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Preview: Vancouver Canucks host Edmonton Oilers, Burnaby's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (VIDEO)
The Vancouver Canucks have returned to relevance, and it appears the Edmonton Oilers have, too.
On Friday night, the onetime Northwest Division rivals turned Pacific Division occasional foes face-off for the second time this season, the first being a 6-2 blowout by the Canucks on October 5.
The Canucks are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, including a 2-0 win of the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday. After sputtering epically to start the season, the Oilers have rebounded (somewhat) and are 5-4-1 in their last 10 games, although that included a 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Thursday.
"Even in the first, I didn't think we were horrible. I thought we were a victim of circumstance a little bit," said Oilers first-year coach Dallas Eakins, after the game (Canucks.com). "Maybe not totally comfortable in our skin in the first, but in the second and third, obviously that's how we want to play."
The Oilers fell behind 3-0 early to Beantown but scored twice in the third period in a failed comeback bid.
Jordan Eberle leads Edmonton in scoring so far this season, with 28 points through 33 games. He's followed by David Perron, Taylor Hall, and then Burnaby's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has 24 points in 31 games and is tied with Eberle for the team lead with 17 assists.
From Burnaby to The Bigs...
In 2011, Nugent-Hopkins became the first-ever B.C.-born player picked atop the NHL Draft, after spending two full seasons with the WHL's Red Deer Rebels. In his final year with Red Deer, the former Burnaby Winter Club Bruin put up 106 points in 69 games.
The Nuge – as he's affectionately known – has listed his idols as Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, as well as another centre he currently sees plenty of in the Western Conference, Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.
"If he's going to be our No. 1 centre, he better get used to it (playing against the other big boys)," said RNH's coach Eakins at the end of November, adding that Hopkins's play has to turn two-way before he can hand him the keys to the team's top line.
"Your job is to go and play," Eakins told the Journal. "We want offence and we want defence. That’s the challenge of being a hockey player. If you are one-dimensional, you are toast in this league. Or at least you are for me."
But the question marks once surrounding the Oilers' young core have turned into a paradox without an immediate solution, as the team hasn't been able to turn offensive prodigies into two-way players just yet, despite having three straight No. 1 draft picks from 2010 to 2012.
So far this year, the team is in 27th spot overall and it's struggling to get any traction against tough competition from Western conference teams. A big part of the problem is that these six young star attacking players have either gone sideways in terms of their two-way play or their performance has dropped from last season.
When it comes to excelling at the 200-foot game, one or two of these players, namely Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall, are holding their own, but Gagner and Yakupov are struggling, while Eberle has been inconsistent and is slumping just now, while Justin Schultz has again been sound on the attack, but again weak defensively.
Compared to last year, the top line players, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle, have all dropped off considerably, while Gagner, Schultz and Yakupov haven't improved.