SAN JOSE -- San Jose Sharks rookie forward Tomas Hertl will be in the lineup Friday night against the Colorado Avalanche for the first time since Dec. 19, when he suffered a major injury to his right knee during a game against the Los Angeles Kings.
Hertl underwent surgery Dec. 31 to repair two ligaments that were damaged by a knee-on-knee hit from Kings forward Dustin Brown. Hertl had 15 goals and 10 assists in 35 games before being injured.
"I'm very excited because it's four months not playing hockey," Hertl said after the Sharks' morning skate. "I'm very happy. I hope it's all good, the knee is OK. I hope I'm ready to play and ready to play in the playoffs."
Hertl, 20, has been practicing with the team for weeks and reportedly was cleared by two independent doctors, including the physician who performed his surgery.
"It’s a great story," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said of Hertl's comeback. "A lot of guys probably would have been done for the entire postseason. But Tomas worked extremely hard. He’s a great kid. I think all of the guys in here are very, very happy to see him back. We're really pulling for him to have a good postseason."
"We're all excited," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He in particular, and his teammates and anybody involved in the organization, but with that is a guarded sense of optimism. He hasn't played for a long time, hasn't practiced a lot. We're going to try and get him a couple of games before the playoffs and see where he is timing-wise, conditioning-wise, so that we can make a judgment call on his availability moving forward.
"We'll play it shift-by-shift. We're going to see. He'll give us an indication fairly early of what his conditioning level is like, and timing. I'd like in this situation tonight to play four lines, just to roll them and make sure everybody gets an opportunity to play. I'd like Tomas to experience all of the moments that he might regularly experience, whether that's a little bit of time on the power play if we happen to get a power play. Regular shift. Again, it's going to be a shift-by-shift analysis and see how he feels."
The Anaheim Ducks clinched the Pacific Division crown Wednesday with a 5-2 victory against the Sharks. San Jose will finish in second place and will open the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a first-round series against the Kings.
The Sharks' final two regular-season games -- against Colorado and Saturday against the Phoenix Coyotes -- won't affect their playoff status, so they can afford to rest some regulars and let Hertl tune up for the playoffs.
"I don't like these games, to tell you the truth," McLellan said. "We just said in the coaches' room, they are games that we're trying to get ready, we're trying to get our game together. But at the end of the day, my approach as a coach will be to back a few people off a little bit. That sometimes sends a message to the team you can be casual, which in turn ends up being a nightmare. I hope that our players don't take that message that way. We'll see it with the penalty kill. We may use some different people and give them that experience tonight. It doesn't mean we don't work on our game. It doesn't mean that we don't try and be as elite as possible. But I just don't like these games."
Goaltender Alex Stalock will start for the Sharks, and stellar defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic will be out of the lineup for the first time this season. He has played 80 games for the Sharks and played for Canada in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, winning a gold medal.
Forward Raffi Torres (knee) will miss his 16th straight game and won't play Friday at Phoenix, McLellan said.
Colorado has already earned a playoff spot and can clinch the Central Division title with a victory in any fashion against San Jose and a regulation loss by the St. Louis Blues against the Dallas Stars. Colorado still has a chance to finish with the best record in the Western Conference.
The Avalanche, coming off a 4-2 road victory Thursday night against the Vancouver Canucks, did not skate Friday morning. They are also expected to get a player back, as forward PA Parenteau returns from a knee injury suffered March 10 against the Winnipeg Jets. Parenteau could slot in at right wing on the first line in place of John Mitchell.
Avalanche coach Patrick Roy, however, has told reporters that Reto Berra, his No. 3 goaltender, will start against San Jose. Berra came to the Avalanche from the Calgary Flames on March 5 in a trade for a second-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. He has started one game for Colorado, stopping 22 shots in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets on March 19.
In his only career appearance against San Jose, Berra stopped 32 of 35 shots on Nov. 12 for Calgary in a 3-2 overtime loss.
Here are the projected lineups for San Jose and Colorado: