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Yakupov learning from veterans

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

EDMONTON, AB - After the rest of his teammates had hit the locker room following Saturday’s practice at Royal Glenora Club, Nail Yakupov stayed after to get in a few more shots on net.

The previous night marked the end of a long streak of being held off the score sheet for the 21-year-old winger. Yakupov hadn’t scored a goal since December 7, against San Jose. Since then, he had went 14 games with no goals and only one point.

But on Friday night, Yakupov had every right to feel relieved, scoring a critical goal in a tight game. With just a one-goal lead against a dangerous and offensively potent Chicago Blackhawks team, Yakupov and Taylor Hall came down the ice on a 2-on-0 rush. Yakupov kept the puck the whole way, roofing a backhand over Antti Raanta for his fifth goal of the season.

“I thought he was very good today on both sides of the puck,” Oilers Interim Coach Todd Nelson said after the game. “He contributed offensively, it was nice to see him score. He did a lot of good things tonight, I was happy with his game.”

Yakupov’s goal gave the Oilers a 4-2 lead at 16:51 of the third period. Hall would score an empty-net tally less than a minute later to finish off the 5-2 win.

“For me, I want to score all the time so it doesn’t matter when, first period or third period,” Yakupov said. “The good thing was we played as a team for the whole 60 minutes.”

It wasn’t just a pretty goal that Yakupov should be happy with. The young winger was solid for much of the night. His forechecking in the first period triggered a series of events, leading to Benoit Pouliot’s game-tying goal.

Yakupov finished a hard check on Brent Seabrook behind the net. The Chicago defenceman passed the puck over to Duncan Keith, but pressure from Pouliot caused him to cough it up. Derek Roy and Pouliot chased after the loose puck to the side of the net and Pouliot put it away. It all started with Yakupov on the forecheck.

“He brings so much speed and so much deception for the other team. They don’t know what he’s doing and sometimes we don’t know what he’s doing,” joked Roy after the game. “But we like to talk on the bench and keep being on the same page. His work ethic is always there and it has always been there. We just have to realize the work ethic he puts in every night.”

Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers

What Roy was saying about Yakupov and not knowing where he’s going to be sometimes is attributed to his young age and inexperience. Yakupov is still developing the knowledge and instinct on the ice to know where to be at all times.

“He is fast and can get on the puck pretty quickly, it’s just a matter of being in the right position at the right time,” Pouliot said. “At times, he is there but sometimes he gets moving in a way he shouldn’t be going, like all of us. It’s just a matter of doing that every night on a consistent basis and keep doing what you’re good at or being in good position. Last time you got the puck, where were you going to be? You’ve just got to be in the same spot again and then it’s going to come.”

Yakupov has been on the move for much of the season, playing with different linemates, which is something that Pouliot acknowledged.

“That comes with chemistry with the line too,” Pouliot said. “We haven’t played together that much. Derek is new, I played with Yak maybe the first 10 games but it’s mostly a full line thing than just one guy. We’ve got to help him out in our way and he’s got to help us out too.”

Yakupov embraces that help, soaking in as much as he can from two players with close to 1,100 games experience in the NHL.

“It’s good to have those two guys on your line,” Yakupov said. “They’re older and have played a lot in the NHL already so we kind of talk to each other every shift and they try to help me and they try to give me a better way to be in a spot or where I should go or where I should not. It’s really good. Roysy is a really good centre so I talk to him all the time and it’s really good.”

Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers

At times, Yakupov’s motor seems to be running a mile a minute. He has so much energy and speed on the ice, that his coach and linemates have advised him just to slow it down a little.

“People like to see guys go fast all the time or working their butts off all the time,” Pouliot said. “I used to be that way but now, at times, you don’t have to go too fast. You’ve just got to be in the right position and anticipate where the play is going to go. It’s a learning process obviously, you’re not going to do that over night. But once you get the feel, once you get to know whoever you’re playing with, you know where the guy is going to go. You just have to slow down a bit at times and just be in the right position at the right time.”

Nelson sat down with Yakupov this week to help him with just that.

“The day before yesterday, him and I had a talk and went over some shifts and I tried to explain that sometimes less is more,” Nelson said. “With the young guys, sometimes they feel things aren’t going right and they have to do that little extra to go over the hump. But I liked his game (against Chicago). He was good positionally defensively and he contributed offensively so it was a step in the right direction with Nail.”

The talk seemed to help Yakupov, who made several good plays against the Blackhawks. 46 seconds after Chicago tied things up in the second period, Yakupov set up a go-ahead goal from Jeff Petry. Yakupov fired a shot on Raanta, resulting in a rebound on the doorstep. Petry put the puck away to make it 3-2.

After a strong game against one of the best teams in the NHL, Yakupov will look to build on that performance. Like Nelson said, it was a step in the right direction and the young winger now has some veteran voices on the ice to help him keep it going.

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