If the Edmonton Oilers glanced a little to their right toward the Pittsburgh Penguins bench at PPG Paints Arena Tuesday night, they could have been excused for wondering, perhaps hoping, that they were catching a glimpse of their own future.
Sure, it's too early to start drawing lines from the recently hopeless to the defending Stanley Cup champions. But it's not as implausible as it was even a few weeks ago.
A month into the 2015-16 season and coming off a solid 2-2-1 road trip that concluded with Tuesday's exciting 4-3 loss to the defending Cup champions, it's fair to suggest that the Oilers are the story of the season so far.
"I do think that they've taken a significant step with the additions they've made," said one veteran Western-based scout who has seen the Oilers play multiple times this season.
It starts with top-end coaching from Todd McLellan and great goaltending from Cam Talbot, who has turned in a .938 save percentage in his past nine games. "Talbot's definitely the real deal," the scout said.
The Oilers also boast an emerging, better-than-expected defense and a balanced, big and fast offensive group.
"The pieces are in place," the scout said. "And I think they're coming together; there's an excitement around the team."
And, oh yeah, there's a kid named Connor McDavid, a player the scout said is the closest thing to the incomparable Wayne Gretzky that the league has seen yet. And that's with all due respect to two-time Stanley Cup winner and defending playoff MVP Sidney Crosby, against whom McDavid faced off for the first time in his young career Tuesday night and delivered a virtuoso, three-point performance in a losing effort.
"[With] this guy's acceleration and the ability to attack the way he does," the scout said, "I think they've got a helluva chance to make the playoffs."
Mention "playoffs" to Edmonton general manager Peter Chiarelli and he practically claps his hands over his ears. It's way, way, too soon for that kind of talk.
But part of the reason for the giddiness is that given the Oilers' successes -- even after Tuesday's loss, they remain atop the Pacific Division with a 9-4-1 record -- it seems almost as if we are discussing some completely different franchise when compared to how quickly most of the past 10 seasons devolved into chaos and disarray.
"They sure have found hope in Edmonton that has been crushed early most years in the last decade," one former player and current executive also based in the West said. "And it's well-timed in [their] new rink."
So much of this early season has not been Oilers-like. After Tuesday's loss Edmonton is still the league's top road team, with a 5-2-1 record. Last season, the Oilers won just 12 games away from home.
They weren't much better at home, winning just 19 times as they finished last in the Western Conference with a minus-42 goal differential -- third-worst in the NHL. This season, the Oilers are 4-2-0 and boast a respectable plus-8 goal differential at home.
Edmonton has dealt with some early injury adversity. They're missing a slew of everyday players, including Kris Russell, who has arguably been the team's best defender after signing as a free agent during the offseason.
But still the Oilers keep striding forward.
"The good teams, they just kind of get used to the winning atmosphere, the winning mentality. You go into every night expecting to win," former No. 1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said Tuesday. "We're starting to get that back into our mindset now."
Like Nugent-Hopkins and everyone else connected to the Oilers, Chiarelli is preaching patience.
It's a message that's a lot more palatable for fans who haven't had a sniff of the postseason since Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals.
The Oilers own the second-ranked road power play and the top road penalty-killing unit, having allowed just four goals on 41 shorthanded opportunities. They are 12th in the league with the man advantage and fourth when killing penalties. Last season they were 18th and tied for 17th, respectively. They are fourth in the league in hits -- a marked departure from a year ago, when they were 20th.
Chiarelli oversaw the building of a Stanley Cup champion in Boston. He understands better than most the hundreds of building blocks that go into erasing years of disappointment and underachievement.
Milan Lucic, the key offseason free agent signing by the Oilers, was with Chiarelli in Boston when they raised a Stanley Cup after knocking off the Vancouver Canucks on the road in Game 7 in 2011, the Bruins' first championship since 1972.
The two have talked internally about the need for this team to avoid the long, soul-snapping streaks that can scuttle a season. And Chiarelli notes the team's improved play in all three zones has been a key to avoiding such slides.
This road trip was a good test, as the Oilers dropped the first two games and were actually winless in three before beating the New York Islanders and then the Detroit Red Wings heading into Tuesday's loss.
"It's just about keeping perspective over a long season," Chiarelli said. "I don't think, 'Oh, we've turned a corner.'"
Fair enough, but how many steps does it take before a team reaches said corner?
Another few weeks of solid play and Chiarelli is going to have walk around with ear muffs on because the playoff talk will only intensify.
"Obviously, we wanted to have a good start, and we've established that," Nugent-Hopkins said. "We established ourselves at home really well, which is another important thing. So far we've done everything within our control. Now we just have to have the same mentality and not get too caught up in stuff and not get too ahead of ourselves and just keep playing the same we have been."
After a decade of misery, the Oilers deserve a chance to bask in the unusual glare of a welcome spotlight, don't they? As long as they don't become blinded by it.
"To get the good start rolling, it definitely brings the team together," Nugent-Hopkins said. "And yeah, you've got to enjoy that. When you're having fun it makes it a lot easier to go out there every night. So we just got to keep it going."