TORONTO – The changes were small, but they carried a lot of significance for Sam Gagner.
When the Edmonton Oilers forward returned from a vacation over the all-star break, he decided to alter his routine in an effort to turn around a season gone wrong. Rather than eating chicken before games he switched to salmon. He also shortened his naps and embraced a more confident frame of mind.
“It was time,” Gagner said Monday before facing the Toronto Maple Leafs. “Things weren’t going as well I had planned. I wanted to switch up the routine a little bit.”
It’s hard to argue with the results: Six goals and six assists in three games, including the magical eight-point performance against Chicago that allowed him to secure the NHL’s first star of the week.
New Jersey Devils centre Ilya Kovalchuk was given the second star on Monday while Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer took the third star.
All three players benefited from the break in the schedule that came just prior to their good performances. Reimer had been considering a trip to the Bahamas for the all-star break, but elected instead to spend a few days working out with trainer Adam Francilia in Maple Ridge, B.C.
That decision paid immediate dividends for a goaltender who struggled after a return from an early-season injury and was barely used in January. He posted back-to-back shutouts last week—his first since the opening night of the year.
“The shutouts are nice … but what’s really important is the wins,” said Reimer. “I prepare every game to win. If that means I have to let in zero to get that so be it.”
Gagner altered the complexion of his entire season in a matter of days. His struggles in the first half of the season weighed heavily, especially since they came with persistent rumours that he could be traded.
During that period, Gagner leaned heavily on his father, Dave, himself a former NHLer who is now the director of player development for the Vancouver Canucks. Another thing that helped was getting consistent ice time on a line with Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, something that only happened when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins suffered a shoulder injury last month.
“When you get an opportunity, you want to be the guy who steps up and takes it,” said Gagner. “Over the last few games here, I’ve got an opportunity to play with Taylor and Jordan—they’re both great players. I enjoy playing with skilled players like that, especially of their calibre.
“I think it brings out the best in me.”
For Gagner, the three points he had against Detroit on Saturday were arguably even more important than the eight points he had two nights before. The biggest challenge he’s faced over four-plus seasons in the NHL is finding a way to be a consistent point producer.
The 22-year-old is intent on proving that he can be something more than a 40-point scorer.
“I don’t think necessarily I’m a different player—I think maybe might mindset’s changed a little bit,” said Gagner. “I’m around the net a little more. Because of that the points are coming a little more frequently.
“It’s still just a few games and I still need to find a way to be consistent and be that player every night.”
One thing Gagner won’t rely on is any superstitions. Following the eight-point game, which equalled an Oilers record, he had the trainer put his stick aside.
Similarly, Reimer hasn’t been relying on any habits during his shutout streak. In fact, it’s something he actively avoids.
“The funny thing is that if I do (develop a routine), I try and change it up just so that I know I’m not superstitious,” said Reimer. “I hate superstitions. I think superstitions cheapen everything about an athlete.
“If it takes a pair of socks to get a win then why do I work my butt off all summer?”