VANCOUVER - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played his first pre-season game without getting a point and was minus one on the night, but nobody was suggesting he failed his final test.
“This is one of those games where you learn a lot,” said coach Tom Renney, who watched his Edmonton Oilers complete the pre-season with a 5-3 record as a result of a 4-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, who scored two goals in the final minute including an empty-netter.
“It’s the first full NHL lineup we’ve seen. It took a couple of shifts for him to get up with the speed,” said the coach of RNH improving each period.
He even survived a crosscheck which brought teammates to his aid.
“He’s a hockey player,” said his coach.
“I was actually upset with the other one more,” he said of Alexander Edler’s elbow to the head of Taylor Hall.
“Ah, I was reaching for the puck with my head down,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “I can’t be doing that.”
As for his night with his family from Burnaby in the crowd, he said it took a bit.
“I started off slow until I got my legs going. I thought I caught up to it in the second period and came on as the game went on.”
He said he doesn’t have any anxiety about the decision which now looms large as the Oilers have to decide whether to keep the kid who produced a goal and five assists up for at least the first nine games.
“I’m not going to worry too much about what happens. I think I’ve had a pretty decent exhibition season. I thought I played well.”
The Vancouver Canucks actually iced a team with players who were on the ice for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Roberto Luongo, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamuis, Sami Salo, Alex Burrows, Edler, Manny Malhotra and Jannik Hansen were all playing only their second pre-season game.
Renney put Nugent-Hopkins between Ryan Smyth and Jordan Eberle and Shawn Horcoff with Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi while combining Anton Lander with Teemu Hartikainen and Josh Green on the third line and getting a look at Ryan O’Marra at centre with Lennart Petrell and Ryan Jones.
“I wasn’t going to play Ales back-to-back,” he said of Hemsky having played against the Wild in St. Paul, Minn.
He said he decided to play guys like Petrell and Lander and because he wanted to see more and didn’t play Gilbert Brule because “I know Gilbert — the other guys I need to know a bit more about.”
Despite having three three-on-ones early, the Oilers were down 1-0 after the first period on a Cody Hodgson goal on one of the three power plays Edmonton provided in the period. Hodgson scored the empty netter as well.
The Oilers dominated the second period as Hall showed he’s ready for the regular season and drew two penalties, one of which resulted in a Magnus Paajarvi goal with assists to Smyth and Horcoff as Renney decided to throw Hopkins, Hall and Eberle back together where they just seem to belong.
The team will get Sunday off before having a practice Monday prior to heading to Jasper for a four-day retreat prior to opening the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins next Sunday.
“Steve and I will get together Sunday morning and we might cut down by one or two guys,” he said of general manager Tambellini.
“I’d like to take our first group of call-ups to Jasper. I don’t know if that’s four or five guys or three or four guys. I want those guys to be part of our group.”
He said he’d like Nugent-Hopkins to be one of them.
“I see no harm in that. But if there’s an inevitability to where he’s going to be, maybe there’s an argument to be made to get back to it.”