SUN Hockey Pool

Nilsson catching fire again

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

His inconsistency has driven the coaches crazy this season.

There are times when Robert Nilsson is the best player on the ice, taking on opponents, creating opportunities, making 140-foot breakaway passes.

Then there have been the times when the Oilers forward has looked disinterested, lacked passion and has just gone through the motions.

"It's the commitment, the game is tough," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish. "It's too tough to operate at 90, 95 or 85%, whatever the number is of efficiency.

"You have to totally apply yourself to the game, especially young players. It's a painful lesson that guys have to learn over and over again.

"But that's part of the development, that's why it takes guys years to develop. You can't lose sight of that. There are always questions early on in a player's career, especially guys that are talented like that, that haven't learned the defensive side of the game and the importance of playing without the puck. You have to be 100% committed, you have to be as fit as the guy you're facing off next to, you have to be as sharp as the guy you are facing off next to."

Nilsson, 24, has six points in seven games since returning from his four-game banishment to the press box.

He had four points on the Oilers' recent three-game road trip, which included a three-assist night in an 8-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche.

Even in Sunday's 3-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild, he was very involved in the play and created a number of opportunities with his linemates Sam Gagner and Ales Kotalik - particularly in the first period, where the Oilers outshot the Wild 15-2.

"He's playing well," MacTavish said. "He has more dimension to his game than he's had lately. We all know he has offensive flair and that he's gifted offensively, but he's playing better without the puck. That means you get a little bit more leeway where if you're not productive, you're still going to get out there, you're still playing well and you know that you're going to get something done offensively.

"Both he and Sam (Gagner) have played well and (Ales) Kotalik has rounded into a good Oiler, who's also playing well. That whole line has been playing well."

Acquired from the New York Islanders along with prospect Ryan O'Marra and a first-round pick in exchange for Ryan Smyth two seasons ago.

Heading into tonight's game against the Detroit Red Wings, Nilsson has nine goals and 18 assists in 58 games this season. Considering his offensive ability, those numbers are on the low end.

Last year he finished with 41 points in 71 games.

"It's been kind of a frustrating year," Nilsson said. "I have been up and down this year, but it's good to feel a lot better now that the playoffs are coming up. We will make the playoffs this year."

Unlike last season where the Oilers were chasing a playoff spot with 10 games left in the year, this time around, the team is on the right side of the cut.

The play of Nilsson, Gagner and Kotalik will go a long way to determining if the team can snap its two-year playoff drought.

"It feels really good right now and it's a lot of fun, especially when we're producing a little bit more now and helping the team win," Nilsson said. "It's always fun when you play well, but it's more fun when you're producing.

"I think we (Gagner) both feel a lot better, we're both producing a little bit more right now. Our confidence is up and we feel a little more comfortable out there."


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