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First-place Oilers aim to show fast start no fluke

Coach Todd McLellan says team has earned early success, Pacific Division lead

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- Their longest road trip of the season to date wasn't without its low moments, but the Edmonton Oilers returned home from five games at Eastern Conference opponents with a 2-2-1 record and still on top of the Pacific Division at 9-4-1.

It's another big step toward the bigger goal of tangible improvement, and it's certainly progress, considering the Oilers were 5-9-0 after 14 games last season.

"I think it's just been a change of mindset," captain Connor McDavid said after practice Thursday at Rogers Place, where they host the Dallas Stars on Friday (9 p.m. ET; SNW, FS-SW, NHL.TV). "It's a new group in here, a bunch of new faces that come in with a fresh new mindset and that spreads throughout the locker room. It's definitely been a good change."

Video: EDM@VAN: McDavid shows off speed, finishes five-hole

The Oilers began their trip with a 3-2 overtime loss at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 1. They lost 5-3 at the New York Rangers on Nov. 3 before a pair of victories: a 4-3 shootout win at the New York Islanders on Saturday and a 2-1 victory at the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday. Edmonton completed the trip with a 4-3 loss at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday.

The Oilers gave up the go-ahead goal against the Rangers and Penguins with less than two minutes remaining in the third period each time, which took some of the luster off their wins against the Islanders and Red Wings.

"We did a lot of good things," McDavid said. "We were in every game. We had a couple of big wins on that back-to-back, that was nice. I thought we played well. Obviously the last two minutes of those [two] games kind of [hurt] and it [hurts] giving up those points. But that's something we can learn from, learn to bear down in those last few minutes.

"We're finding ways to stay in games and pull games out and win games. All good stuff."

Edmonton's fine start, set against last season's struggles and even their 10-year drought of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs, have prompted the usual questions.

Are the Oilers for real?

Are they reaching too high too fast?

Video: EDM@DET: Nugent-Hopkins nets PPG off McDavid's feed

"If you evaluate based on points and wins, there's risk of doing that," coach Todd McLellan said Thursday. "But that's not how we do it. We look at occurrences on the ice and the game that's played. There are nights where we felt we played a pretty darn good game and weren't able to get any points. Pittsburgh might be one of them. There are other nights where it's not quite going our way and we're not executing the right way and we sneak wins out. We have to keep an eye on the event and what happens in it and not necessarily focus on the outcome.

"We've done a good job as a group with that so far. Hopefully that prevents us from reaching for too much too soon."

The one night alarm bells went off was during a 6-2 home loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 16. The Oilers responded by winning their next five games.

"That game was terrible, red-rotten, and the way the leadership group in the locker room responded to it has set us up for our play after that," McLellan said of the loss against the Sabres. "It can change, but I'm hoping the leadership group will act the same way when it slips and pull everybody back in."

McLellan is trying to manage attitude as much as anything in Edmonton, and used the .500 road trip as an example.

"It's a Catch-22 because … maybe in our own minds we're setting goals at .500, and for us to take the next step, .500 isn't going to be good enough," he said. "We've got to look at it from both sides of the glass, half-full and half-empty. Now this is the first test we have of coming home after being away for a while and trying to re-establish our game here so that'll be a big task for our team here [Friday].

"I think it's fair to say we're deserving of the record we have to this point. Where we go from here will be up to the group. We have to approach every night like it's the beginning of a new winning streak and get after teams."

After 14 games, McDavid is tied for second in the NHL is scoring with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists).

He has been getting plenty of work. Before games on Thursday, McDavid was fifth among forwards in average time on ice at 21:05, behind Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks (22:35), Ryan O'Reilly of the Sabres (22:16), Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings (21:32) and Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks (21:11).

McDavid's 17:20 per game average at even strength was second to Kane at 17:31.

"I don't try to pay attention to that," McDavid said. "I go out when I'm called. I feel like I'm fine. I can play big minutes."

McLellan said there are no issues with McDavid's time on ice.

"[Too much is] when their tongues are dragging on the ice and can't fulfill their assignments all over the ice surface," McLellan said. "Then it's too much.

"I know that certain players can only play eight minutes a night. Others can play 23 minutes a night."

After Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele passed McDavid to take the NHL scoring lead with a four-point game against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday, he got a text from McDavid telling him to "slow down."

The two were linemates for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

"I just texted him as a little joke because he's been so hot lately," McDavid said with a laugh. "He's been playing well and it's good to see."

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