are 11-2-2 against Edmonton under Tippett. ... Coyotes defenseman Zbynek Michalek returned to the lineup after missing 14 games with a lower body injury. ... The Oilers are 12-7-2 when captain Horcoff is in the lineup... Oilers defenseman Justin Schultz hasn't played a game in the AHL since Jan 5, but he still leads all defenseman in scoring down there with 48 points, He was just named to the AHL all-rookie team.