Play it again, Sam

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

Sam Gagner may have saved Craig MacTavish from having to coach from the edge of a cliff.

The 19-year-old with the much-publicized sophomore jinx, scored the winning goal to get the Edmonton Oilers out of jail against the last-place St. Louis Blues last night.

And while Gagner's hockey team hit the halfway mark of the season as half the hockey team most fans figured they'd be this year, his goal to give the Oilers a 2-1 win had to have the effect of loosening the noose a lot of people want to hang around MacTavish's neck.

Lose a third straight game at home to drop within four points of the Blues in last place, as would have been the case if they'd lost this one, and the fire-the-coach crowd would have dialled up the heat big time.

The point is, if there was a perfect time and place for the kid to come through for one and all, this was it.

If this team is to have a future, the rest of this season or in the coming seasons, Gagner is going to have to be a big part of it.

And if you're looking for the silver lining in the black cloud this team has insisted on skating under so far this season with their shabby starts, phenomenal failure to impose any will on anybody, incredible lack of consistency, obvious problems with passengers, failure to go to the net, etc., etc. etc., every little positive helps.

After 41 games, it can be said that Gagner looks to finally be positioning himself for a "Play It Again, Sam" finish to his season.

With a two-point night including the winner, Gagner has been a point-a-game player for the last eight games.

And guess what?

Gagner, despite his struggles, has hit the halfway mark with better numbers than he had at the same time last year.

It was his fourth goal.

At this point last year he had three.

It was his 16th point.

Last year he also had 16.

It left him with a plus one.

Last year, at the halfway mark, he was a minus 11.

The winner, at 6:31 of the third period was, he admitted, from the furthest distance as any goal he's scored in the NHL so far, a couple steps inside the blueline.

It was a Sheldon Souray one-timer with, uh, let's say significantly less steam than the shots from the point by the defenceman with the hardest shot in the league.

It wasn't a broken bat single. But it was closer to being a duck than making anyone in front of the net duck.

Gagner was asked if he got it all.

"Actually, I did," he laughed.

"That's the bad thing about it. The one-timer is not my forte.

"I'd like to tell you I didn't get all of it, but I did."

He got enough for it to find its way through traffic and into the net.

"Sam has put a lot of the pucks at the net and has had less than a lot of good luck this year," said coach Craig MacTavish.

Gagner said a closed locker-room session with the veterans on the team, getting them to tell the young players to take ownership, like they did when most of the veterans were injured at the end of last year, may have played a part in the win last night.

MacTavish said it was a good message for the veterans to deliver to the kids.

"The veterans told them to have fun. It has not been as lively a room as it has been in the past. They needed to hear the veterans tell them it's their dressing room, too, and to address bringing energy to the room," added MacTavish.

"At the end of last year we had a lot of youthful enthusiasm," said Gagner of the 14-5-1 run that caused so much of the excitement heading into this season.

"You have to be having fun playing the game. I think with everybody talking about expectations and the sophomore jinx, playing with the kind of pressure we've had, I panicked a little.

"It's a fine line between being hard on yourself and letting up on yourself a little bit. And you can't let negative outside factors control the game. You have to be playing loose and having fun."

That said, you have to learn to deal with the game when the going isn't easy.

"I think you have to go through a little adversity in this game before you can be successful," said Gagner.

"I think I'll look back on this and be happy I went through it," he added.


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