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Nilsson, Pisani and Gagner line doing damage

by Marc Ciampa / Edmonton Oilers
Oilers forward Robert Nilsson has picked up a point in eight straight games heading into tonight's match-up with Vancouver. (photo: Andy Devlin)
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The Edmonton Oilers return home to face the Vancouver Canucks tonight on the heels of a successful road trip. Certainly, success in the shootout had a lot to do with picking up five of a possible six points but the team also scored 14 goals in the three games and have found a groove offensively.One of the big reasons for that is it looks like the team has found a consistent second-line scoring threat. The top line of Dustin Penner, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky have been chipping in on a regular basis but now the trio of Sam Gagner, Robert Nilsson and Fernando Pisani has been scoring timely goals as well.

“Chemistry, I think for those guys,” said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish following the team’s skate this morning. “Confidence and chemistry. Fernie’s a guy that adds a lot of reliability to that line. The other guys are learning that, developing that and getting much better positionally.

“The other two guys are extremely skilled. Fernie supports the puck and helps them cycle the puck. Fernie can get open himself and when he gets open they find him.”

All three players are playing their best hockey of the season. Gagner has picked up points in four straight games, including a goal and four assists while Pisani has two goals and an assist in his last three.

“It’s always a good sign when they’re enjoying playing with one another because they’re having success,” MacTavish continued.

The players are also scoring timely goals – case in point, Pisani’s go-ahead marker against Detroit late in the second period on Thursday. On the play, Gagner picked up the puck in the corner and backhanded it to Pisani who was in perfect position in front of the net to roof it on Hasek.

For Fernando Pisani, playing with Nilsson and Gagner has helped him immensely in his return from injury.

“They’re obviously skilled players and make good plays through the neutral zone and offensively,” he remarked this morning. “You just try and make sure you get into the open areas and they’ll find you the puck. “

Clearly, Pisani’s timing is not off after missing the first 26 games of the season. He has done a great job getting open and both Nilsson and Gagner have done equally well finding him.

“They’re finding me in the soft areas where I can get a shot away quick. We’re working well together down low in the offensive zone. Those are giving us good opportunities in front of the net,” Pisani stated.

Edmonton Oilers' Fernando Pisani, left, scores against Detroit Red Wings' Dominik Hasek, right, of Czech Republic, during the second period of their NHL hockey game on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2007 in Detroit. (AP Photo/Jerry S. Mendoza)
Gagner was moved back to the centre position when MacTavish put this line together and he has clicked immediately with Nilsson on the left side.

“He’s a really skilled player. He gets to the right spots on the ice and knows what to do with the puck,” said Gagner.

Nilsson concurred, saying he enjoyed playing with someone as skilled as Gagner.

“Sammy can pass the puck. He’s a very good all-around player and knows if he gives up the puck he’ll get it back.”

The duo played together briefly earlier this season alongside Cogliano but adding Pisani to the line has really helped give them a defensive conscience.

“It’s good for our line. Pisani is always in the right spots as well and is really great to play with. He’s been unbelievable since he got back,” Gagner noted. “He’s been through the league and knows what it’s all about. For me and Nilsson it’s a great fit.”

Nilsson agreed that having Pisani on the line really completes it as a legitimate second line on the team.

“When Fernando’s back, he does all the (crappy) work for us two. He’s really good along the boards and when he gets in the slot he usually scores or gets the rebound to one of our sticks,” said Nilsson.

It has resulted in Nilsson playing the best hockey of his young NHL career. He has a point in each of his last eight games and nine of 10. 11 of his 14 total points netted this season have come during this recent 10-game stretch.

“I don’t really think he even thinks about it,” Gagner said of Nilsson’s career-high eight-game scoring streak. “Going on a streak is pretty nice but the main thing we focus on is playing a solid game, every game. If we do that, the points will come.

“You can’t worry about the points and how far the streak’s going. You just have to focus on the right things and hopefully we can continue to have some success here.”

