EDMONTON - A season that began with a rapid and unexpected ascent has turned into a roller-coaster ride for the rebuilding Edmonton Oilers.
A six-game winning streak had Edmonton atop the Western Conference standings at the start of November, but now the Oilers host the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday in the throes of a four-game losing skid that's seen them plummet out of a playoff position.
The early buzz about the Kid Line of Taylor Hall, rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle has subsided as their production has waned. The air-tight goaltending that Nikolai Khabibulin provided in a 7-2-2 start is no more and injuries have thinned a defence that played better than many expected.
With five losses in the last six games, getting back on the rails is now the challenge.
"The big thing with any season is to just make sure you do maintain kind of an even keel," coach Tom Renney said Friday. "As good as you can possibly be, the next night you can be that bad again. I think we've clearly demonstrated that, as do a lot of teams in this league.
"Look at Detroit's start, and they're a helluva hockey team. They can fall back. Their reference point is a certain way to play and that's pretty nice. We have work to do to get there. We know that."
Hall hasn't scored a goal in nine games. Nugent-Hopkins has cooled off with two goals and an assist over the last six games, while Eberle has a goal and two assists.
Veteran Ryan Smyth, who picked up his 18th point with an assist in Edmonton's 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Thursday, has been the only consistent source of offence.
"You want to have some consistency as a club," said Hall, who has three goals and 11 points. "We started off very well.
"No matter how we were winning, we were getting it done. The main difference between then and now is we've got off track a little bit and we've got to get it back on the trails as quick as we can."
Khabibulin, who had a 1.12 goals-against average and a .960 saves percentage in October hasn't been as sharp in a six-game road trip that produced just two wins. The Oilers have been outscored 20-8 in the last four games. They allowed just 23 goals in the first 14 games.
"If you're going to be a playoff team, this is where you stop it," captain Shawn Horcoff said of the losing streak. "You've got to stop it immediately here.
"We've got to win some games and get right back into it. I think we're out of the playoffs, as of today. We need to be competitive."
Already missing Ryan Whitney—out with a sprained knee—the Oilers will have to get along without Cam Barker for three months because he needs surgery to repair an ankle injury. Andy Sutton aggravated a strained groin in the warm-up Thursday and didn't play. Corey Potter was lost with a sprained ankle during the game, leaving Edmonton with four defencemen.
"It's all fun and games when you're winning," said Tom Gilbert, who has been carrying the load on the blue-line and is leading the Oilers in ice time per game at 24:21. "When you get on a losing streak, it's tough to get out of. You start to become un-confident. Your team play isn't what you want it to be and that's when teams expose their weaknesses.
"It's like a snowball effect. When things aren't going your way, you start gripping the stick a little tighter and doing things outside your box. That doesn't help the team out at all. We've had that winning streak. We know we can win, how we can play. We just have to find that again."
With Whitney still a week away from returning, the Oilers have called up Colten Teubert and Taylor Chorney from the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons to bolster the blue-line.
"The six-game winning streak shows we can string games together," said Horcoff. "The flip-side of it, this four-game losing streak, is showing that we're not there yet, where we can regroup from tough games. We have to find ways to do that."
Beaten 6-3 in Chicago last Sunday to end the road trip, the Oilers go into the rematch with the Blackhawks facing a schedule that sees them back on the road for four of their next six games after that.
"We have to experience these things," Renney said. "We have to experience what winning feels like and how badly we want it to continue at any cost, and now we've experienced the other end of the spectrum here.
"We have to get right back to what it takes to be a good hockey club in our way."