Ryan Nugent-Hopkins giving Oilers rock solid minutes down the middle

Ryan Spooner's goal in the third period helped the Edmonton Oilers defeat the Vegas Golden Knights for their third straight win.

EDMONTON — When they draft you first overall, the way the Edmonton Oilers accrued Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back in 2011, the labels get applied right away.

A No. 1 overall pick, especially when he is a centre, is supposed to lead the team in scoring not long after he arrives, and that was the career path they set out for you. But what happens when that same team gets Connor McDavid four years later?

Then you do what Nugent-Hopkins has done, and become the best two-way centre you can be.

"You look at all the teams that have won Cups," began Milan Lucic after a crusty 2-1 win over Vegas. "(Evgeny) Kuznetsov was playing with (Alex) Ovechkin last year, but the Caps have (Nicklas) Backstrom, who is a two-way guy. Bergie (Patrice Bergeron)? Two-way guy. (David) Krejci? Two-way guy. (Jeff) Carter and (Anze) Kopitar — two way guys. (Jonathan) Toews, two-way guy…"

All the best teams have a centreman that plays the game the way Nugent-Hopkins — who has 6-18-24 in 26 games — is playing these days.

The Oilers have the player. Now, how do they become a good team?

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Late in a nervous, 2-1 game Saturday, with Vegas on the powerplay, Nugent-Hopkins embarked on a solo forechecking mission, bottling up one, then another Golden Knight, stealing puck after puck until finally Colin Miler took a minor for holding Nugent-Hopkins’ stick.

The Vegas powerplay was aborted, and after a few more nervous minutes the Oilers emerged with a 2-1 win. Even though there was no doubt that the flashiest, fastest and most dangerous offensive player on the ice was McDavid, you left the rink Saturday reminded of how Nugent-Hopkins — just 25 years old, yet closing in on 500 NHL games — has matured into a fine lockdown guy on the second line.

Who does he remind you of, Ken Hitchcock?

"He’s a smaller version, for me, of (Keith) Primeau. He’s on the right side of every puck. So, whoever you play him with, you build good minutes," said the Oilers head coach. "He’s a guy who can check top players, he can control things on the powerplay… He’s smaller, but he’s a lot like Joe Nieuwendyk was. Good in every aspect of the game."

So let’s take stock here. Backstrom, Bergeron, Krejci, Carter, Kopitar, Toews, Primeau, Nieuwendyk…

The only guy they missed was the one Nugent-Hopkins has had an eye for since he was a teenager, two rebuilds ago here in Edmonton.

"Pavel Datsyuk was the guy I looked at. Ideally, that’s who I’d model my game after," Nugent-Hopkins said. "Jonathan Toews is the kind of player as well. It’s a huge role on any team, but with Hitch it’s even a little more prominent."

Nugent-Hopkins gave his coach 20 minutes of rock solid, responsible hockey Saturday night, as the Oilers beat a Divisional foe in regulation while the only two other Pacific teams in action — Vancouver and San Jose — also lost in regulation.

There are teams in the National Hockey League that would call Nugent-Hopkins their first-line centre, but no matter how well he plays in Edmonton he’ll never supplant McDavid, who was brilliant against Vegas.

The Golden Knights ran Edmonton’s show for the opening six minutes, until one little bobble by Nate Schmidt landed on McDavid’s stick. He shifted into warp speed, blew around Brayden McNabb and beat Marc-Andre Fleury to make it 1-0 Oilers. Edmonton held the momentum for the rest of the period.

"That’s why he’s the best player in the game, he pretty much wins games for his team," said Max Pacioretty, whose club saw its five-game winning streak busted. "We were all over them and he makes a play out of nothing and scores on that one. But he made about five or six of them that no one in the world has ever been able to do except for him."

The winner came from fourth-line centre Ryan Spooner, who had accomplished nary a thing in his first seven games as an Oilers since coming over in a trade for Ryan Strome. It was his first point as an Oiler, crucial in a game that was knotted at 1-1 nearly six minutes into the third period.

Under Hitchcock, the Oilers’ goals for and against are 13-13, but their record is 4-1-1. The goalie, Mikko Koskinen, stopped another 31 shots to run his home record to 5-0.

Take away a pair of empty net goals the Kings scored Sunday in L.A., and every game under Hitchcock would be a one-goal game. It’s a scenario that has never favoured this Oilers team, but perhaps under Hitchcock, that trait gets altered.

"We’re grinding out the one-goal games. It’s what you need to do," said Nugent-Hopkins. "It’s playoff hockey that we’re playing. Hard fought, no easy opportunities for either team."

No one said it would be easy.

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