Gagner's found the scoring touch

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:23 AM ET

ST. PAUL -- Sam Gagner has been waiting all year to regain his scoring touch.

So have the Edmonton Oilers.

Now, at a point in the schedule when wins are most important and points are tough to obtain, Gagner is back to displaying the form of his rookie season.

Heading into this afternoon's contest against the Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center, Gagner has 14 points in his last nine games.

"It's tough to say what's different," he said yesterday.

"Obviously, this is a pretty big mental game and I think my preparation day in and day out has changed. I came into the year with high expectations, especially the way last year finished.

"Maybe I wasn't prepared mentally for how tough the year was going to be. And then when you get off to a bad start, you start to panic a little bit and that just makes things even worse."

Gagner, 19, had 13 goals and 36 assists last year in his rookie season. The majority of those points came late in the year as the Oilers made an improbable playoff push fueled by their younger players.

Heading into this season, Gagner was expected to pick up where he left off the previous season. However, the London, Ont., native struggled, with just a goal and five assists in his first 24 games.

"I never really had doubts that I could play," Gagner said.

"Just with the way things went last year and the expectation I set for myself, I was obviously upset with the way things started.

"I probably would have liked it if I would have been able to get going a little earlier, but the good thing was that I tried to take something from that time frame and tried to learn something from it."

Despite being the Oilers first pick - sixth overall - in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, expectations were never too high on Gagner coming into his rookie year.

As a junior-aged player, the Oilers wanted to bring him along slowly and even sat him out in some games.

However, once Gagner became accustomed to the league, he started to force the Oilers hand.

When centre Shawn Horcoff and defenceman Sheldon Souray had their seasons cut short by injuries, the Oilers had little choice but to give Gagner and the rest of the younger players big ice time.

They nearly dragged the team into the playoffs, going on a 14-6 run to close out the season.

"He's playing a more reckless game now," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish.

"Like I said before, all your productivity comes in that last 5%. If you can just find a way to get just 5% more out of your game, that's where all the productivity is. Confidence is a big part of it, opportunity is a big part of it, and chemistry with your linemates is a big part of it.

"He's playing a real hard, determined game. The other thing that's lost in a lot of this is his plus/minus. Last year he was a significant minus and this year he's a plus player, which is a huge turnaround for him."

Gagner has four goals in his last two games, which included a hat trick in an 8-1 rout of the Colorado Avalanche in the first game of the Oilers current three-game road trip.

He's only the third player in the history of the franchise to score three goals in one game as a teenager. Wayne Gretzky and Martin Gelinas were the others.

However, Gagner has a few more to collect if he wants to equal the number of hat tricks his father Dave had during his NHL playing career.

"He had five," Gagner said a day after collecting his hat trick. "But he played back in the run-and-gun era."


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