EDMONTON - The Edmonton Oilers weren't as good as they looked in their first 14 games of this season and they aren't as bad as they've often appeared over their last 14. The trick for coach Tom Renney is to find the happy middle ground between the extremes.
After getting out to a 9-3-2 start, the Oilers have staggered to a 4-9-1 record since, with the latest mis-step coming in a 5-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday–a defeat Renney deemed the most disappointing of the season.
Consistent, the Oilers are not.
"As much as our goaltending was good, our defensive game was very good to start the season," Renney said. "Our goaltenders had to worry about less chances against, less bona fide chances. That made a real difference.
"We do have a reference point with how we played. We have clips that would suggest we know what we're doing and the results sort of speak to that. Certainly lately, they don't."
Put the distinctly different 14-game segments together and the Oilers today sit in 10th place in the Western Conference with a 13-12-3 record as they prepare to close out a six-game homestand against the Colorado Avalanche on Friday.
Losers of two straight games and five of their last six, the Oilers are just two points ahead of the 27 points they had after the same number of games in 2010-11, when they finished 30th overall for the second straight year.
"I don't think you're really ever as good as you look and you're never really as bad as you think you are," Ryan Whitney said. "As a team, I think it's about realizing that the same group of guys that did that earlier is here now.
"Sometimes you get too confident. You think the league is going to be easy. I know when I was young, you have some success and you kind of lay back and you think it's going to be roses the rest of the way. It's not. It's a hard league. There's no easy games."
Beaten 5-3 by the Calgary Flames on Saturday, the well-rested Oilers talked about starting fast and making amends against the Hurricanes, who came into Rexall Place languishing in last place in the Eastern Conference and on a seven-game losing streak.
The Oilers were instead listless, flat and unable to match the energy level of the Hurricanes, who had lost 7-6 the night before in Calgary. Special teams struggled again. Renney's top two lines accomplished little.
"We're looking for some consistency together," captain Shawn Horcoff said. "We've had good games here and there. We need longer periods, where you throw three or four (games) together.
"We're going through a bit of a tough time and this is where you need to turn it around and start finding ways to win some games. I don't think we're as bad as we've looked this last stretch, but I think we can be as good a team as we were early, but it takes a 20-man commitment to it."
To say the Oilers have been streaky in the extreme is to understate. They had a six-game winning streak early. They followed that by losing five of six games in November and have duplicated that stretch, one win in six games, with the loss to Carolina.
"When you start thinking that you're better than you are, as a team or as a player, that's when it comes and bites you," Whitney said. "I think that's just what happened with us.
"We probably thought we were going to play the whole way like we started the year. All of a sudden, teams get better a month into the season and we stopped doing some of the things we were doing."
If the Oilers were guilty of being a little too confident after a surprising start, that's not an issue now. The power play, so hot to start the season, is still ranked eighth, but was held off the score sheet on 10 attempts in the losses to Calgary and Carolina. The penalty killing has slipped to 16th.
One constant has been that goaltending duo of Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk has faced too many shots. More of those shots are finding the back of the net now.
"We certainly can't feel sorry for ourselves and we can't go out and fall on our swords either," Renney said.
"This is the NHL. This is what we do, so let's just buckle down and come back to a real sound, fundamental game of hockey and allow the rest of that innate stuff, that instinctive stuff to emerge from good, sound, basic hockey. That's when we're at our best, when we play the game that way."