SUN Hockey Pool

Nilsson hitting his stride

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:18 AM ET

On Friday, Robert Nilsson scored his second goal in as many games for the Edmonton Oilers.

He could have had a couple more.

Nilsson was robbed by St. Louis Blues goaltender Hannu Toivonen on a one-timer in the third period and passed up a quality scoring opportunity in an effort to set up Fernando Pisani earlier in the game.

Still, by scoring in the 4-3 loss to the Blues at Rexall Place, Nilsson increased his point streak to five games. Only Shawn Horcoff is currently on a longer one with the Oilers, having notched a point in each of his last six.

'LOTS TO WORK WITH'

"There is lots there to work with, like a lot of guys," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish.

"There is lots of skill. It comes down to a couple of things for him. I've talked to him on a regular basis about fitness and fundamentals. His conditioning is not poor, but he needs to continue to work at it, get strong and get fast.

"He's got a head for the game. He certainly has a high-skill level and fundamentally it's about being in the right spots."

At the start of the season, there were high expectations for Nilsson.

Acquired in the trade that sent Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders last season, the son of former Oiler Kent Nilsson was expected to provide some much needed offence this year.

However, Nilsson struggled early on and was sent down to Edmonton's American Hockey League affiliate in Springfield five games into the season.

After registering four points in five games for the Falcons, Nilsson was recalled by the Oilers. He's gone on to score three goals and add six assists in 17 games.

"I've been thinking a little more defensively, trying to be in the right spots, so I think MacT has a little more confidence in playing me," Nilsson said.

"I'm getting chances. I've been getting a lot of chances both passing the puck and shooting before and they weren't going in. Now things are starting to go in for me too."

Nilsson was New York's first pick -- 15th overall -- in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Two seasons ago he split his time between the Islanders and their affiliate in Bridgeport, Ct. He scored six goals and added 14 assists in 53 games with the Islanders and added another 28 points in 29 games in the minors.

The following season he failed to make the Islanders and played 50 games in Bridgeport before being traded to the Oilers.

"He's certainly been receptive to the coaching, where I don't know that he was a couple of years ago where he figured he would just evolve to be a real good player," MacTavish said.

"But he's got a chance to be a real good player, just like a lot of other guys here."

The key to Nilsson becoming a good player is developing trust from his head coach. He's doing that by leading the team with a plus-four rating.

"He knows about my offensive qualities," Nilsson said of MacTavish.

"He just wanted me to do those little things right and be good in the defensive zone. I need his confidence, otherwise you can't play. Then you'll play four or five minutes a night and you'll get sent down again."

Having been sent down to the minors once already this season, there is always a threat of being demoted again.

"That goes through your head almost every day," Nilsson said.

"Now it's not so bad because we've been producing a little bit more. As long as you have a two-way contract, that's going to be on your mind all the time."

OPPORTUNITIES

However, if Nilsson keeps scoring at his current rate and playing well defensively, there's little danger of him being sent back down.

Especially if the glorious scoring opportunities keep presenting themselves.

"If you're not getting those scoring chances, that's when you start to worry," Nilsson said.

"As long as you keep getting the chances then you can't be too upset. I just have to try to make the most of them."


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