Gagner on run to top Oilers scoring
ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI, QMI Agency
|Edmonton Oilers' Sam Gagner celebrates his goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets. (REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber)
PHILADELPHIA — Sam Gagner would like think he plays his best hockey when it counts.
Unfortunately, in four seasons with the Edmonton Oilers he’s never had a chance to prove it.
He picks up speed down the stretch, when the games get tighter and tougher and more important, only to shut it down and pack up for the summer when the playoffs start.
“Down the stretch has always been my best hockey,” said Gagner, who has a three-game point streak (2g, 3a) on the go and nine points in Edmonton’s 7-3 run of late.
“We haven’t been in the playoff race the last couple of years, but if we were in a playoff race right now and I’m playing my best hockey I think that’s a good thing going forward. I like that I’m able to turn it on in the last part of the season.
“I think I just like the mentality of it. The teams we’re playing against often have a lot to play for, the intensity heightens. I’ve always kind of liked that brand of hockey where there’s something on the line. It’s exciting hockey.”
It’s contrary to what one might expect from a smaller centre, but Gagner seems at his best when everything is dialled up a little. And it bothers him greatly that he hasn’t been able to play past the 82nd game.
“It definitely bugs me. That’s why you play hockey; you want to be a playoff player. You want to win at the end of the day. To be here for four years and not have made the playoffs is definitely something that you always think about.
“But we feel like we’re turning the corner. We want it to be the last year that it’s like this. It’s important for us to grow as a group and turn that corner.”
Gagner’s last couple of weeks have him in a three-way tie for the team lead in scoring with 42 points. But with Ales Hemsky and Taylor Hall in the infirmary and Dustin Penner in Los Angeles, he compares it to winning the batting title while Ted Williams was serving in Korea.
“If it did end up happening there might an asterisk beside it because of all the injuries and the trade, so it’s not something I’m focusing on,” said Gagner, who adding the depleted lineup is less about stats and more about taking advantage of an open door.
“It’s a huge opportunity for guys to show what they’re capable of, not just to people on the outside, but to their teammates as well. It’s an exciting opportunity for all of us.”
So rather than the points, he’s focusing instead on the mechanics that have led to the surge.
“What I like about Sam is he’s one of those guys who’s rounding out his whole game,” said head coach Tom Renney. “I think he’s a great competitor and he’s got character in him. I think he likes the challenge and the battle of facing teams that are battling for a playoff spot.
“And he’s understanding better and better what both ends of the rink look like.”
While some people are expecting bigger numbers from Gagner, they also forget sometimes that at 21 years and 16 months, he’s only 20 months older than Magnus Paajarvi and nine months older than Eberle. Still years away from his prime.
“I still feel I have a lot of room to improve. I feel I’ve taken major steps in my four years here. It might not always show statistics-wise, but I feel I’m a way better player and I still have a lot to bring.
“That brings me confidence, that I’m still young and I still have a lot to learn.”