Nilson delivers never-say-die attitude with Flames

Marcus Nilson has one goal as a hockey player, and that’s winning the Stanley Cup. The downside is that the gritty Calgary Flames winger also only has one goal in 19 games this season.

“It’s been tough so far,” Nilson told with a wry chuckle. “A lot of nights you’re mostly penalty-killing and not playing many minutes 5-on-5, so it’s kind of tough to score.”

Playing on a checking line with Stephane Yelle and Eric Godard, the 29-year-old Swede found his ice time limited further in a 4-1 loss to Vancouver at GM Place on November 18. Nilson was credited with just four shifts in the third period due to some physical discomfort: “I had a few nagging injuries from before, so it’s probably a few places. It just needs a little rest. We played last night, and the body was a little tired, so I had to get off.”

Nilson was disappointed that his club failed to extend its winning streak to three games after back-to-back victories over Minnesota and Edmonton. “We played a good game, and we had our chances with a 5-on-3 and stuff like that,” he said. “We didn’t capitalize, and the Canucks scored a nice goal on the power play and got ahead. Maybe we were a little tired from last night [against Edmonton]. I don’t know.”

Nilson is also looking for answers when it comes to Calgary’s penalty-killing record. The inconsistent Flames entered the game versus Vancouver ranked 29th in the NHL on the PK (75.2%).

“Our stats aren’t even close to being where we want them to be,” Nilson said. “We’re working hard on it. It’s just about taking one little step at a time. When it’s not going well, you lose confidence too, so it’s kind of tough. It’s going to take a while to get it where we want it to be percentage-wise, but I think it’s going to come.”

An optimistic outlook prompted the nine-year NHL veteran to sign a two-year contract extension with Calgary in June. At $1 million per season, the deal represented a pay cut for Nilson, who earned $368,000 more the year before. But after struggling with knee injuries over the past two seasons, the 6-2, 188-pounder wasn’t about to quibble.

“I like the team we have here, and I really wanted to play for [GM] Darryl [Sutter]. I like the city too, as does my family. So it was important for me to stay. In terms of the money, I had a couple of years with tough injuries, so it wasn’t like I was going to hit a home run anyway. This is where I want to be.”

Alberta’s largest city has been good to Nilson. In 2003-04, he set an NHL record by participating in a total of 109 regular season and playoff games. As Calgary marched to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals versus Tampa Bay, Nilson had to be happy that the Florida Panthers had elected to trade him away for a second-round pick in March. He bagged 11 points during that unforgettable playoff run.

Now the former Panthers first-round pick (1996, 20th overall) is experiencing a little déjà vu of a different kind as he suits up for head coach Mike Keenan again. Nilson played 153 games in Florida under the sixth-winningest coach in NHL history, who’s always been notoriously demanding of his players. According to Nilson, though, that side of Keenan hasn’t been as evident this season.

“The situation’s different for him, because he’s got a lot better team to put on the ice,” Nilson explained. “We didn’t have a very good team in Florida. So I think that’s made a difference for him. He’s getting older, too, and there are a lot of older guys in this room. He knows what buttons to push, and maybe with a different team he doesn’t have to be quite the same as he was before.”

When Nilson reflects on his personal history, it’s easy for his thoughts to turn to the annual World Junior tournament at this time of year. Given Sweden’s double gold-winning performance at last year’s Olympics and IIHF World Championship, is he shocked that Tre Kronor hasn’t achieved better results recently in international U-20 hockey (zero medals in more than a decade)?

“I am shocked, actually,” Nilson said. “I played in three World Juniors, and we got the silver my first time in 1996. Then we finished eighth and sixth at the next two. I don’t know why. It’s impossible to say. Maybe it’s tough for guys around age 18 and 19 to get ice time in their clubs in the senior leagues in Sweden.”

Nilson returned to his native land during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, suiting up for Djurgarden, his original Stockholm club. With 39 points in 48 games, he ranked second in team scoring and eighth in the overall Swedish League derby. Some speculated that he could have assumed more of an offensive role when he came back to North America, similar to Shawn Horcoff, who finished third in Elitserien scoring and parlayed that into a career year in 2005-06 with the Edmonton Oilers.

“I had good confidence coming back,” Nilson admitted. “But I’ve got a different role over here, and you’ve just got to accept your role and do the best you can with it.”

That stoic attitude serves the choppy-skating forward well. And when times are tough (or, say, when he gets tired of being asked if he’s related to Ulf Nilsson or Kent Nilsson), he can always find a laugh or two in the films of Lasse Aberg, the legendary Swedish director who lives in Nilson’s hometown of Balsta.

“He’s put out a lot of good movies, and I’m a huge fan of his,” Nilson said of Aberg, who created such classic children’s entertainment as Trazan och Banarne and the Electric Banana Band. “Some of the movies he’s put out for adults are really hilarious. I may have met him once when I was a kid. He was playing tennis at the court next to me. Other than that, I’ve never talked to him.”

Nilson prefers to do his talking on the ice. He’s just one assist away from 100 in his NHL career, and he’ll soon crack the 500-game barrier. Of course, for him, those milestones are secondary to team goals. But if the Flames mount another surprising run to the Stanley Cup final this spring and win it all for the first time since 1989, Balsta could add another local legend to its pantheon. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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