EDMONTON - The intangible known as momentum has been an elusive commodity for the Edmonton Oilers in their quest to climb back into playoff contention in the NHL's Western Conference.
The Oilers had absolutely none during a five-game losing streak at the end of December, then mustered a head of steam in their playoff push with four consecutive wins to open a five-game homestand at Rexall Place.
With fans talking about the post-season again, Edmonton's momentum came to a screeching halt in a 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday - right before a five-game road trip that will go a long way in deciding their playoff fate.
Are they at a standstill again?
"We can get on a run. We have the personnel to do it," said captain Ethan Moreau.
"Momentum is an intangible that's hard to explain. I think everybody, regardless of their age, has been through a winning streak. You always get that goal you need, you get that save you need, as opposed to a losing streak where everything goes wrong."
After wins against the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Phoenix Coyotes and Calgary Flames, the Oilers had a chance to make it a clean sweep at home against the Kings, who were sitting in 30th place in NHL standings, before embarking on the road.
The offence was clicking. The power play was producing. Mathieu Garon had been close to air-tight in goal. Those factors, and a visit by the woeful Kings, were supposed to send the Oilers packing for Washington, Carolina, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Florida on a five-game roll.
"Momentum is huge. I don't think it's overrated at all," said forward Shawn Horcoff. "At lot of it is just confidence and being on a roll. For us, we're a team that feeds off enthusiasm."
The trick for the Oilers, who are 21-22-4 for 46 points and six points out of a playoff spot entering Wednesday night's games, is not to bring the baggage from their uninspired effort against Los Angeles on the road.
"We need a good month in January," said coach Craig MacTavish. "We've got some momentum, but we know how quickly momentum changes. You have got to be focused on all the details of your game.
"Don't let any aspect of your game slip away from you. It's been the completeness of our game that's put us in the situation where we had a pretty good homestand. We have to make sure the attention to those details is in place."
Despite Tuesday's loss, the Oilers have been playing some of their best hockey of the season. They scored 14 goals in the first four games of the homestand, while Garon, who has taken over the starting job from Dwayne Roloson, had allowed just five. They had reason to be confident.
"Most of the elements of our game have been pretty satisfactory the last little while," MacTavish said. "The power play has been OK lately. The goaltending has been good. It's been a combination of a few things."
Entering play Wednesday, four teams - St. Louis, Colorado, Phoenix and Nashville - were between the Oilers and eighth spot. Edmonton would likely have to go 4-1 on the road trip to make up any real ground heading into the stretch drive.
While a win over the Kings would have bought more slack, winning four of the next five is possible since the Oilers will face off against teams from the weaker Southeast Division.
"We've been through it enough," Horcoff said of the stretch to the playoffs. "If you're four, five, six points out with 10 or 15 games to play, then you've almost got to play perfect hockey.
"This is the time now. This is the time right now that we need to get back into the playoffs."