Top pick worth the wait

As good as he was during his five-game stint with the Red Deer Rebels last season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins didn’t necessarily feel like part of the team.

Rebels 5 Oil Kings 4 (SO)

STETTLER — As good as he was during his five-game stint with the Red Deer Rebels last season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins didn’t necessarily feel like part of the team.

He does now, and his teammates are mighty happy to have him on board.

“It was a great experience last year, but coming into the team and then having to leave is a lot different than coming in and staying. I’m looking forward to this year, that’s for sure,” Nugent-Hopkins said on Friday, after scoring twice to help the Rebels record a 5-4 Western Hockey League preseason shootout win over the Edmonton Oil Kings.

The 16-year-old, in his first game this fall after contracting an illness and missing training camp and the Rebels’ first two exhibition outings, lived up to his billing in the third period.

The Burnaby, B.C., native notched a power-play goal at 14:22 to cut the Oil Kings’ lead to 4-3 and then scored a beauty three minutes later to force overtime. On the tying goal, Nugent-Hopkins knocked his own rebound out of mid-air and past netminder Cam Lanigan, who was down and out after making the initial stop.

“It was a little tough for me at the start of the game but I felt that as the night progressed I started playing better,” said the first overall pick in the 2008 WHL bantam draft. “I was especially happy with my third period but I could have been better in the first and second. I started working a little harder in the third period and it paid off.”

Nugent-Hopkins, who insisted that he’s completely over the mystery illness that resulted in a mild weight loss, skated on a line with 20-year-olds Nathan Green and Jordie Deagle.

“We had some very good shifts. They’re two really good players and I thought we worked really well together,” said the Rebels prize rookie.

Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin was anxious to get Nugent-Hopkins into a game and the wait was worthwhile.

“You could tell early on that he hadn’t played in a while,” said Wallin. “It took him a bit to get going, but he’s a dynamic player. He came on in the clutch, when we needed him, and showed the ability and the skill level that he has.”

The Rebels led 2-0 on a first-period power-play goal by Brett Ferguson and a man-advantage marker from Green in the second period, before the Oil Kings kicked off their rally with the first of two goals from Craig McCallum late in the second.

T.J Foster pulled Edmonton even with a power-play tally 90 seconds into the third period, and McCallum connected 62 seconds later for Edmonton’s first lead. Tyler Hlookoff cashed a rebound at 11:07 to provide the Oil Kings with some apparent insurance, but instead set the stage for Nugent-Hopkins’ late heroics and a scoreless overtime period.

The Rebels got shootout goals from Ferguson and 15-year-old defenceman Matt Dumba, while Dylan Wruck was the lone Oil King shooter to solve Red Deer netminder Cam Gorchynski, who made 33 saves through 65 minutes. The Rebels fired 31 shots at Lanigan.

“There were some positives tonight and some negatives as well,” said Wallin, whose club improved to 3-0 in preseason play. “I thought we were inconsistent tonight. There were times when we were good on our forecheck and through the neutral zone. But I thought we struggled coming out of our own end. Our defence was struggling with the pressure; they (Oil Kings) had their ‘D’ pinching down and were pretty aggressive at times.

“We seemed to struggle with that, even with making the simple plays. We were inconsistent with our effort and our battle, but I liked our compete level at the end. We dug in and found a way to come back.”

The Rebels and Oil Kings meet again tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Leduc.

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