EDMONTON, AB - A date for the Oilers with the Toronto Maple Leafs at Rogers Place on Hockey Night in Canada comes at a crucial point of their season.
Six games remain on their schedule before the Christmas break with the club currently marred in a three-game losing streak after becoming the last team in the NHL to succumb to that statistic in a 6-5 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday.
"There's going to be adversity over the course of an 82-game season," defenceman Darnell Nurse said. "That's just how this game works. I think we have a good opportunity with these last six games before the break to make the most of them."
"We have a big game tomorrow against Toronto and that's where our focus is."
The Leafs swing through Edmonton for the final game of their four-game road trip, having lost to the Calgary Flames 4-2 on Thursday after victories over the Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues.
Forward Mitch Marner has been a welcomed return on a line with John Tavares and Zach Hyman, recording a goal and five assists in four games since returning from injury on December 4.
A pre-practice conference between Oilers players and coaches near the penalty box went well beyond its regular expected time limit on Friday, with conversations centred around the good and bad of a three-game skid that's included three separate comebacks after spotting their opposition early leads.
"I think we're doing a lot of good things," forward Leon Draisaitl said. "We're playing good hockey for a good chunk of the games lately, but it's just not enough. We kind of shoot ourselves in the foot and fight back, then we let it slip again."
The offence has been there for the Oilers with 12 goals in their last two games and the services of the NHL's top-two leading scorers in Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, who look set to reunite on the top line with Zack Kassian in Saturday's matchup with the Leafs.
But when resiliency in limiting goals against, special teams, and goaltending were leaned on in the early days of the '19-20 season, it's been a sore spot for the Oilers with 21 allowed in their last five contests.
There's an urgency to improve in the Oilers dressing room that draws energy from a trust in their ability as players, as a group, and a willingness to create a winning mentality in the locker room.
"We're building a culture in here where we don't want to be a losing team anymore," Draisaitl said. "We want to win and we want to end losing streaks as quick as possible. It's the first time it's got to three for us this season, so it's something we want to turn around starting tomorrow."
There's a fine line between winning and losing in the NHL.
While the Oilers battled back in each loss that's been part of their three-game losing streak, it's been the finer details that have had a big impact.
"There are some issues where we've given up chances, not a lot of chances, but ones that have been really good ones," Head Coach Dave Tippett said. "I look at the game (against Minnesota) and there were ones that we can just take out of our game just by managing the game a little bit better, and then there are ones that are just missed assignments. We can address both of those."
Tippett made mention of a late goal conceded by the Oilers in the first period against Minnesota when the clock could've been run down by holding the puck, and an instance where a pursuit of the puck after a long shift led to a 2-on-1 and an avoidable goal against.
"That being said, I thought we generated more. There are some different things we're trying to do to help us get a little bit more pressure in the game and spend more time in the offensive zone, and I think we accomplished a lot of those things."
The story at the end of the Oilers comebacks could've been a lot different on another night, with the players' fightback a positive out of losing efforts.
"It's all about winning hockey games," Draisaitl said. "I think throughout a year you have games that you're not supposed to win but you do win, and you have games that you are supposed to win but somehow you find a way to lose."
"I think the last two games, even though we weren't at our best, we had the chance to win those games. We just couldn't find a way. It's a matter of showing up and playing the right way for 60 minutes."
To the players, the standard of expectation has been elevated as an evolution of the club that's been led by Tippett and the Oilers leadership group that includes Draisaitl and McDavid.
"It needs to be," McDavid said. "You don't want to lose any game, let alone three in a row. We need to be a desperate group tomorrow and find a way to get a big win."
The team's pulse comes from the leadership group and it was highlighted specifically in the bench boss' post-game comments in Minnesota as to how he'll get a read on the team's readiness to respond.
"They were all right on board this morning," Tippett said. "They all understand what happened (Thursday) night and the last few games. You have to stay positive, but you also have to recognize some issues have to get cleaned up. The way I looked at them this morning, they were ready to make the corrections needed. We'll see tomorrow."
As mentioned, Draisaitl and McDavid are set to be reunited on the top line with Zack Kassian for the first time since a 5-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on November 30.
McDavid mentioned that the Dynamic Duo's best offence comes on nights when the pair are responsible defensively.
"Just playing the right way. Stopping on pucks, not turning it over, defending well - I think it starts there," McDavid said. "When we're defending well, we have the puck more. We're coming up the ice together. When we get too spread out, it gets a little slow. We have to find a way to defend well against a really good offensive team."
Markus Granlund will assume left-wing duties on the second line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Alex Chiasson if Joakim Nygard is unable to recover in time from soreness that's a byproduct of Thursday's loss in Minnesota. Tippett cited the Swede as a game-time decision.
Mikko Koskinen was in the starter's net and is expected to make his 18th start of the season. The Finnish netminder is 11-4-2 with a 2.72 goals-against average and .914 save percentage.
Nurse - Bear Klefbom - Larsson K. Russell - Jones Manning
-- Jamie Umbach, EdmontonOilers.com
OILERS (18-12-4) vs MAPLE LEAFS (15-14-4)
TV: 5:08 p.m. MT; Televised on CBC & Sportsnet
Saturday's clash is the first of two meetings between the Oilers and Maple Leafs this season.
The clubs will conclude the season series at Scotiabank Arena in the new year on Jan. 6.
Last season, the Oilers lost both decisions to Toronto, being outscored 9-4. Leon Draisaitl registered a goal and two assists in a pair of outings while Connor McDavid recorded three assists.
Maple Leafs captain John Tavares led all players in the season series with two goals and five points in two outings. Mitch Marner and William Nylander were behind with a goal and two helpers apiece. In goal, Frederik Andersen won both affairs, owning a 2.00 GAA and .942 S%.
Oilers team scope:
The Oilers are currently in their first three-game funk of the 2019-20 season, being the last team in the League to drop three consecutively. After going 7-5-2 in the month of November, the Oilers have gone 2-3-1 thus far in December.
McDavid and Draisaitl are one and two in League scoring with 57 and 55 points, respectively. They are also first and second in power-play points with 25 (McDavid) and 22 (Draisaitl).
The Oilers are second in the Pacific Division with 40 points, two off division leaders Arizona.
Maple Leafs team scope:
The Maple Leafs were most recently toppled by a third-period offensive outburst against the Calgary Flames on Thursday. Heading into the third period leading 2-1, Toronto conceded three unanswered to skate away from the Scotiabank Saddledome with a 4-2 defeat on their current four-game trip.
The Maple Leafs are sixth in the Atlantic Division with 34 points and have gone 8-10-0 on the road this season.
Auston Matthews leads the Leafs in goals and points with 19 and 34, respectively, while Marner is first in team assists with 19. Goaltender Andersen is 15-8-3 with a .918 save percentage and 2.54 GAA
By the Numbers:
Draisaitl and McDavid and first in second in TOI among forwards, averaging 22:48 and 22:23 per game, respectively. ... Toronto is 5-2-0 against the Pacific Division this season. ... EDM is 5-1-2 when tied after two periods, while TOR is 4-5-1. ... The Maple Leafs have allowed 48 goals against in the third period this year. ... Toronto has the fifth-best road power play (23.8 percent).
OILERS - Matt Benning (concussion) is on IR;
MAPLE LEAFS - Andreas Johnsson (leg) is on IR; Trevor Moore (shoulder) is on IR.