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Oilers' Nugent-Hopkins makes strides in fourth season

by Dan Rosen

NEW YORK -- Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is starting to show why he declined an invitation from Hockey Canada to play in the 2014 IIHF World Championship in order to dedicate himself to his offseason strength and conditioning training program.

Further proof came Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, where Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, scored a goal, had an assist, and overall showed his strength on the puck and on his skates in a 3-1 win against the New York Rangers.

Nugent-Hopkins has nine points in his past 10 games. He's noticeably thicker in his upper body without his pads and sweater on, and he showed the Rangers how much more powerful he is on the ice, prompting coach Dallas Eakins to offer this analysis:

"This kid is coming like gangbusters right now," Eakins said.

Eakins traces Nugent-Hopkins' development back to his decision not to play for Canada in the World Championship this past spring.

"That was a terribly hard decision for him not to go with Hockey Canada," Eakins said. "He loves Hockey Canada. He's dedicated to them. He made the decision not to go. He wanted to get his body totally healthy and get on with the training. People were highly critical of him, and that's a hard decision to make. This is when you see the results to that. I felt for him making that decision, but that's where it started and this is where we're at now."

Where he was Sunday was on the ice at the Garden and using his speed and newfound strength to toy with the Rangers.

Nugent-Hopkins scored at 3:19 of the first period, when he quickly delivered a pass behind the net and used a burst of speed to blow past Rangers center Derek Stepan, beating him into the slot, where he redirected a pass from Jordan Eberle past goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

Nugent-Hopkins used his speed and vision to assist on Benoit Pouliot's game-winning goal at 8:29 of the second period.

He started at the far blue line, gained speed, lost the puck in Rick Nash's feet, regained it in stride, drew two defenders to him at the right-wing half-wall and feathered a pass to Pouliot, who beat Lundqvist through the five-hole on a shot from the right circle.

Later in the second period he drew a high-sticking penalty on Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello. The key, though, is that despite Zuccarello's stick getting up in Nugent-Hopkins' face, the Oilers center never fell down or even broke stride. He kept with the play and Oilers defenseman Justin Schultz nearly wound up with a quality scoring chance.

"I came in with a little bit more confidence this season," Nugent-Hopkins said. "Health-wise I didn't have any issues all summer. It was a good summer for me to get good training in. That really helps you out with confidence. My fourth year in the League, I have to start to step it up."


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