Edmonton Oilers center Sam Gagner, right, celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against the Dallas Stars in the first period of a hockey game, Monday, Dec. 10, 2007, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Gagner went on to talk about the difference he’s observed between Nilsson now and earlier this season when his struggles resulted in a demotion to Springfield of the American Hockey League.

“He’s playing with a lot of determination and drive. He wants to be here and maybe being sent down made him realize where he wants to be – he wants to be a part of the Edmonton Oilers.”

Nilsson has also noticed the change in his game.

“I think I’m playing a little bit smarter hockey,” Nilsson remarked. “I stay on the right side of the puck a lot more than I did at the start of the season. That’s probably why the puck is coming to my blade a little bit more than usual.”

Following a performance on October 12 against Vancouver that saw him have only 5:43 of icetime, the Oilers demoted Nilsson to the farm.

“There’s always a reason why someone gets sent down. That reason for me was because I didn’t do the small things right and was on the wrong side of the puck. Mac didn’t have the confidence to put me on the ice.”

After picking up two goals and two assists in his first two games with Springfield, things didn’t get much better for Nilsson in the AHL. He was held scoreless in his next three games and was even a healthy scratch for a game in late October.

“It’s an up-and-down game. I was playing down there and was a healthy scratch and the day after got called up again,” he said. “You have to enjoy it when you’re up and fight back when you’re down.”

The message sent by Falcons head coach Kelly Buchberger must have been heard loud and clear, however. He had some success shortly after his recall, scoring his first goal of the season in a game at Calgary.

“Bucky tries to help me down there, too. If I don’t do my job down there, it doesn’t matter if it’s the minors or the show, you don’t play.”

The Oilers head coach felt that the healthy scratch in Springfield may have been the true turning point.

“A lot of times, we talk about that being the motivator – the failure being the biggest impetus for motivation,” MacTavish said. “Clearly he’s got all kinds of skill to play at this level so why aren’t you?”

In his return to the Oilers, Nilsson found his offensive game initially but then it dropped off again. He was held scoreless for six straight games and saw limited icetime in some of them. However, MacTavish never seriously entertained the thought of sending him back to the AHL.

“I don’t remember me thinking that it’s time to get him back (to Springfield),” said MacTavish. “Once you sent him down the first time, the message has been delivered.”

“The one thing I said to him at that instance was you don’t have to get something done every night. It’s okay to go out there and have a shift where you don’t get a lot done. As long as you survive the shift, you’re not giving something up doing it – trying to make a high-risk play because you’re putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself to get something done offensively.”

Nilsson took that advice to heart and has played a very smart game at both ends of the ice recently. MacTavish has rewarded him with plenty of icetime.

“Now I feel he’s getting more confidence having me out there and it doesn’t matter if there’s three minutes left in the game,” Nilsson said. “That makes my confidence go up and that’s why I play better.”

Even at the start of the season, MacTavish pointed out that the team’s success was linked to the play of Nilsson. With secondary scoring, the club has many more options up front.

St. Louis Blues' Jay McKee, left, and Edmonton Oilers' Robert Nilsson, right, fight for the puck in front of St. Louis Blues goalie Hannu Toivonen, center, in the second period of NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Canada, on Friday, Dec. 7, 2007. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Jimmy Jeong)
“In my mind, he’s a real important member of this team. If he can keep his game at this level it’s going to have a tremendous impact on the success that we have,” MacTavish reiterated this morning. “He’s really bought into a lot of things that maybe previously he wasn’t as motivated to buy into. He’s working hard off the ice, he’s good positionally and fundamentally he’s going through a lot of video. He’s interested in that part of it and recognizes how important it is.”

With a +4 rating that ranks among the best on the team, Nilsson has proven himself responsible even in situations where the team needs to protect the lead.

“At this level you have to have some sort of dimension to your game. You can’t be a one-dimensional player or you’re never going to play that much,” said MacTavish. “ Sometimes you’ve got to play patient hockey. He’s doing a much better job of that and he’s got confidence playing with those other two guys.

“He’s applied himself very well. He and the team are really reaping the benefits from that.”

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