Whatever Sam Gagner did -- mentally and physically -- to get ready for the Super Series, it obviously worked.
In Monday’s Game 1 of the eight-game showdown against Team Russia, Gagner managed a goal and an assist in a 4-2 victory against the hosts in Ufa, Russia. Gagner’s goal, a sweet modified spin-o-rama that began behind the Russian net, was the prettiest of the six goals scored Monday night.
He was held off the score sheet Wednesday in a 3-0 Game 2 victory, but is eager to get back on the beam in Omsk, Russia for the next two games before returning to Canada for the final four contests of the series.
Gagner admitted that getting ready to play important hockey like the Super Series at the same time that junior hockey training camp usually begins was a bit of a challenge.
“You need to push everything forward a little bit,” Gagner said. “Usually you are trying to get stronger early in the summer and then gradually try to work on your speed and your conditioning. But this summer was pushed forward a little bit. You have to work on your conditioning a little bit more and get on the ice a little bit earlier.”
That plan seemed to work to perfection as Gagner looked like one of the stronger players on the ice in Monday’s Game 1 triumph.
His performance had to make the Edmonton Oilers’ staff smile as they watched the game on TV early Monday morning. The Oilers selected Gagner with the sixth-overall pick in the 2007 Entry Draft, projecting him to be a first-line point producer in the near future.
With Monday’s goal, Gagner showed the scoring skill that has scouts salivating about his potential.
First, he found open ice behind the Russian net, slipping behind the Russian defensemen and presenting himself well for a pass from linemate Brad Marchand. Upon receiving the pass, Gagner quickly moved to his right, circling toward the right faceoff dot before starting the spin-o-rama move that left a Russian defenseman totally flummoxed. He capped off the play by finishing in pretty fashion, sliding the puck between the legs of Russian goalie Semen Varlamov, one of the best junior-aged goalies in the world.
Simply, it was a goal-scorer’s goal, something Gagner has become increasingly familiar with in the last couple years. The son of former NHLer Dave Gagner, Sam Gagner scored 35 goals and added 83 assists in 53 games with London last season, helping the Knights dominate play in the Ontario Hockey League. In the run to the OHL postseason championship, Gagner added seven goals and 22 assists in 16 games.
As a rookie last season, Gagner featured prominently on the OHL’s most dominant line. Gagner, Patrick Kane and Sergei Kostitsyn combined to score 394 points for the Knights.
Now, with a year under his belt, Gagner plans to have a bigger season for the Knights this season.
“I think everybody’s real excited about our chances (in London),” Gagner said. “We have a lot of good players coming back, as well as some new good players coming in. We’re looking forward to the challenge of another season. I felt we gained a lot of experience through last playoffs and last season and we’re a little bit older this year, a little more experienced. Everybody’s really excited and I am just looking forward to the season.”
It is entirely possible that Gagner could be the primary go-to guy in London this season. Kostitsyn has moved on to the pro ranks and Kane -- the first overall pick in the 2007 Entry Draft -- has a legitimate chance to make the rebuilding Chicago Blackhawk roster out of training camp.
So, is Gagner selfishly hoping that Kane does not make the cut with the Hawks and returns to the Knights for another season? Or does he hope that his one-time running mate hits it big in the NHL and leaves the London spotlight focused almost exclusively on Gagner?
“I’m hoping he has a good camp, but at the same time, I’d like to have him back,” Gagner says. “If he deserves to be in the NHL, that’s where he should be. I know I had a great time playing with him last year. He’s a great player and to have him back would be awesome.”
Before Gagner can worry about what the Knights do this season, he has a few other things to address. The Super Series is tantamount, obviously. But Gagner also has his own NHL training camp -- with the Oilers -- to worry about. He reports to Edmonton the day after Team Canada finishes the Super Series with Game 8 on Sept. 9 in Vancouver.
He admits that training camp with the Oilers weighs on his mind now as it gets closer. But he is trying to do all he can to keep his focus squarely on the task at hand, which is helping Canada win some more games against a talented and dangerous Russian squad.
“You dream of going to NHL training camp your entire life; it’s what you work toward,” Gagner said. “But, at this time, you try to keep that out of your mind. We have a goal here and we’re looking forward to try to help Team Canada to win. That’s the main thing right now.”