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For Oilers' Nilsson, Talbot, trying harder isn't answer

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- The week after Christmas hasn't been kind to the Edmonton Oilers goalies so far, but if there is one thing Cam Talbot and Anders Nilsson have learned this season it's that trying harder in games won't help them.

After a strong 22-save performance by Talbot in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Dec. 26, Nilsson was pulled after allowing four goals on 30 shots in two periods of a 5-3 loss against the Calgary Flames the following night. Talbot didn't last that long in the next game Tuesday, pulled after giving up three goals in 96 seconds early in the second period of 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, another dip in an up-and-down season.

Each goalie is now tasked with bouncing back: Talbot from a blip against the Kings that included two goals on attacks starting below the goal line, interrupting a solid, at times spectacular, four-game stretch since mid-December; Nilsson from a four-game skid that opened the door for Talbot to start his recent resurgence.

Along the way in this first season in Edmonton, each goalie has learned trying harder when things go wrong will only lead to more trouble.

Nilsson, back in the NHL after a season in Russia, went 7-3-0 with a .931 save percentage from Nov. 20 through Dec. 11 despite giving up five goals in the final game of that streak. But as things started to slip, he felt himself trying too hard to stop it.

"Usually when you do that you find yourself scrambling and you are pretty much all over the place but you are nowhere at the same time," Nilsson said. "You can't try harder. When you try harder usually you screw up."

Opening up might be a better description for Nilsson. Trying too hard often means being more aggressive in positioning, which can lead to extra movements that create more holes in his 6-foot-5 frame.

Unlike a struggling player, who can try to work out of a slump by creating a hit or crashing the opposing net in search of a rebound, more is usually less for a goalie.

"A player can go out and work harder, but for us when you try to do a little more, usually a few extra pucks go in the net," said Nilsson, who is 10-10-1 with a .908 save percentage this season. "I've been overworking a little and haven't been able to get my feet set all the time. So now we're focused on being patient and being set and letting the puck come to me. It sounds so simple but it's so hard to do that."

Talbot, who is 5-10-2 with a .901 save percentage, has uttered that same phrase about letting the puck come to him a lot lately. It was a big part of his focus with Oilers goalie coach Dustin Schwartz while watching Nilsson go on his run into mid-December.

"Sometimes it's almost like you try harder and you are almost just putting yourself in worse positions," Talbot said. "Every time things start going not your way you want to try to do more to force it, but that's not the way it works in goaltending. You can't just try harder. You have to read the play and stay a little more patient, and sometimes that is tough, but I think that's what I worked on those two weeks is just staying a little more patient, a little more calm, and let the play come to you. That's what I am doing recently and I seem to find myself in better position."

Schwartz can help his goaltenders reset their positioning between the pipes with game-like drills designed to keep some of that extra movement in check, but Talbot said trying too hard is usually more of a problem between their ears.

"I just had to kind of settle myself down," Talbot said. "It's a mental thing."

Talbot has been through this before, trying too hard to prove himself in a new role.

When Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist injured his neck in early February last season, Talbot went 16-4-3 with a .929 save percentage, making him a desirable offseason addition for the Oilers. What many forget is he gave up 15 goals in his first five games as the starter before finally settling down after a talk with Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire.

"On a big stage like New York and the guy you are trying to fill in for is one of the best in the world, you try to do a little too much to fill those shoes, but you can't do that," Talbot said. "I remember [Allaire] pulled me aside and told me, 'We just need you to play like Cam, we don't need you to play like Henrik.' That was his message last year, and this year I am just trying to take that approach and step back and play within myself."

Talbot also learned about trying to manage his rest and his game in the starter's role, something Nilsson was still figuring out amid the recent opportunity to play a lot.

"That's probably the biggest challenge for every goalie in this League when you are playing a lot, is to get the good quality of practice," said Nilsson, adding his chances to be a No. 1 in the minors and other leagues came with more gaps between games. "You have to think about resting your body physically, but also mentally. When you are playing a lot you need to save yourself for a game, so you can't drain yourself in practice and then have nothing left.

"That's something you have to learn and something I have to learn to deal with and work on still."

It's one of many lessons the Oilers goalies are learning on the fly in new roles this season.

Like a lot of questions in goaltending, the answer isn't usually "try harder."

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