The Edmonton Oilers have already established two very important truths this season.
A) They're better than last season, pretty good, even.
B) They ain't THAT good.
Certainly not Detroit, Boston and Chicago good.
In getting a close-up look at what good teams really are, and really do, Edmonton learned the hard way that there is more to turning this franchise around than one good month and a red-hot netminder.
"We've seen some very good hockey teams here," said head coach Tom Renney, after the Oilers closed out their recent road trip by getting spanked by three of the last four Stanley Cup champions. "We have to go to school."
Getting their attention shouldn't be a problem anymore. The last three games (6-3, 3-0 and 6-3 losses) are the perfect teaching tool, text book examples of what goes wrong if you don't have structure and commitment in all three zones.
"I've got excellent video," he said before the Oilers provided him with 60 minutes more from their ill-fated game of shinny with the Blackhawks.
"But we'd rather learn more from winning and doing things properly than have to bite it and lose."
Indeed, but until that day comes, it's back to the drawing board to examine what went wrong.
First of all, they're not as good as some of them might have thought. Not so good, anyway, that they can freelance their way to victory.
"Maybe we were a bit too ahead of ourselves," said defenceman Tom Gilbert, adding a lot of those wins might have been the result of the best netminding in the NHL. "Our record was not quite showing the way we had been playing lately and now it's coming through. We have to find a way to get back to the way we were playing earlier in the season — being good defensively, guys in the right spot doing the right thing on the ice."
Paying a steeper price around the opposition net seems to be the hardest message to get across. Ryan Smyth has 10 goals, yet you see more Oilers trying 1-on-2 rushes than trying to copy his style.
"We're not being hard enough on teams right now," said Shawn Horcoff. "We're not forechecking hard enough, were not doing it through all four lines to establish some time in the offensive zone to give our D and our goalie some rest.
"We've proven we can do it, we just got away from it."
The Kids, determined to show they could be as effective on the road as they'd been at home, didn't have a good trip. Taylor Hall had one even-strength point in six games and went minus five. Jordan Eberle went minus four and had one point in five games before moving to the line with Horcoff and Smyth.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was slightly better with two goals, an assist and minus three, but also crammed a month's worth of turnovers into the last week.
"Those kids are going to tell you they can improve in everything," said Renney. "As their coach I wouldn't suggest otherwise."
But this was more than a kid problem. The issues of the last few games run four lines and six defencemen deep.
"Our last really, really really good game for us from start to finish was LA and we need to get back to that." said Renney, who thinks they're heading in the opposite direction. "Sometimes when you're squeezing your stick, whether you're young or old, a forward or D man or even a goaltender, you go a little bit outside of yourself or even outside of what's required of you within the team concept, and that can be damaging."
You end up trying to trade rushes with the Chicago Blackhawks when you're on the last day of a long and gruelling road trip.
"When you're playing four games in six nights against four really good teams, you have to have a different game plan," said Gilbert, referring to the boring but successful style that made them 8-2-2. "It's an ugly game, but that's the way you have to play. Simplicity is your best weapon."