VANCOUVER -- The Canucks won't make any changes up front when the Edmonton Oilers visit tonight, but defenseman Keith Ballard returns after missing three games with a back injury. Ballard was listed as injured for the first two, but appeared to be a healthy scratch -- a flashback to last season's struggles -- Friday against Calgary after pronouncing himself good enough to return earlier that day.
It turns out both "healthy" and "scratch" were relative terms.
Ballard saw himself as neither.
With fellow defender Alexander Edler, who had back surgery last season, also a question mark for the last pre-Christmas game, Ballard felt good enough to step in if needed. But with eight defensemen, he wasn't in a rush when Edler was able to play.
Edler did and Ballard didn't, prompting some to wonder if the latter was back to being a $4.2-million spare part. Ballard, scratched several times, including Game 7 of the Cup Final, during a miserable first season with the Canucks didn't see it that way.
"I didn't really look at it as anything remotely close to last year," he said Monday. "I felt prior to getting injured I had been playing my best hockey since I came here. I'm pretty comfortable with where my game has been the last month and half."
After spending the last two days up at the Whistler ski village -- a nice family Christmas break for a Minnesota native that played most of his career in Phoenix and Florida -- Ballard said the back feels good and he's ready to get right back to that form.
"It's been going on for a month," he said of the injury. "It's something we wanted to get to the bottom of and make sure it wasn't one step forward, one step back every day."
Tonight's lineup figures to look like this:
Daniel Sedin - Henrik Sedin - Alexandre Burrows
Mason Raymond - Ryan Kesler - Chris Higgins
Manny Malhotra - Cody Hodgson - Jannik Hansen
Dale Weise - Maxim Lapierre – Andrew Ebbett
Dan Hamhuis - Kevin Bieksa
Alexander Edler - Sami Salo
Andrew Alberts – Keith Ballard
The only other change is in goal, but it's not who will play, it's what he'll wear. Roberto Luongo, who was the Canucks' best player early against Calgary despite losing in regulation for the first time in nine starts (7-1-1), debuted a new vintage-themed tribute mask that he plans to wear with the Canucks' retro third jerseys, starting Monday.
Painted by FX Allaire, the son of Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending consultant Francois Allaire, who has also worked with Luongo for years, the new mask looks like one Curt Ridley wore in the 1970s, with the original stick-in-rink logo crossing his face.
Cory Schneider, who also wears a Ridley tribute, will back up for a fifth straight game.