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Nilsson "close"

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club

EDMONTON, AB - The Oilers aren’t ready to name Anders Nilsson as their top goaltender, but in the words of his head coach, “he’s close.”

Nilsson has been given every opportunity of late to show he can keep the Oilers in games and give them a chance to win. He’s done nothing short of that, and has been rewarded with 11 starts in the last 14 games, including three in a row.

“I would say he’s awfully close. I think he’s doing a tremendous job of taking the ball. I think we’re obviously showing that the way we’re using him,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan.

McLellan and the Oilers are not prepared to “anoint” either Nilsson or Cam Talbot as the for sure number one. However, Nilsson is doing the most with the chances he’s getting.

In four of Nilsson’s last six games, the goaltender has recorded a save percentage of .950 or better. He is 6-7-1 on the season, and his 2.63 GAA and .915 save percentage are improving.

On Wednesday night, Nilsson stopped 38 of 40 shots and was perfect in overtime and the shootout as the Oilers topped the visiting Boston Bruins 3-2.

“An excellent game. There’s no other way to put it,” McLellan said. “He’s played that way for a long time now. He made some really good saves. The shootout is indicative of his play. He’s big, he’s coming out and challenging. Rescued us when we made some mistakes.”

Nilsson’s performance against the Bruins also drew praise from his teammates in the locker room.

“He was extremely solid throughout the whole game,” said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “Then you come to the shootout and he doesn’t even flinch when guys are trying to pull all kinds of moves. Those are some skilled players too. It’s impressive to see and I think he’s playing with some confidence right now too and it kind of feeds into our game.”

The win over Boston comes just a few short days after another shootout win in Pittsburgh on November 28. His career record in shootouts is an unblemished 6-0.

Nilsson’s recent play comes as no surprise to the veterans in the Oilers locker room, who see the goaltender put in the hard work every day.

“He’s been sound. I think that may be the best way to describe him,” said Matt Hendricks. “He’s a real professional. He shows up to the rink every day, he’s ready to go, he does his own thing. He gets ready… He’s been great. He’s been a true pro. He’s the same way every day. He’s the consistent pro. He practices the same way he plays his games and you can see it. He’s becoming more comfortable with us.”

Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club

The hulking Swedish netminder stands at 6-foot-5 and weighs 229 pounds. His size in the net is something that has stood out to McLellan during his recent stretch of starts.

“He’s an imposing figure in net. He can be out of position and fill the net up,” said McLellan. “I see his aggressiveness and his ability to come out and challenge, which takes away any of the other remaining portion of the net. Players are doing a good job around him, for the most part, of clearing the garbage out so he can be aggressive. Just his confidence. He’s an inch taller and two inches wider because he’s that confident right now.”

When Nilsson came to the Oilers via trade with the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer, he made the decision to sign with the club and return to North America from his one-year stint in the KHL. He did so because he saw an opportunity to compete for an NHL job and play a lot of games. So far, he’s making good on his goals. However, Nilsson won’t say he’s close to locking down a number one gig.

“Still, I’m trying not to get ahead of myself too much. My approach, since the day I signed here, is to try and take it step by step and day by day. I’m still trying to control what I can control and improve my game in every practice and every game and prepare myself so I can give myself the best chance to perform at my highest level every game. I’m still trying to take it game by game and not get too ahead of myself.”

As Nilsson flashed the glove to stop a Matt Beleskey scoring opportunity in the first period, or as he turned away David Krejci in the shootout to seal the Oilers win on Wednesday night, the goaltender did himself no harm in the eyes of Oilers players, staff and fans.

Still, the messaging from McLellan is likely the same as it has been all season. The club feels they have two good goaltenders who they wish to develop as they try to establish themselves as starters in the League.

“The problem with completely declaring a number-one guy is that you kind of push the other guy to the side and we’re not prepared to do that with Cam,” said McLellan. “We think he’s a tremendous goaltender and we’re going to need him. He’s going to have to work his way back into winning games, and he will. But when you flat out declare who your go-to guy is it really pushes somebody down and we’re not prepared to do that. We want to bring him along.”

Still, like McLellan said, Nilsson is “awfully close.”

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