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On a career heater, Nugent-Hopkins’ four-point night helps Oilers ground Jets

EDMONTON — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is blessed with a face that guarantees he’ll be getting ID’ed well into his 40s. But on Friday night, his beat-up kisser matched his taped-up knuckles, torn up from a Wednesday night beating he laid on Justin Holl, the Maple Leafs defenceman who is three inches taller and 15 pounds heavier. 

Then, two nights later, Nugent-Hopkins had swallowed the stick of Winnipeg’s Kevin Stenlund, before going on to score twice and log four points in a 6-3 Edmonton Oilers win over the Jets. 

As he did his post-game interview, his lip was fat and his knuckles worn. Nugent-Hopkins looked more like a post-fight Bernard Hopkins, the slick middleweight from the early 2000s. 

“It is just a little swollen, not too cut up. Just swollen,” he shrugged, when asked about his lips. “No stitches, no teeth gone. Just a fat lip.” 

Hey, in this game you get what you give, and Nugent-Hopkins has never given more than he has this season.

He’s on a career heater, with his first-ever 30-goal season and a personal best 77 points, with 19 games still to play.

On the second year of an eight-year, $40 million deal, “The Nuge” is getting better at age 29, as he discovers a scoring touch and an all-around game at a level above anything we’ve seen before from him. 

“He takes one to the jibs, and he wants to get right back out on the power play,” marvelled head coach Jay Woodcroft. “I see somebody competing at a very high level and I saw it again tonight. He’s playing with passion at a competitive level that I think is contagious.”

When a guy who entered the season as your third-best forward is averaging 1.2 points per game, it makes up for a lost season thus far from Evander Kane, who hasn’t been able to contribute from the injury list.

He has become the perfect complementary piece to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, equal parts passers and shooters, and a pair who can rely on Nugent-Hopkins to facilitate either. 

It is as if, after entering the NHL as a No. 1 overall draft pick whose game was never going to fill the highlight packages, the game has finally found the player. Today, Nugent-Hopkins’ silky smooth game is a subtle art, a tableau of solid defensive work, sublime passing, and a snapper that is finding twine at an amazing 20.1 per cent. 

We get it — that’s not a sustainable number. But as Nugent-Hopkins crawls into the Top 10 in NHL scoring — he’s eighth, tied with Mitch Marner — he’s doing it with a wrist shot that does not rely on being on and off the stick in a millisecond. Rather, he’s picking his spots with clinical precision, scoring from distance more than most in today’s game — and never with a slapshot. 

“I wanted to bear down a little bit in front of the net after last year (just 11 goals),” he said. “I know that I need to step up a little bit offensively and help produce, and still try to play that two-way game. I think it just goes to show the way that we are rolling as a team right now. The individual stuff kind of comes from the team playing well.” 

The Jets scored three in garbage time, and a game controlled 5-0 by Edmonton after 45 minutes ended in a 6-3 score. The Oilers have yet to record a shutout this season and won’t like the fact they gave up three late, but the verdict was clear in this one. 

“Our effort was great,” Woodcroft said. “The work rate was where it needed to be and the ability to draw as many penalties as we did (2-for-8) is a credit to the way we were skating. We built a big lead and found a way to get the win.”

Edmonton chased Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck after 40, likely so he can start again Saturday night at home. But this was Winnipeg’s fifth consecutive loss — they’re hemorrhaging, and making themselves the final playoff target of the ninth-place Calgary Flames. 

McDavid has points in 40 of his last 42 games and had three more assists Friday. What he didn’t do, however, was score two goals again, as he had for five consecutive games coming into this one. 

One more multi-goal game would have tied a 101-year-old record shared by a couple of old cats named Punch Broadbent and Joe Malone. Still, McDavid has (121) points, just two short of his career high — with 19 games left in the season. 

Draisaitl, meanwhile, has a 12-game points streak going (10-8). He had 2-1-3 against the Jets and picked a high corner on his second goal, after replacing the Jets goal, which had come off its moorings.

The shot was something you had to watch two or three times to believe, finding a puck-sized hole in the top corner behind reliever David Rittich.

“It was an amazing sequence,” said Woodcroft. “But the shot from that angle? All world.” 

Hellebuyck was 9-1-1 in his first 11 starts versus Edmonton, but like Jacob Markstrom in Calgary, McDavid and the boys have solved the Jets netminder — he’s 2-7-1 in his last 10 starts versus the Oilers. 

Meanwhile, the Oilers have taken back their rink, going 7-1-4 in their past dozen starts here. Now, it’s back on the road with a wicked trip that begins in Winnipeg Saturday, then rolls through Buffalo, Boston and Toronto.


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