EDMONTON - The challenge for the Edmonton Oilers heading into a five-game road trip isn't as much about climbing into a playoff spot as it is about digging out of the NHL basement.
While that's not setting the bar very high, it's reality for the fading Oilers, who have just four wins in their last 18 games and sit in 14th place in the Western Conference heading into a trip that begins in Detroit on Thursday.
With the Oilers having lost Ales Hemsky to a season-ending shoulder injury that will require surgery, starting goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin still out with back problems and a lineup patched together with AHL call-ups, some fans have already written off 2009-10.
A hopeless situation just 27 games in? As bad as things are now, the Oilers they aren't having any of it.
"That idea doesn't even cross the mind of anyone in the organization," said Andrew Cogliano. "We're 27 games into the season. To say that right now, I think it's a complete joke.
"Yes, we have a lot of injuries. That's true. It doesn't mean we can't win games and make the playoffs. It's early. It's way too early. It's not like this is the 70th game and you call it quits now."
Coming off a 7-3 loss in Vancouver on Saturday, the Oilers are 10-13-4 for 24 points, including a 4-11-3 stretch that's undone a 6-2-1 start, as they make stops in Detroit, Dallas, Florida, Tampa Bay and St. Louis.
Hemsky is gone. Khabibulin's back will keep him out for the start of the trip at the very least. Denis Grebeshkov is recovering from knee surgery. Mike Comrie is out with mononucleosis. Fernando Pisani is out with colitis. Shawn Horcoff is playing with a bad shoulder.
"I like that the guys are fighting hard," coach Pat Quinn said. "We didn't give up after a lousy start the other night (down 4-0 in Vancouver). We bounced back.
"They didn't run away. That, to me, is a sign that we've got some character here."
With Khabibulin out six straight games, Jeff Deslauriers and rookie Devan Dubnyk have been left to handle the goaltending. Quinn's forward lines have been in a constant state of flux. And, of course, there's no replacing Hemsky, who was driven into the end boards from behind by Michal Handzus of Los Angeles Nov. 25.
"With the significant injuries we have, the (glass) half-full answer is it does present opportunity," general manager Steve Tambellini said, asked if he feels the need to make a trade to bolster the line-up.
"Whether it's in goal or some offensive situations without Hemsky, you work in your career to be presented with an opportunity. The biggest thing is making sure you're ready to take advantage of that.
"There are situations, people on the roster and people put in positions that maybe they hadn't had a chance before. OK, here it is. Let's see what you do with it."
Given the lack of player movement around the NHL this season and with the Oilers right up against the salary cap, it seems unlikely there will be any help on the way via a trade by Tambellini.
"The only thing to do is come in with a good attitude and work as hard as you can," said Steve Staios. "Hopefully, we can shore up our game and get some wins.
"We're all just hockey players, so we come and we play hockey and let the rest of the other stuff take care of itself . . . there's no use sitting around and spending time thinking about what could happen if we had someone else in the room. We have a group of guys and our job is to go get the job done."
Going into action Monday, only Carolina, Toronto and Minnesota had fewer points than the Oilers, who are grouped with Florida and Anaheim at 24 points in overall standings.
"We've got a long way to go," Tambellini said.