TORONTO - The early season struggles and defensive breakdowns continue for the Edmonton Oilers, but the coach and captain believe the team is heading in the right direction.
Edmonton (1-3-1) blew a third-period lead against the host Toronto Maple Leafs (5-1-0) on Saturday night en route to a 6-5 overtime loss.
The Oilers surrendered the tying goal when Joffrey Lupul scored his second of the game with 31 seconds remaining. Then they watched David Bolland complete a 3-on-1 by whacking a rebound home past goalie Devan Dubnyk at 2:09 of the extra period.
"I'm glad the fans enjoyed it because I'm sure (Leafs' coach) Randy (Carlyle) and I have a few extra grey hairs after that one," said Oilers' coach Dallas Eakins, who's in his first season as an NHL bench boss after spending 12 years in the Leafs' organization in various coaching and executive roles.
"Those are tough losses. Our guys played hard, I thought maybe we played our best game so far."
There's room for improvement. With three points in five games, Edmonton sits in last place in the Western Conference. The Oilers have given up at least four goals in each and every game so far, and have been outscored 25-17 overall. Their 5.00 goals-against average is tied for dead-last in the league with the New York Rangers. Edmonton's lone victory was a 5-4 shootout decision over the New Jersey Devils (0-2-3), who are one of the last two teams in the NHL without a win. (The Buffalo Sabres are 0-5-1.)
"It's a step in the right direction," said Oilers defenceman Andrew Ference, a free-agent acquisition who was named team captain at the start of the season.
"It sucks, it hurts to lose, you see everyone in here really ticked off and that's what you want to see. It's frustrating to lose and give up the lead, but you have to concentrate, especially this time of season, on whether you're going in the right direction or not."
For the Oilers, loaded with young offensive talent thanks to recent poor seasons and prime drafting positions, the challenge remains the same as it has been in past years. They need to be better in their own zone, from the goaltending to the defence corps to forwards coming back and helping out.
Dubnyk appeared especially down in the Oilers dressing room after the game, sitting in his stall with his goalie pads on and holding his head in his hands for several minutes after the room had mostly cleared out.
"That kid's in there and he's fighting," Eakins said. "He's fighting and he cares and he wants to win and he understands his position is one where people are very critical of it. All our players take this very heavily, that's a tough way to lose a game after you've fought hard for 60 minutes.
"We'll stick with it, we're not going to change what we do. We need better habits, it's the basics of the game. We need better sticks, better recognition of danger, all those things. But for the most part tonight I thought we did a great job in the defensive zone. We will continue on with the process."
It's not going to get any easier in the immediate future for the Oilers, who kicked off a six-game Eastern road swing in Toronto. Edmonton's next two opponents are a couple of clubs who can light it up, the Washington Capitals on Monday and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday.
"We're leaky, we're letting in goals, but the commitment to doing the non-highlight stuff has been much better by a lot of guys," Ference said. "That's all you can do. You look at the mistakes, but you don't dwell on them. You make sure the lessons on what worked are well learned as well because there was a lot of good team play there."
A 1-3-1 start is not what the Oilers envisioned as they try to make it back to the NHL postseason for the first time since 2006. Edmonton's arsenal of young talent up front, including No. 1 overall draft picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov (who was scratched for the first time in his NHL career on Saturday night), has raised playoff expectations, but they need to figure out the back end.
"Obviously we're giving up too many goals, but there's a lot of good in that game to draw on," Ference said. "We were a lot more committed shift in and shift out, you didn't see the lapses we've had in past games. It's a step in the right direction. It's frustrating giving up the lead again, but the effort was better and guys really concentrated on doing the details of the game tonight."