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Youthful surge lifts Oilers Add to ...

They don't think of themselves as the baby-faced Oilers any more. And they certainly have no plans to lose games just so Edmonton can secure another high draft pick (a key component in the team's master renovation, some believe).

What the Oilers see is a team that, 29 games into this NHL season, has the stuff to compete when it plays smart. And, for most of December, the Oilers have been a heady bunch. They've been one of the NHL's best teams of late, going 6-3-1 while displaying far more excitement and potential than their Alberta rivals, the lurching Calgary Flames.

The reason for that is simple, according to Taylor Hall: the Oilers are growing up on the job.

"In here, we don't think about the youth. We're an NHL team. Twenty-nine games in, you don't feel like a rookie," said Hall, Edmonton's first pick (and first overall) in the 2010 entry draft. "We feel if we play our game we can make the playoffs. The last 10 games have been pretty good."

Heading into Tuesday's match against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton's 10-game run has been better than "pretty good," considering the team is without its top-line centre (Shawn Horcoff, gone for a month or more with a knee injury) and its top-line right winger (Ales Hemsky, out for a month with a groin injury). Nikolai Khabibulin has been superb in goal, and the forwards have been using their speed to create scoring chances - all of which has been appreciated and debated in the Alberta capital.

Winning is nice, but losing and securing another high draft pick has become more of a priority among some fans, judging from their online and sports talk-radio rants. Why finish 12th or 13th in the Western Conference when you can come in dead last and land better odds in the 2011 draft lottery

It's made for roaring chatter in hockey circles, not so much in the Edmonton dressing room.

"Isn't that amazing?" was head coach Tom Renney's response to losing for a worthy cause. "We've got to win hockey games. [The players]have to make a visceral connection to being a winner. You can't pretend winning. We're going to teach this team to win and grow.

"I certainly don't want to lose too long."

While the Oilers are brimming with hope, they're hardy a finished product. They're power play is 16th best in the league; the power play ranks dead last. The defensive-zone play can be shaky, too. What they could use is what they have, but refuse to play - veteran defenceman Sheldon Souray, who has one goal in his 14 games with Hershey of the AHL.

The Oilers have tried to trade Souray with no success. They dispatched him to the minors after he accused the Oilers of mistreating an injury last season. Again, none of that outside prattle is of any concern to the current players who have begun the process of learning how to play and win. Ask them where things started to go right and they point to their recent road swing through Eastern Canada.

"In Ottawa, we got a chance to watch the Grey Cup together [on TV]and then go out and play a good game," centre Sam Gagner said. "Montreal is one of the best venues in the world to play in. We won in overtime and continued to build that chemistry. Toronto is always fun to play [the Oilers won 5-0] … There are positive days now. We want to show the league the way last season ended wasn't what we're all about. As a group, that makes us dangerous."

There will be down days ahead for the Oilers but so far, based on how they've performed and persevered, there's reason to think this is a team that can surpass expectations - even if that means not picking first or second overall.

"In here," Hall said, "we want to win as many games as we can as quick as we can."

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