WINNIPEG - It's been a long time coming.
A painful, stressful, excruciating wait on the sidelines wondering if, not when.
"Oh man," a solaced Michael Stone said Saturday, tilting his head back as if to say: Finally.
"I'm excited to play an NHL hockey game again. … At times, it seemed like it was never-ending.
"But I kept going about my business and doing whatever I needed to do to be ready when this time did come."
As it turns out, that time is now. In his hometown Winnipeg, no less.
Stone will draw back into the lineup tonight for the first time in 125 days, 42 games and 31 wins with his red-and-black-clad brethren, and to officially put this trying period in his hockey career behind him.
The one positive through it all is that Stone, who was initially put on blood thinners to aid his recovery, resumed skating just four days after his diagnosis of a blood clot. So, unlike a more 'traditional' injury like a bone break or muscle tear, he was able to keep his cardio up with daily workouts, both on and off the ice.
That made his transition back into game action far smoother than he anticipated.
The 28-year-old recently returned from Stockton, where he appeared in three games on a conditioning assignment, tallying two helpers with the AHL's Heat.
"Skating by yourself is a lot different than skating with 23 other guys on the ice," Stone chuckled, "but I felt like I didn't lose as much as I would have if I had taken (those) days off.
"Just the battle and stuff like that, you don't get when you're skating on your own, so I think that's where the conditioning came in for me there. Didn't really feel like I took a lot of time to get that back. Played a lot in the first period of that first game, and it took me a little bit to get that wind back, but I was fine moving forward."
Stone, a Winnipeg product, will have his parents in attendance tonight at Bell MTS Place, too.
"This building's always exciting to play in," he said. "It's loud and the games are usually intense, so it'll be good."
Stone isn't quite sure what his role will be, considering the Flames have a couple of balls in the air when it comes to their game roster. Sean Monahan (illness) did not travel with the team and has already been ruled out, but head coach Bill Peters revealed during his morning media availability that one other forward will not be available as well.
As a result, the Flames will be going with 11 forwards and seven defencemen.
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Asked why the 11-and-7 route was the way to go this evening, head coach Bill Peters made it clear he wanted to get Stone back in the rotation as soon as possible.
"He went down, played real well when he went to the American Hockey League and the longer we wait, the worse it's going to be," Peters said. "I want to get him in, see what he's got. He played real well when he was down there, is in great shape, and he's worked real hard coming off the injury. This was a very unique situation, a delicate situation and the way he handled it was unreal.
"Now we want to get him into the lineup."
Up front, the recently recalled Alan Quine will draw in - making his appearance in Flames colours since the team was last here in Winnipeg, knocking off the Jets 4-1 back on Dec. 27.
"I'm excited," he said. "Just waited for that opportunity. To play in a game tonight and not be doing those conditioning skates is a lot more fun. I'm really looking forward to it. Should be a good one."
Video: CGY@STL: Quine cleans up rebound for second goal
In nine games with the Flames this year, the 26-year-old Quine has three goals and four points. He also leads the Heat with 52 points (19G, 33A) in 41 games, and is hoping to bring that "level of confidence" to his game here tonight.
"I've tried to take on more of a leadership role down there," he said. "I've really worked on my game down there. … This is the most exciting part of the season. I'm just happy to be back. I want to contribute in whatever way possible and just be effective."
While the Flames are facing a bit of adversity without their top-line centre and one other absence up front, it hasn't damped the excitement for what should be an entertaining tilt, shown coast-to-coast - in prime time - on Hockey Night in Canada.
"Should be a good one," Peters said.