PHOENIX After Jordan Nolan appeared in his first NHL game and Dwight King had made his 2011-12 season debut in a 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Islanders on February 11, the Kings were five games into a season-long six-game roadtrip with just one win to their credit. Los Angeles had both scored and conceded 124 goals 57 games deep into a season in which they had mostly treaded water above the playoff cutoff.
The two sizeable 22 year olds King is 6-foot-3, 234 pounds; Nolan 6-foot-3, 227 scored the following night in Dallas, leading the team to a gutsy 4-2 win to close out the roadtrip while earning two points on the second leg of a bizarre Long IslandDallas back-to-back scheduling quirk. Nolan scored the game-winner midway through the third period, while King's goal and assist were the first two points he recorded in an NHL career that began with a scoreless six-game stint in 2010-11.
Three months later, the two are valuable pieces of Darryl Sutter's team-wide aggressive forechecking effort that has helped produce a 9-1 record 10 games into their playoff run. King's two goals in a 4-2 win over Phoenix on Sunday gave him three in the postseason, and while Nolan has one to his credit as well, it's not necessarily the point production that will be their calling card early in their NHL careers.
"He's just strong on the puck," Jarret Stoll said about King, his linemate since Game 2 of the first round series against Vancouver. "He controls the puck, he holds on to it, and he wants to make plays, too. He doesn't just throw the puck away. He gets on the forecheck, he gets sticks on pucks where it causes turnovers, and then he holds on to it. It's tough for defensemen. He's a big boy. He's heavy, he's strong, and as a defensemen, if I was one, I definitely wouldn't want to go against him down low in the corner."
While he has shown improvement over every year of his career since tallying seven points and 20 penalty minutes as a 16 year old who appeared in 33 games with the Erie Otters in 2005-06, the late-developing Nolan didn't come closer to fully realizing his potential until his more senior years in the OHL.
"My first few years of junior, they probably weren't the best for me," he said. "Probably a 'little bit of lazy play' if you had asked around the league about Jordan Nolan."
Passed over in two drafts before Los Angeles selected him 186th overall in 2009, the seventh-rounder is the last player taken in the '09 draft to have played a game in the NHL. After narrowly missing a roster spot upon the conclusion of training camp, the forechecking, speed and physicality currently on display was a hallmark of his inspired play in Manchester, where he had logged 23 points and 119 penalty minutes, surpassing his 2010-11 totals despite having played in 35 fewer games.
"In the past few years, I'veworked hard and realized that I wanted to do this for a living. To come here and play with Fras Colin Fraser and Brad Richardson, we learned that. That's what you do to be successful here, so that's still going good."
Through his father, former Sabres and Islanders coach and current Latvian national team coach, Ted Nolan, Jordan was able to find the drive to further his work ethic and provide the base for what is developing into a promising NHL career.
"I think he's my dad first, rather than the coach," Jordan Nolan said. "We don't talk too much about hockey, just about hard work. That's how he coaches players, and that's what he taught me in life just work hard, and everything's going to work out for you. If you work hard through hockey for a few years, if things didn't work out for you, then try something new."
"But I've worked hard and I made the NHL, and right now I'm in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So I feel good."
Nolan and King weren't only February call-ups they're roommates at home, on the road, and when they played together in Manchester. "If you see us apart, that's probably rare," King said.
"It's someone to talk to, someone to relate to, and we're both going through the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time, and it's obviously exciting to both be there with someone you know pretty well."
On the ice, King has made important strides after finding his footing in the first round series against Vancouver. Gradually improving as the playoffs have continued, he finally broke through with an important goal on a breakaway in Game 3 against St. Louis and now has three goals and a plus-three rating over his last three games.
"We moved them around," Darryl Sutter said of King and Nolan's progression during the playoffs. "I think when we brought them up, we were playing them more. But I think just because they're young guys, changed their roles a little bit."
"That's where they should be."
From the opposing locker room, star Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle offered an honest assessment of the north-south type game the Kings showed in Game 1.
"I think with them, what you see is what you get," Yandle said of Los Angeles. "They're a hard working team; they've got a lot of skill, too. Even their top guys are working as hard as they can every shift. For us to win, we've got to do the same. We've got to have everybody working harder than their guys."
Considering the effort put forward by Nolan, King, and the other 18 skaters on the Kings' lineup, that could prove to be a significant challenge.