BUFFALO – Ted Nolan wanted to rattle Chris Stewart’s chain a bit, get the enigmatic veteran thinking. The Sabres coach saw a big, powerful winger playing a soft game.
So Nolan challenged Stewart during a meeting shortly after the 27-year-old’s Dec. 9 benching.
Their chat got heated.
“He got mad, he got angry,” Nolan told the Times Herald on Friday inside HarborCenter. “I got a little bit angry myself. Sometimes people think I’m a mild-mannered guy, but I grew up on the other side of the tracks. I know how to talk both sides.”
Stewart, the team’s top offensive threat in recent weeks, said Nolan’s strong words caught him off guard. Nolan told him to “start to remember why you’re playing this game.” Nolan reminded Stewart, who will almost certainly be traded before the March 2 deadline, teams don’t want a player based on his past exploits.
“Two bulls going at it in a china shop,” Nolan said about the talk. “He just needed someone to step up and let him know, and I did. It got him mad. The last thing I told him, ‘In this situation, I’m the coach and I get the final say.’
“So we walked out mad at each other a little bit, and I didn’t do it to get him mad. My job is to try to get the best out of every player, and I thought he was one of those guys that he was a lot better than he was playing, and now he sees the way he could play.”
Stewart has turned his season around after an awful, career-worst start, quickly becoming the Sabres’ best forward. He has four goals and six points in the last eight games entering tonight’s tilt against former Sabres coach Lindy Ruff and the Dallas Stars inside the First Niagara Center. He has six goals and 13 points in 23 contests since getting scratched.
He didn’t score in Thursday’s 3-0 loss to St. Louis, but he was arguably the best player on the ice, generating three strong scoring chances, including a second-period breakaway.
“I had to pick my game up,” Stewart said about his resurgence, “and I did.”
Stewart said he reached a moment when he remembered hockey’s just a game that’s supposed to be fun.
“Over the last 15, 20 games, I don’t want to swear, but I just said, ‘(Bleep) it,’ and just kept playing, I got nothing to lose here.”
The genesis of Stewart’s revival was Nolan’s challenge, which he could’ve taken two ways.
“I could’ve made excuses and said, ‘You know what, he’s wrong, he’s pointing the finger at me,’” he said. “Or, I said, ‘I could take it on the chin like a man and take a look in the mirror and realize that I wasn’t playing to my potential,’ which is true.”
He added: “It definitely got the player that I can be out of me.”
Stewart’s grateful Nolan held him accountable. Very few people would poke a seething 6-foot-2, 231-pound hockey player who has fought some of the NHL’s top heavyweights.
“There’s not too many people in my life right now that really hold me accountable,” Stewart said. “ … People think of me as a scary guy. One-on-one meeting with me, who knows what he was thinking? Things could’ve got ugly.”
Things were really ugly earlier this season for Stewart, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. After a strong training camp, Stewart, a deadline acquisition from the Blues last season, didn’t score his first goal until Nov. 2, the 13th game. He finally scored again in his 21st appearance.
It’s no secret the Sabres plan to trade Stewart, one of the top rental players on the market. Stewart acknowledged Friday he “bought into the whole not really knowing the future” earlier in the season. He was stressing out.
“I think I got caught up in that a little bit, wanted to play well, not producing and the team (was) losing,” he said. “It’s definitely something that I took personally. I really do take this game personal. I want to put so much pressure on myself to produce and play the right way and win hockey games. When that wasn’t happening, I definitely took it to heart.”
Stewart understands his short Buffalo tenure could be over soon.
“I can only worry about or really control what I do on the ice,” he said. “That’s the only task. … It’s a deadline. The clock’s on. It’s ticking. We’ll see what happens.”