As Oklahoma City Barons radio broadcaster Jim Byers put it, “he was as good as advertised.”
Darnell Nurse, playing in his first American Hockey League game of the season on Wednesday, had a big night as he helped the Barons earn a 7-4 win over the Utica Comets.
Coming off a long season in the Ontario Hockey League for Sault Ste. Marie, Nurse joined the Barons for the second round. The 20-year-old defenceman sat out games one, two and three as he practiced with the team and got acclimated to his new surroundings.
Prior to Wednesday's game, Nurse was chomping at the bit to get in.
“You can watch as much as you want,” he said. “I think the biggest time where you’re going to have to make adjustments is when you’re out there and really feeling it. I’m looking forward to it and I’m really feeling as though I’m ready.”
That night he proved that not only can he play at this level, but he can be an impact player.
At 9:30 of the first period, Nurse jumped up in the play and out-skated 2011 second-round pick Adam Clendening. Nurse flicked a pass to Jujhar Khaira at the top of the crease for a goal.
At 17:54 of the second, the two connected again. This was, perhaps, an even more impressive pass through the middle of the ice from near the blueline, which hit the stick of Khaira and flipped past Jacob Markstrom.
“Those are two great passes,” said Khaira. “We talk all the time and I’d like to think some of the chemistry is coming from that. I just have to put my stick on the ice and they were right there. They were really good passes.”
Nurse, taken seventh overall in 2013, and Khaira, selected in the third round of the 2012 draft, have a good friendship and maybe that led to the immediate chemistry.
“He was just in the right spots and I just did what I could to get the puck on his stick and he made two really good plays,” said Nurse. “I guess the texting and talking might have helped a little bit.”
It may not have mattered who was crashing the crease on those two goals, however. Nurse was locked-in that night. The Oilers top defensive prospect finished the game +2 with three assists.
“He’s a great player. You can see that, not just on the score sheet. He does a lot of great plays away from the puck. He was obviously a huge asset for us tonight,” Barons Captain Ryan Hamilton said after the game.
It wasn’t just on the offensive side of things where Nurse shined in his debut. He drew two penalties including a slash by Frank Corrado, in which he provoked the Utica player into giving OKC the man advantage. They promptly scored.
|Photo by Rob Ferguson | Oklahoma City Barons |
“I didn’t know if I was going to goad one (from him) or not,” said Nurse. “That was my intention in the first place. Obviously, it worked. You have to walk a fine line though. You don’t want to take one yourself.”
He drew a second penalty as well, in which the Barons capitalized on for one of their four power-play goals of the night.
“He played a solid game,” Barons Head Coach Gerry Fleming said. “He was definitely a factor in the game tonight. He made a nice play on both of JJ’s goals. His play away from the puck was solid. I thought he was strong and physical in front of his own net. I thought he made good reads through the neutral zone, especially off the rush. Hopefully he can build off that game.”
Game five was a rough game for the Barons as a whole. They dropped a 3-1 decision, falling behind 3-2 in their Western Conference Semifinal series. Fleming said after they game that they need, “a little more productivity from all six of our d-men.”
That includes Nurse, although he was perhaps one of the better of the six that night.
What was noticeable in Thursday’s game six was Nurse’s propensity to be in the right place. If his defensive partner jumped up in the play, he’d stay back and shut things down. If he jumped up in the play and the Barons missed the net, he was able to get back and retrieve the puck. Nurse, his partner Dillon Simpson and Martin Marincin were the three defencemen to finish even for the game. Nurse was often times able to beat an opposing player to the puck with relative ease, at least appearing that way.
This season Nurse made his NHL debut, won gold with Team Canada at World Juniors and made it to the OHL's Western Conference Final with Sault Ste. Marie. The Oilers prospect is playing with a lot of confidence. The Barons hope that continues as they head to Utica facing elimination.
“I’ve developed a lot over the past year, especially since I played here last year,” said Nurse. “With confidence, you have to go out there and be confident in yourself and your ability to make plays. Obviously, that’s something I'm feeling right well. There’s obviously room for improvement and I can still get better from here.”
The Barons play a must-win game six on Monday, in Utica at 7 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Mountain.