Ryan Nugent-Hopkins continues to evolve.
A master playmaker through the course of this, his second Western Hockey League season, the Red Deer Rebels phenom is now starting to find the back of the net.
Nugent-Hopkins scored five goals last week, including three in Friday’s 8-1 win over the visiting Moose Jaw Warriors, to raise his total to 19 for the season. That’s more good news for a team that doesn’t necessarily require a boost with 13 wins in its last 14 outings.
“Honestly, I’m just shooting the puck more,” said Nugent-Hopkins, in reference to his recent scoring spree. “I have more confidence in my shot now. At the start of the season I wasn’t shooting the puck a lot and when I did I was getting frustrated when I didn’t score.
“I’ve kind of improved my shot a little but and feel more confident with it now.”
Nugent-Hopkins also picked up three assists Friday and the six-point performance moved him into third place in league scoring with 79 points, including a league-leading 60 helpers.
Linemates Andrej Kudrna and John Persson also excelled in the one-sided win over the Warriors, with Kudrna scoring once and adding five assists and Persson scoring twice and picking up a single helper.
“It’s great playing with both of those guys,” said Nugent-Hopkins.
The likes of Byron Froese and Brett Ferguson have also supplied plenty of offence in recent weeks, but the trio of Nugent-Hopkins/Kudrna/Persson is the Rebels’ top unit.
“They’ve been playing together for a while now and they have some chemistry,” said Rebels head coach/vice-president of hockey operations Jesse Wallin. “They are three intelligent, skilled players who read off each other real well and have really come together as a line.
“They all compete hard and they bring speed to the table. Andrej is sometimes criticized for his skating, but I think he’s a tremendous skater. He’s very strong, a big body. This season he’s really digging for pucks and taking hits to make plays, and he’s being rewarded for that.”
Kudrna sits 12th in league scoring with 30 goals and 61 points, and Persson is in 45th spot with 50 points, including 26 goals.
The Rebels also have their power play running on all cylinders heading into a meeting with the Medicine Hats Tigers Tuesday at the Centrium. Red Deer was five-for-13 with a man advantage Friday as the frustrated Warriors showed a lack of discipline.
“We got a little sloppy late in the game, but certainly our power play was very sharp at key times,” said Wallin. “When you have a team that’s trying to run around and intimidate you, you have to take advantage of it and put an end to it that way (with power-play goals). The guys did a good job of taking advantage of opportunities and putting the game away early.”
The Rebels may be capable of putting together another lengthy winning streak such as the 11-game run that ended with last Tuesday’s 7-5 loss at Saskatoon. Red Deer upended the host Prince Albert Raiders 7-4 24 hours later and have now won two straight.
“The game in Saskatoon was very emotional and we knew we really had to rebound fast going into Prince Albert, and we did that,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “I don’t know if we would have done that in October. It just goes to show how tight of a group we are.”
The Rebels are also looking at a busy weekend. The Calgary Hitmen will visit the Centrium Friday, the Rebels will meet the Hurricanes Saturday in Lethbridge and the Prince George Cougars will be in Red Deer Sunday for a 6 p.m. start.