CALGARY – He may have almost 900 NHL games under his belt, but Brendan Morrison’s first shift since last season’s knee surgery felt like an adventure.
“I felt real good aside from the first shift of the game where it was a little bit scrambly there,” the Calgary Flames centre said Wednesday. “Thank goodness they didn’t score.
“I was running around in my zone the whole time.”
When Morrison returned to the bench after his opening foray of the previous night’s 2-1 win over Edmonton, Flames assistant coach Dave Lowry offered these encouraging words:
“I said ‘Thank God that one is over with,'” Lowry said.
But Morrison, 36, was an impact player for the Flames in their first home victory of the 2011-12 season. His contributions, as they often are, were less on the scoresheet and more on defence and in the faceoff circle.
The Flames (2-3) hardly eased Morrison into his first game since March 2, when he suffered a season-ending injury to his left anterior cruciate ligament in Chicago.
Morrison played 17 minutes Tuesday and helped Calgary dominate the faceoff circle by winning 68 per cent of his draws.
With the Flames desperately trying to protect a one-goal lead, Morrison won two crucial faceoffs in Calgary’s zone in the final minute, including one with nine seconds left against Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff.
“That was a critical stage in the game for us,” Lowry said. “If you look at all night how good he was in the faceoff circle, that’s something where as a team we have to continue to get better at. He came in last night and took a lot of key draws and was very good for us.”
Flames centre Matt Stajan was also a big contributor in Calgary’s 61-to-39 per cent edge on the dot, winning seven of his eight draws.
Morrison had knee surgery in April. The Pitt Meadows, B.C., native became a free agent on July 1 and the Flames re-signed him to a one-year, US$1.25-million contract later that month.
It lurked in the back of Morrison’s mind last spring that a 36-year-old with a questionable knee might have a tough time getting another job in the NHL.
He also knew Calgary valued his contributions last season. Morrison was a late pick-up by the Flames to start 2010-11. The Vancouver Canucks, with whom he’d spent seven seasons earlier in his career, had released him from a tryout in early October.
Morrison carried a plus-13 rating in Calgary while contributing nine goals and 34 assists in 66 games. Calgary’s most successful weeks of the season coincided with Morrison playing first-line centre between captain Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. In his first game back Tuesday, Morrison was on a line with Niklas Hagman and Rene Bourque.
“I had a good feeling I’d be back here (based on) our meetings at the end of the year. But again, you never know,” Morrison said. “Two years ago in Washington, I had a pretty good year and I couldn’t even get a contract.
“It crossed my mind that ‘hey, I’m a couple of years older now, pretty major surgery’ so when team does kind of stand by you, you want to show other people ‘hey, I can still play.’ That’s my motivation, to show I can still play and keep up with the younger guys.”
The Flames host the New York Rangers on Thursday in the second of six-game homestand. Morrison’s return to the lineup creates a crowd of 15 bodies at forward, but the Flames need Morrison’s multi-purpose skills to help generate some momentum.
“He can do it all,” Hagman said. “He can play with Tangs and Iginla on the first line or he could play with whoever would be on the so-called fourth line.
“He’s good with the puck, good patience with it. You can put him on penalty kill and put him on power play. He does a lot of good things and that helps the team obviously.”
Morrison will wear a brace on his left knee the whole season, but said the joint felt fine after his first game. Until he gets his game-timing back, he intends to draw on his dozen years in the NHL and play smart, conservative hockey.
“Play simple right now until you’ve got all your timing down. Don’t take too many chances, err on the side of caution and just try and be good positionally,” he said.