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Nolan remains a major presence in Minnesota

Saturday, 04.04.2009 / 1:00 AM / NHL on NBC Spotlight

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

Remember when Owen Nolan's career was in jeopardy a few years ago?

Remember when people were writing and talking about how the burly, pickup truck of a power forward might not be able to recover in the new NHL from a pair of devastating injuries and 79 rather forgettable games with the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2003-04?

He sat out the 2005-06 season to rest his ailing knees, and many thought Nolan, at age 34, was done.

Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?

"Well, he's not done," Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire. "He's playing better than a lot of guys."

A career-threatening eye injury and a severe knee injury derailed Nolan's time in Toronto, but he rebounded with 16 goals in 76 games in 2006-07 in Phoenix, got himself back into the playoffs in Calgary last season, and now, at age 37, is having another solid season in Minnesota.

The Wild are still breathing in the Western Conference playoff race mainly because Nolan still doesn't mind standing in front of the net. He even played most of March with an injured toe that he swears is healthy now, but definitely was broken.

Nolan leads Minnesota with 24 goals in 55 games heading into Sunday's Sunday's NHL on NBC Game of the Week at Detroit (12:30 p.m. ET). Minnesota is 30-19-6 with Nolan in the lineup, 7-13-3 without him. The Wild are 12-5-2 when he scores a goal.

So, yeah, he has a pretty big impact on his team.

"He's been great for us," Lemaire said. "He's even better than we expected he would be."

After playing on one-year contracts with Phoenix and Calgary the last two seasons, Nolan signed a two-year deal with the Wild last summer. He originally thought he would be back in Calgary, where he had 32 points in 77 games, but the Wild wanted him more, hence the two-year deal.

"Minnesota was really eager to get me and it's always nice to be appreciated that way, when a team wants you bad," Nolan told NHL.com. "I thought they had a strong team. I thought we could do great things this year and our goal was to do that."

It hasn't worked out that way. Injuries, most notably to Marian Gaborik and Brent Burns, derailed a once-promising season. Nolan also has missed 23 games spread over the season thanks to five "weird" injuries, he said.

"I pulled my groin twice, pulled my hamstring, broke my toe and pinched a nerve in my neck," Nolan said. "That's hockey. You have to fight through it."

The Wild have, but they're on life support.

Despite beating Calgary 4-0 on Friday night, they're still 10th in the Western Conference,. Nolan believes they are better than their 37-32-9 record indicates.

"I truly do," he said. "I thought we would be maybe one or two points, going back and forth, competing for the division title, whereas now we are fighting for our lives just to get into the playoffs. It's a confident group, though. I don't think we get the recognition we deserve. We play hard every night and a defensive system. I think that wins in the playoffs."

First they have to get there. Despite the obvious uphill climb, Nolan thinks they will.

"You have to believe that," he said. "If you don't believe it you'll never achieve it. I believed in this team from Day 1 and I still do. It's like going through playoff battles."

Battle just happens to be the one word most associated with Nolan.

He battled to become an elite player in the League in his younger years, and now he's battling to remain a force.

His teammates are convinced.

"He definitely has a presence overall and he's been real good for us having a net-front presence," veteran forward Andrew Brunette told NHL.com. "He's been around, seen a lot of things, but I'd say his presence is the biggest."
"He definitely has a presence overall and he's been real good for us having a net-front presence. He's been around, seen a lot of things, but I'd say his presence is the biggest." -- Andrew Brunette
Nolan has made a living in front of the net. His talent of deflecting pucks remains almost unmatched.
"He's one of the best at getting himself positioned," Brunette said. "I mean, he tips everything."

However, Nolan understands his reckless style of play is why he breaks his toes and pulls his groins and hamstrings, but he's not about to change.

"At this point in my career, it's wear and tear," Nolan said. "It takes a little longer to heal when you get older. It's the way I love to play the game. I love to play physical and in the dirty areas. I think it's a little too late to change the way I play now."

With another season left on his contract, the Wild wouldn't want him to.

Thanks to Nolan's strong play, Minnesota has remained relevant this season despite a rash of injuries. Even if the Wild don't steal a playoff spot in the next week, there is always next season, when they can expect Nolan to stand in front of that net, play hurt and play to win.

Shame on anyone for doubting he still could -- and eventually would -- do it all again.

"I never gave up," Nolan said. "I love to compete."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.


Quote of the Day

Your team is going to want to recapture the feeling. What they're going to have to figure out is they're going to have to rewrite the story. Because you're going to rewrite the story doesn't mean you want a different end. It's just that you're going to have to learn that there's different challenges to get there, and if you're going to try and tap the same feeling, it ain't going to happen.

— Los Angeles Kings general manager Dean Lombardi on maintaining their success from last season