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Oilers seeking answers for inconsistent play

Coach Hitchcock believes Edmonton needs to improve 5-on-5 for playoff push

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- The Edmonton Oilers have been lurching forward and then stalling, often in the same week, and they know it's no formula for reaching the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Captain Connor McDavid bristled Monday when pressed about whether part of the reason they may not qualify for the postseason is that some players don't believe they have the right group to do so.

"Well, if there are guys that believe that, then they should ... get out of the room," he said. "If you don't believe in this group and you're in the locker room, then you need to leave. I don't get that sense. I don't feel that way. I think that everyone in there believes in each other and believes we'll get it done."

The Oilers have lost two games in a row, 7-4 to the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday and 5-2 to the Calgary Flames on Saturday, each at home, following consecutive wins against the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks.

"It's just frustrating," forward Leon Draisaitl said after the Carolina game. "We take two steps ahead, then two steps back. One ahead and then one back. It's like we go up and then we go down. That's frustrating but we've got to figure it out."

Edmonton (23-23-3) is in sixth place in the Pacific Division and three points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference.. 

Video: CAR@EDM: Manning goes upstairs off McDavid's feed

The Oilers' next game is against the Detroit Red Wings at home Tuesday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1, SNE, SNO, SNP, NHL.TV), their final one before 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend, which will be followed by a mandatory five-day break.

"We know we're in the mix," defenseman Adam Larsson said. "These two games aren't what we wanted, but we're still right there and it's too early to hang your heads when it comes to the standings. You just have to keep battling."

The Oilers went 9-2-2 immediately after Ken Hitchcock took over as coach Nov. 20. Two months into his tenure, the record stands at 14-13-2.

"This is the time of year where if you can kill penalties and you can play 5-on-5, you can win every game," Hitchcock said. "And we're not killing penalties (six power-play goals against in the past five games) and we're not playing good enough 5-on-5 and it costs us too many nights."

The Oilers are 5-9-0 since Dec. 20, and in that span their 5-on-5 shot attempts are 543 for and 679 against. The 543 shot attempts are the fewest in the NHL in that span, and the differential of minus-136 is second worst, ahead of only the Los Angeles Kings, who are minus-148.

Video: CAR@EDM: Svechnikov tips home Slavin's shot

"That's why we're a .500 team. We fix the problem and then it comes back," Hitchcock said. "You can't go on a run that way. If you're not good enough 5-on-5, you can't go on a run. And we're not able to put ourselves on a run."

Edmonton continues to get consistent offense from McDavid, Draisaitl and forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

McDavid, who had two assists against the Hurricanes, has 11 points (six goals, five assists) in the past seven games. The center is fourth in the NHL in scoring with 72 points (29 goals, 43 assists) in 48 games, behind Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning (78 points) and Johnny Gaudreau of the Flames and Mikko Rantanen of the Avalanche (73 each).

Draisaitl scored twice and had an assist against Carolina. He has 59 points (26 goals, 33 assists) in 49 games.

Nugent-Hopkins extended his point streak to five consecutive games with an assist against the Hurricanes and has 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) in 49 games.

But injuries have taken a toll on Edmonton's defensemen, and the Oilers are allowing 3.27 goals per game, 24th in the NHL.

Veterans Oscar Klefbom (broken finger) and Kris Russell (lower body) each was injured in a game at the Avalanche on Dec. 11. Russell returned after missing 10 games, but Klefbom has missed 18 and likely won't be back until after the All-Star Game. 

Video: EDM@ANA: Russell swipes puck off the goal line

In addition, Andrej Sekera has missed the entire season because of torn Achilles tendon.

"Now it's a lot of chaos back there," Hitchcock said. "It starts back there in our end, and if we clean it up, we'll get better quick."

The Oilers tried to fill the gap by acquiring veterans Alexander Petrovic and Brandon Manning in separate trades Dec. 30, but Petrovic has missed five games with an upper-body injury and Manning has been a healthy scratch four times.

Larsson, Klefbom's regular partner, has had a particularly difficult time with a variety of new partners and called himself out Sunday.

"I can't even look at team play right now," Larsson said. "I've got my own game to focus on. It's so bad right now. I've got to fix that first, before I look left or right. I'm passive, I'm not skating… Nothing is going my way. I know how good I can be and I'm not even close right now.

"This is as bad as it's been and this is as bad as it will be. I can guarantee you that."

Hitchcock acknowledged the issues but said they stretch beyond Larsson's struggles.

Video: CAR@EDM: Martinook tips in Foegele's great pass

"It's been going on for a little while," he said. "We had a good pair there and one of the pair went missing and there's a lot hesitation with [Larsson]. There's a lot of hesitation with a lot of guys right now back there."

Forward Milan Lucic, who has scored four goals in the past seven games and five in 49 games this season, said the Oilers were playing a smarter, more determined game, especially 5-on-5, not that long ago, and can find it again.

"It was there when Hitch first came here and there was a work ethic that we relied on that was winning hockey games," Lucic said. "You're not going to win when you're giving up as many (goals) as we have been. It's 12 in the last two games.

"When we relied on our checking and our defensive play, it was giving us success and the result that we wanted and we let that part of our game slip so we have to find that again."

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