TORONTO - Going into the finale of his team's five-game road trip, Edmonton Oilers coach Todd McLellan knew a victory would be a huge confidence boost. He wouldn't have thrown a parade, but it would've represented a big accomplishment.
Instead, the Oilers were shut out by the Toronto Maple Leafs to fall to 1-3-1 on the trip. The NHL's last-place team went home lamenting close and not-so-close losses with the realization that there are more growing pains to come.
"We're not where we need to be," McLellan said after the 3-0 loss to the Leafs. "We've got work to do as a team, work to do as an organization to get bigger, stronger, harder, physically win more battles than we lose."
A lacklustre effort against the Leafs on Monday night was a disappointment after Edmonton beat the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday. That victory alone wasn't enough to absorb the sting of losing to the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings (in overtime) and the Leafs.
After building somewhat of a reputation of putting on their best show against better teams, the question is now whether the Oilers don't get up to play teams at the bottom of the standings.
"I don't have an answer for that, really, at this point," McLellan said. "I don't know if there's more of a fear factor of coming out on the short end, but that shouldn't be the case. Right now every team we're looking up at."
Forward Taylor Hall said the Hurricanes and Leafs are playing better now than they're getting credit for but understands he and his Oilers teammates must be better. Even close losses like Edmonton experienced on this road trip are getting tough to take.
"We were right there, but it seems like we've been kind of right there the whole year," Hall said. "We're going to have to manage to get some wins on the board because time's closing."
Through 25 games, the Oilers have 18 points and could again be favoured to win the draft lottery. They won it in 2010 (Hall), 2011 (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), 2012 (Nail Yakupov) and 2015 (Connor McDavid).
McDavid remains out with a broken left clavicle, and Yakupov is out two to four weeks with an ankle injury. That's taking its toll.
"Right now we have a few players missing in action, which teams go through, but we've got to get them up and running and make them effective at least for portions of the game," McLellan said.
Injuries notwithstanding, the Oilers must be better defensively if they can't go punch-for-punch offensively. Leafs role players skated circles in the attacking zone Monday night, and that's not a good sign.
Being a hard team to play against is a good preliminary goal for the Oilers. But it goes beyond that as McLellan and his staff try to find the "root cause" of losses.
"You don't find the same pattern game to game, but over time you do," McLellan said. "Over time the belief system gets stronger, your systematic play gets better, your trust on the ice gets better. You learn as a group how to handle certain situations, and you hope that diminishes the risk of a goal against. And the same factors come into play offensively. You think that you can get some things in place where you can create a little bit more."
The next chances for that take place on a five-game home stand that opens with the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night. It's not panic time, but after this woeful road trip, the Oilers would love to find some solutions fast.
"When I look at the trip as a whole, we had some real key, key people really under-perform on the trip: significant minus numbers, not hitting the scoresheet," McLellan said. "Right now we've got to keep our heads straight around us and make good decisions as an organization, good decisions moving forward to try and improve daily."
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