Gagner shines on the dot

Edmonton Oilers' Sam Gagner celebrates his first goal of the game against the Detroit Red Wings...

Edmonton Oilers' Sam Gagner celebrates his first goal of the game against the Detroit Red Wings during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Edmonton Feb. 4, 2012. (REUTERS/Dan Riedlhuber)

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:13 PM ET

It was one of those games where it didn’t look like much happened for the Edmonton Oilers. But something did. Something special.

No, it wasn’t Ryan Nugent-Hopkins returning to the lineup and scoring the Oilers’ only goal of the game.

And, no, it wasn’t Ales Hemsky, with a new two-year, $10-million deal, setting up Nugent-Hopkins for his 14th of the season.

Certainly the two were the focus of the game going in.

Back behind the bench, Tom Renney chose to play them together on the same line with Taylor Hall, although if he had a real sense of occasion he would have started the two for the opening faceoff.

When The Nuge and Hemsky took their first shift together, it sounded like the crowd might be booing Hemsky.

But no. That wasn’t it.

“Nuuuuuuuuuge!” was what they were screaming.

“It was pretty cool to hear that welcome back to Rexall,” said the 18-year-old of the start of his first game back in what turned out to be a 3-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes.

As for returning with rust from his second injury to the same shoulder, he said “I didn’t feel it at all. I was sure I was ready to go. It was a good test getting out there.”

Nugent-Hopkins survived his toughest hit, which ironically, came from Hall, when the two collided in the neutral zone.

“Imagine if he got hurt!” said Hall.

“Colliding with me? That’s the kind of injury it would be with the Oilers’ luck this year.”

Renney didn’t give RNH a rave review for his return.

“He was OK,” he said. “He was catching up a bit. He has to get used to playing again.”

OK, however, was good enough for the only Oilers’ goal of the game.

Hemsky when requested to speak to the media, declined the invitation, as almost always.

But that’s OK. Because, to me, he wasn’t the story either.

It was Sam Gagner, a guy who didn’t produce a point this day. Indeed, he was a minus-two.

But to me, Gagner was the guy who produced the something special, a guy who had a significant day in his NHL career.

Saturday, Gagner won 11 faceoffs and lost five.

In doing so, it put him at 50.2% in the faceoff circle for the year — the first time he’s been over 50% in his five-year pro career.

Gagner spent the first four years, and the front end of this year, much maligned for his miserable record at faceoffs.

For the longest time there it looked like he was going to have to be reinvented as a winger instead of as a centre.

He’s been 41.8%, 42.0%, 43.8% and 47.4% in his previous years.

“I feel a lot better at it,” said Gagner. “I think a lot of it is just that I’ve been around the league for a while now and I’ve got a read on what other centres are going to do. I’ve played every team in the league and every centre in the league at least once now.

“And I’ve started to change things up. I’ve come to realize there’s a place for second effort on faceoffs.”

Having all that success putting the puck in the net and producing points probably has had something to do with it as well.

“Confidence is a big part of it.

“Obviously when you take criticism in certain areas of your game, you want to get better at it. I worked a lot last summer on it. And I’ve put a lot more focus on being prepared for that part of it every night.

“I’ve spent a lot of time watching Eric Belanger. He’s been a huge help. And Shawn Horcoff has been great offering tips helping me out,” he added.

“Sam takes a lot of pride in what he’s done with his improvement there,” said Renney.

“He’s learned how to bring intensity to the faceoff dot. And strategy. He’s not just sweeping it straight back. He’s eliminating the stick first,” said the coach who used Gagner to win two key faceoffs at the end of the game with the goaltender pulled and an extra man on the ice.

“He was our best guy on the ice,” said Renney of earning the important draws.

It’s taken five years. But patience has turned into progress.

Now, back to The Nuge.

Nugent-Hopkins won one out of 13 faceoffs in his return back.

That’s 8%.

He’s now at 36.6% in faceoffs for the season.

He may have to go see Gagner.

Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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