Fight of the Phoenix

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

It's obvious the tough guy with the most feared fists in the NHL just needed an opportunity - something that wasn't forthcoming with the Edmonton Oilers - to show he's still got decent hands around the net.

With NHL enforcers destined to go the way of bare-faced goaltenders, Georges Laraque is getting exactly that with Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes, and he's been making the most of the chance to prove he belongs, even when his gloves stay on.

Having signed a two-year deal with the Coyotes after the Oilers made it clear he no longer figured in their plans, Laraque is off to the best start of his career with 10 points in his first 19 games with Phoenix.

CAREER YEAR?

Big Georges is playing more minutes and doing more with them than he has since making his, ahem, Art Ross Trophy bid with 13 goals and 29 points in 2000-01, when GM Kevin Lowe was the Oilers coach. Given the state of the game, he couldn't have picked a better time. Down for the count? Not a chance.

"I knew I could do it," said Laraque, who has never been wanting for panache or confidence.

"I knew I could do more than just fight. In the last couple of years in Edmonton, I think some people thought I couldn't play anymore. This is kind of a statement to my old team also because they didn't want me anymore."

Faced with dwindling ice time and a diminished role under Craig MacTavish, Laraque didn't have to think too long or too hard about where he wanted to go to rekindle his career after Gretzky called and offered him two more years at $2.2 million with the Coyotes.

Having averaged just 6:34 of ice time last season, one in which he managed just 12 points and was a healthy scratch in seven of the Oilers last 10 games in the stretch, Laraque faced the New Jersey Devils last night with seven points (2-5-7) in his last four games.

Playing on a line with Oleg Saprykin and Mike Zigomanis, Laraque is averaging 9:42 of ice time a night - he faced the Devils having played 10 minutes or more in six straight games.

"You can't contribute if you only play six minutes," said Laraque. "You can't do anything out there.

"I've always been confident I could do more if I played for somebody who gave me a chance. I'm a better player now than when I had 29 points. I thought I could do that again and I'm proving it."

It's not like Laraque, who turns 30 Dec. 7, has been a hit since he showed up on Gretzky's doorstep.

He didn't have a single point and was minus-5 in his first nine games with the Coyotes. The Great One stayed with him.

FIGHTING NOT NECESSARY

"They said not to worry about fighting," said Laraque, who has found the time to starch Derek Boogaard, Darren McCarty, Raitis Ivanans and Todd Fedoruk when he's not tossing himself into the glass at Jobing.com Arena.

"They told me they knew I could play and they wanted me to go to the net. They said, 'Every time you have the puck, go to the net and make plays.' They knew I'd do my job but they wanted me to contribute more offensively."

Laraque was pointless when he scored his first goal of the season in a 6-2 win over the Oilers Oct. 26. He hasn't looked back.

"It feels good to play hockey again," said Laraque, who is fast becoming a fan favourite in the desert. "Especially when you feel you can do more and you get the chance to show it.

"When you don't play and don't contribute, it sucks.

"I had full confidence I could do it again. I'm not going to say I'm going to get 40 points and stuff, but my goal is to beat 29 points. I think I can."


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