Unlikely Hero Nilsson Making The Most Of His Opportunity

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By Jonathan Cowley

As the San Jose Sharks got ready to roll into Edmonton to face former coach Todd McLellan and the Oilers on Wednesday, they faced an unusual prospect. Not only were they facing their previous coach for the first time, but they were about to run into somewhat of a surprise package. Edmonton has a hot goalie, and his name is Anders Nilsson.

Acquired in a trade with Chicago during the off-season for college prospect Liam Coughlin, Nilsson was intended as a back-up to fellow summer addition Cam Talbot. Talbot was pursued by several teams, recognising his potential as a future No. 1, but it has been Nilsson who has stolen the show thus far.

The 25 year old Swede has taken advantage of Talbot’s struggles to stake a timely claim for the regular starting spot – something the Oilers have been desperate for these last few seasons.

Indeed, the more starts he has been given, the better he has gotten. Wednesday’s game was his 10th start in the previous 11 games. He had posted a save percentage of .946 in his last 8 starts before the 4-3 OT triumph against San Jose. That’s pretty much lights out.

Throughout the course of this seemingly never-ending rebuild, Edmonton has struggled enormously defensively. Lacking a legitimate, NHL calibre top-pairing defenceman and a regular starting goaltender have been the most glaring of problems. Whilst the hunt for that elusive elite defenceman goes on, Peter Chiarelli may have struck gold on the goaltender front.

The Oilers have an abundance of skill and goal-scoring threats but have been crying out for a defensive compliment for that. The defence itself is growing and improving, and the team as a whole have a superior staying power. The vastly improved goal difference on this time last year is evidence of that –  -10 now over -36 last season through 29 games [Statistics correct as at 11/12/2015]. On very few occasions of late, though, has a goalie in an Oilers sweater stolen a game, earning two points they had simply no business earning. Nilsson has done that.

Wednesday night’s win was a season high 4th in a row for Edmonton, and a 5th straight at home for the first time since February 2008. A feat that wouldn’t have been achieved without Nilsson’s distinguished play. Injuries, especially Connor McDavid’s, have somewhat disrupted the Oilers progress this year; and whilst they are still a relatively young team, there will be nights on which not everything clicks. In previous seasons when it was one of those nights, an early goal against and that was that. Nilsson has given this team a chance to win on virtually any given night.

It wasn’t all plain sailing to get to this point though. A third round draft pick of the New York Islanders (62nd overall) in 2009, he made only 23 appearance on Long Island, spending most of his time with Bridgeport in the AHL. After labouring with food intolerance problems, he took the decision to move to the KHL to rediscover his game. It proved extremely worthwhile. 38 games, 5 shutouts, a 0.936 save percentage and a 1.71 GAA is magnificent form. It is clear-cut what earned the Swede goaltender of the month honours in both February and March.

Nilsson has carried that form back over to North America and is looking like an absolute bargain. The Oilers are only 3 points out of a play-off spot, and playing relevant games in December. Nilsson has played a sizeable role in that. He is fast becoming a cult hero in Oil Country, and long may it continue.

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