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Oilers searching for answers to end struggles after hot start

Defense, goaltending among issues that have led to fall from first place in Pacific

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- Adversity has arrived for the Edmonton Oilers, and it's threatening to neutralize their strong start to the season.

The Oilers, who started the season 8-2-1, lost 4-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Rogers Place on Saturday, their fourth straight loss and seventh in their past nine games (2-6-1).

"The margin of error in this League is really small," said forward Alex Chiasson, who scored Edmonton's only goal Saturday. "Our game, it's not like we're not showing up. We're kinda there, but there is that little bit that's not there, and that's not good enough. That's where we're at right now."

The Oilers opened the season with five straight wins, and they led the Pacific Division through most of October and November. But after going 10-11-3 in their past 24 games, the Oilers have been passed by the Arizona Coyotes for first place; they're tied for second with the Calgary Flames.

Lately, it has the feeling of a great struggle. The Oilers have led for a total of 4:35 during the four-game losing streak and have fallen behind by two goals in the first two periods of each of the losses.

On Saturday, Toronto's Alexander Kerfoot scored the first goal 4:38 into the game.

Video: TOR@EDM: Kerfoot wires shot under crossbar

"A lot's been made of that," captain Connor McDavid said. "I thought we had a pretty good start [Saturday]. They obviously get one fairly early and we're behind and chasing it, but I thought we did a good job competing. We worked hard."

There would appear to be no breather ahead. Edmonton plays its next two games at the Dallas Stars, who have won four of five, on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET; FS-SW+, SNW, NHL.TV) and at the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues on Wednesday.

"Losing four in a row is not good enough," McDavid said. "We've got to find a way to put some wins together here and it starts on the road. I think it's a good opportunity for our group to go against two real good teams and see where we're at."

The Oilers will need plenty of resolve to reverse several unflattering trends.

Their goalies, Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, have a combined save percentage of .887 at 5-on-5 in the past 10 games, though Koskinen was not the issue against Toronto on Saturday, making 28 saves.

Defense has also become an issue. In its first 10 games, Edmonton allowed 24 goals. In its past 10, it has allowed 39.

"We were outscoring some of our mistakes early," coach Dave Tippett said. "And our goaltending was very good early (save percentage of .925 at 5-on-5). Every game is different, but the last few games our chances against were down but we were still struggling to find ways to stay in the game."

Edmonton's dynamic duo of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, reunited on a line with Zack Kassian on Saturday after playing most of the past five games on separate lines, has cooled off, relatively speaking.

McDavid leads the NHL in scoring with 57 points (20 goals, 27 assists) in 35 games but has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in his past nine games. That stretch has included four games with no points, including Saturday against Toronto.

Draisaitl, who had an assist Saturday, is second in League scoring with 56 points (20 goals, 36 assists) in 35 games and has eight points (four goals, four assists) in his past nine games. In that time, he has had three pointless games. He had three pointless games in the previous 26 games.

Video: EDM@VGK: McDavid pots Draisaitl's feed for PPG

And maybe most troubling of all is Edmonton's past 10 games at 5-on-5, when it has been outscored 32-16. That, more than anything, is nullifying the NHL's best power play, which has scored at least one goal in the past seven games and is succeeding 32.4 percent of the time.

"Five-on-five we've got to be way better," McDavid said. "Our special teams have been good. Five-on-five we've got to be better. We've got to find a way to produce goals and keep them out of our net."

Defenseman Oscar Klefbom said that's an element that's got to become a priority quickly for the Oilers.

"The power play's not going to score every game," Klefbom said. "It's been a strength of ours, really effective, but now it's just a matter of getting the 5-on-5 game better. To be a consistent playoff team and play like those heavy teams ... they're so good 5-on-5 and lethal on the power play as well."

"We've got to go on a tough road trip here, but we've got to turn this around. It's going to be a great test for us because these are playoff teams we're going to meet and to prove to ourselves and the fans that we're ready, we've got to take some points."

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