Oilers must remember finish line still far amid uninspired stretch

The Oilers came back from down 3-0 but gave up three straight in the third period to the Hurricanes for a 6-3 loss.

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers opened their season at 7-1, with their best player — Leon Draisaitl — performing like a man possessed.

Today, they are 18-11-4, after dropping a 6-3 decision to the Carolina Hurricanes on a frigid Tuesday night in Northern Alberta.

Today, Draisaitl is neither their best player nor does he possess anything other than some of the worst body language you’ll ever see, and a nightly minus rating. He has been a minus player in eight straight games now, and has still somehow managed to stuff 53 points and a minus-3 on the same seasonal stat line.

The Oilers, meanwhile, harvested just three points from a homestand that featured visits from the Ottawa Senators, Los Angeles Kings, Buffalo Sabres and Hurricanes. Over its past seven games Edmonton is 2-4-1.

They team is trying to stay positive, which we get. But with each mounting loss, positive sounds more and more like denial.

“Liked how we battled back. Thought our game was pretty good overall five-on-five,” said captain Connor McDavid. “Tonight our specialty teams weren’t where they need to be. It cost us.”

Carolina ate the NHL’s second-best penalty kill for supper on Tuesday, scoring three times. Obviously, that’s a rare slip for a unit that’s been dominant.

Somehow, despite playing just over .500 hockey over their last 25 games, the Oilers awake on Wednesday morning tied for first place in the Pacific. It has become, after another loss in which they mustered 25, maybe 30 minutes of inspired hockey, a bit of a mirage.

You know how winning teams find a new hero every day? Well, Edmonton is at the opposite end of that spectrum today. Something different is going wrong every night now.

“The two things that were different about this game,” said head coach Dave Tippett, “is that our penalty kill has been pretty good and it got bit, and our goaltending has been pretty good and it got bit tonight. You add those two up and it is not usually a good winning formula.”

Mikko Koskinen was average in goal, victimized by a Hurricanes power play that was clinical, then insulted by a Dougie Hamilton fake-dump-in-slapper from centre ice for the sixth goal.

“We did come back. Made it 3-3,” pointed out McDavid. “I thought our work ethic was there, we battled back from a big hole but couldn’t close it.

“We need to find a way to start better, but I thought overall part of our game was pretty good.”

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We’ll disagree, though we get how the captain is trying to emit the right message here. We’re not halfway into the season, and Edmonton really has not slumped until now. It’s no time to panic, but instead to dig in and right the ship.

There are some holes in the roof, however, for a team that is right in the thick of the playoff race with miles of track left to cover.

The facts are, this team isn’t good enough five-on-five, and not deep enough to win games when McDavid and Draisaitl aren’t otherworldly. McDavid had three assists against Carolina and the other 17 Oilers skaters could not muster another goal by themselves.

The power play is No. 1 in the league, which helps a ton. Without it, however, the Oilers are severely challenged to get to three goals in 60 minutes of hockey.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has five goals this season. They need more out of him, plain and simple. And the fact that depth forwards Josh Archibald, Riley Sheahan, Markus Granlund, Patrick Russell, Gaetan Haas, Alex Chiasson and Joakim Nygard share a grand total of 12 goals between seven players tells you all you need to know about the potency of Edmonton’s depth forwards.

Look, most of the predictors didn’t even think this was a playoff team. So the fact they are challenged in some areas was to be expected.

The Oilers had a fast start, and it’s a good thing. Because now they look like the team we thought they were, and the battle to stay Top 8 out West is on.

It’s no time to panic. Just time to play better.

The finish line is still a long way out.

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