Through the opening weeks of the season, the Edmonton Oilers emerged as something of a pleasant surprise as they strung together wins and moved atop the Pacific Division.
But the season is one long grind, and their next opponent is no pushover.
The Oilers will try to avoid their first three-game losing streak on Sunday night when they meet the New York Rangers, who come to Rogers Arena with the league's most potent offense.
New York (11-4-0) is going for its third win in four visits to Edmonton and first two-game season series sweep of the Oilers since 1998-99.
Edmonton (9-5-1) began the season winning seven of eight, but the Oilers have coooled off by going 2-4-1. That included a 5-3 loss to the Rangers on Nov. 3 at Madison Square Garden, where New York erased a third-period deficit with three consecutive goals.
After wrapping up a five-game Eastern swing with a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night, the Oilers were beaten 3-2 on Friday by the injury-riddled Dallas Stars.
McLellan wasn't citing any residual effect from the road trip as a reason for coming out flat.
"It's always an excuse when you lose," McLellan told the Edmonton Journal. "If we come out and play a great game, we're not talking about playing five games in eight days on the road. It's the NHL. We have to do it eight times a year and so does everybody else. No excuses. Show up to the rink ready to play."
Edmonton's Connor McDavid drew an assist Friday, giving him five during a three-game streak. McDavid, who also had an assist against the Rangers this month, is tied with Alexander Wennberg of the Columbus Blue Jackets for the league lead with 13.
However, the Oilers' 19-year-old captain remains stuck on five goals as he has failed to score in seven straight games.
Another player who has struggled for the Oilers is goaltender Cam Talbot, who backed up the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist for two seasons before being dealt to Edmonton in June 2015.
Talbot is 1-3-1 with 3.39 goals-against average and .890 save percentage this month after going 7-2-0 with a 2.04 GAA, .936 save percentage and two shutouts in October.
Edmonton still leads the Pacific Division with 19 points, one more than the San Jose Sharks and two points in front of the Anaheim Ducks. And in spite of the Oilers' recent play, center Mark Letestu told the team's official website Saturday that there's no reason why Edmonton can't keep up with the Rangers.
"If we can take anything from that game at Madison Square Garden, it's we're right there with them," said Letestu, who has two goals and four assists in 15 games. "There should be confidence in this room that we can beat them and we should play with that kind of bravado and swagger out there.
"This is a team that's coming into our house and we expect to win so I think it's going to be a great game. Two good teams, real fast, we'll see how it goes."
The Rangers' run through western Canada as part of a four-game road trip got off to a flying start with a 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Saturday night.
Michael Grabner, Derek Stepan and rookies Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich each scored for New York, which is averaging 4.13 goals per game.
"It's impressive to see how we create chances every game," said Lundqvist, who came within 8:48 of a shutout. " ... It gives the team a lot of confidence knowing we can score if we really have to."
Grabner has a team-high eight goals in 15 games. That matches his total in 34 games with the New York Islanders in 2014-15, and is one off the nine he had in 80 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs last season.
Grabner, who notched a goal and an assist against the Oilers 11 days ago, has one career assist in five games in Edmonton.
Lundqvist made 35 saves on Saturday and has been outstanding in his last eight starts, going 7-1-0 with a 1.88 GAA, .934 save percentage and a shutout.
"He's making key saves, especially early in the year and early in games," Grabner said of Lundqvist. " ... He's one of the best goalies in the world."
However, his last appearance in Edmonton was forgettable. Lundqvist surrendered five goals on 33 shots and was lifted 2:40 in the third period of a 7-5 loss on Dec. 11, 2015.
Rangers center Rick Nash has three goals and four assists in a four-game points streak against Edmonton. Nash also has three goals and six assists in his last eight games in northern Alberta.