At only 34, Owen Nolan is already sporting a gray beard. After he spent two years away from the NHL due to two major knee surgeries, there were those who thought he would play like a graybeard upon his return as well.
But after a slow start to this season – two points in the first nine games – the Coyotes right winger has picked up his production of late and erased any doubts he still belongs in the NHL.
While he’s not the same force he was during his peak in San Jose, where he once registered a 44-goal, 84-point season, Nolan still plays with much of the same aggressiveness and grit that helped make him a five-time All-Star.
“He plays hard, and he’s still a great goal scorer, the same as he was before,” said center Mike Ricci, also a teammate of Nolan’s for four seasons in Quebec/Colorado and six in San Jose.
Nolan has been asked to take on more of defensive role. “He’s been one of our most reliable penalty killers,” Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky said – but is starting to become a regular contributor on the offensive end with eight points in the last 14 games.
That has quietly put him on pace for 19 goals and 40 points. Not bad considering he averaged 25 goals and 51 points during his previous seven seasons.
“He’s quite an amazing story because nobody anticipated the level of play he’d be playing at,” Gretzky said.
Nolan, though, said it’s too early to call his return a success.
“I’m still not at the level I want to be at, and I feel I can still achieve that,” he said.
“There was definitely some rust there. I think I’m coming out of it as of the last couple weeks. The opportunities are there. I’m finding my timing is getting a lot better. Hopefully, I’ll get hot here and get on a roll.”
Nolan’s accuracy and laser-like shot have returned as well. He displayed both Thursday when he drove down the right side on a short-handed breakaway, then beat Columbus goalie Fredrik Norrena high with a blast from just inside the blue line.
“That’s his patented move,” said goalie Mikael Tellqvist, who also played with him in Toronto. “I think he’s done that in San Jose hundreds and hundreds of times. He did that in Toronto, too. It’s hard to stop that shot because it’s really hard and really accurate.”
“As he gets more confidence, he’ll let that shot go more,” Ricci added.
Nolan said it was a relief to finally score from that spot on the ice.
“I’ve had a couple down the wing this season already (which were) nowhere close to scoring, so it was nice to see that one go in,” he said.
The goal was the 750th point of his 15-year career.
“I guess if you play long enough, you’ll get that mark,” Nolan said with a chuckle.
If he continues to perform as he has of late, Nolan is sure to hit a few more marks as well.
Flames at Coyotes
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Jobjing.com Arena
Radio: KDUS (1060 AM)
Records: Calgary 15-11-3, Phoenix 12-18-1
Line: Calgary 125-145
Series history: Phoenix dropped the season’s first meeting 6-1 on Oct. 24, trails 59-67-20-0 all time but is 35-26-11-0 at home.
Scouting report: Flames – Like the Coyotes, Calgary has been a Jekylland-Hyde team, great at home (10 straight wins) but awful on the road, where it has lost its past five. Forward Jerome Iginla is tied for fifth in the league in goals with 18 and also has 19 assists. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff is tied for first in the NHL in shutouts (four) and is third in goals-against average (2.08) and save percentage (.928). Defenseman Rhett Warrener (leg) is day-to-day and forwards Marcus Nilson (knee) and Stephane Yelle (broken leg) are sidelined indefinitely.
Coyotes – Phoenix has earned 13 of a possible 14 points over its last seven home games, and with four of the next six at Jobing.com Arena, can make up some ground in the standings if it can continue that trend. With Thursday’s 5-4 victory over Columbus, the Coyotes sport the league’s best record (3-0) in shootouts. Goalie Curtis Joseph (groin) practiced Friday but still isn’t 100 percent, so Mikael Tellqvist will make his third straight start. Patrick Fischer (groin) isn’t expected back until after Christmas.