Toronto Maple Leafs' Timothy Liljegren (37) and Edmonton Oilers' Leon Draisaitl (29) battle for the puck during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Tuesday, December 14, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Struggling, frustrated Edmonton Oilers continue searching for answers

Once hot, team has gone 2-10-2 since Dec. 1

Connor McDavid had just witnessed his Oilers surrender five goals in the third period against the NHL’s 30th-ranked team.

Edmonton’s superstar captain also seemed at a loss for words in the wake of another crushing defeat.

“I’m not sure what to tell you,” McDavid told reporters after dropping a 6-4 decision to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. “Work ourselves to a 3-1 lead and give it away.”

Subsequently asked if it represented one of his most frustrating regular-season losses since joining the Oilers as the No. 1 pick at the 2015 draft, the game’s best player didn’t skip a beat: “It’s definitely up there.”

“We’re just finding ways to lose,” head coach David Tippett added from an increasingly hot seat.

The loss to Ottawa represented the latest setback for a team that expected so much more of itself this season.

Early on, however, the Oilers delivered. While there were some troubling signs, they jumped out to a 16-5-0 start to sit alone atop the Western Conference on Dec. 1.

But Edmonton has gone just 2-10-2 since — victories Dec. 16 and 18 are bookended by a pair of six-game losing streaks — and continues searching for answers.

It started anew with a hard practice Monday that included battle drills led by McDavid and top-pair defenceman Darnell Nurse.

“Those are your big dogs,” Edmonton blue-liner Tyson Barrie said. “That sets the tone.

“If Connor McDavid and Darnell Nurse are battling and playing against each other hard, there’s zero excuse for anybody to take any sort of break.”

The players are mostly saying the right things — Oilers winger Brendan Perlini had a particularly upbeat recent media availability — but it’s clear nerves are frayed in the Alberta capital.

Edmonton centre Leon Draisaitl, who’s one point ahead of McDavid for second in the league scoring race, had a testy exchange with an Edmonton reporter Tuesday.

“We have to get better at everything,” the German said when asked if there was one specific area the team needs to improve.

“Would you like to expand on that?”

“No … you can do that,” Draisaitl replied. “You know everything.”

“Why are you so pissy, Leon?” the veteran media member retorted before the back-and-forth continued another 20 seconds.

One facet where Edmonton could do much better is how it starts games.

The Oilers have allowed the first goal an NHL-high 25 times in 35 outings, consistently feeling their way into the action rather than grabbing hold of proceedings.

“That’s been a theme, but the desperation’s key,” Barrie said 24 hours before Draisaitl’s uncomfortable media exchange. “We’re in a good position going into the third period (against Ottawa) and we don’t get it done.

“That’s not a good sign.”

Oilers general manager Ken Holland has never fired a coach mid-season during his Hall of Fame career, but the temperature and pressure to do something to shake things up continues to mount in lockstep with every loss.

Edmonton hasn’t received adequate goaltending with Mike Smith struggling to stay healthy, Mikko Koskinen underperforming when handed a heavy workload and rookie Stuart Skinner trying to find his way.

The problems, however, run much deeper with a defence corps that still isn’t good enough and a forward group that continues to rely far too much on McDavid and Draisaitl for offence.

The Oilers, however, insist the answers reside in their locker room.

“Everyone has to look in the mirror,” Edmonton winger Zack Kassian said. “And everyone has to be better.”

Next up for the Oilers? Just a Thursday visit from the Florida Panthers, who sit second in the overall standings, before hosting the Calgary Flames on Saturday.

Despite their warts early in the season, the Oilers always seemed to have a response following a loss.

That feels a lot longer than a few months ago for a team that has just two victories in seven weeks to sit seventh in the Pacific Division — albeit with games in hand on most rivals because of COVID-19 postponements.

“It’s funny … even games you feel like you’re playing well in, you don’t get results,” Barrie said. “Then everything starts to tighten up, guys lose their confidence.

“We have to work our way out of it.”

If they don’t, change — in some form — could be coming.

—Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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