It was one of those rare moments that transcends sports -- even against the backdrop of Game 6 of a playoff series -- and speaks to the triumph of the human spirit: Oskar Lindblom, roughly nine months removed from being diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma and two months since completing his final chemotherapy treatment, was in uniform for the Philadelphia Flyers and playing for his team with the season on the line.
"I was just trying to think positive thoughts during the whole chemo. I knew I would play one day, but I didn't know when. Today's the day. I'm just lucky to be out there and be with these guys," Lindblom said.
When he stepped on the ice for his first shift, Flyers teammates and New York Islanders opponents alike stood and tapped their sticks in honor of the 24-year-old Swedish winger.
Video: PHI@NYI, Gm6: Flyers, Isles tap sticks for Lindblom
Strictly from an emotional and inspirational standpoint, Lindblom's mere presence means the world to his team. It puts in perspective that life itself, not in the sporting context of trying to extend a playoff series but an actual life-and-death fight to beat a rare form of cancer, is precious.
Lindblom's teammates, and the hockey world as a whole, have been in his corner since Day 1. That he was now suited up to give his all to his team with the season on the line and to resume his career made for a poignant moment that his teammates will never forget and even the Islanders deeply admired and respected. Lindblom's return was a win for his team (no matter how Game 6 turned out), a win for hockey, and a win against the insidious beast that is cancer.
Video: PHI@NYI, Gm6: Broadcast discusses Lindlom's return
"That was a huge boost. This kid has so much courage. He played unbelievable too. He hasn't played since I'm not even sure, but it's been a long time. It's been a long battle. This guy's heart, you have to see it to believe it," Flyers captain Claude Giroux said.
Thursday's game was an epic struggle on the ice. New York controlled puck possession for the majority of the game but the Flyers were resilient and battled hard, especially in the absence of top-line center Sean Couturier. It was a bend-but-don't-break night for the Flyers, who saw an early 2-0 lead slip away and then battled back from deficits of 3-2 and 4-3. Finally, the Flyers won, 5-4, in double overtime. Nonetheless, the resolve and character that it took to battle fatigue and dig deep mentally in the face of adversity paled in comparison to what Masterton Trophy finalist Lindblom went through to beat cancer and then get back into a reasonable facsimile of game-ready shape in order to dress for the game.
"I don't think there's anything that can describe how proud we all are of him and how much he means to this organization and to our team. A really special moment for him to come out for his first shift there and to see the support from not only our team, but the Isles all standing up and cheering him on, especially after our goal against. A lot of respect to them for that," Flyers goaltender Carter Hart said.
Strictly from a hockey standpoint, Lindblom made some valuable contributions across his 25 shifts and 17:30 of ice time. His hockey smarts to take good routes and willingness to backcheck came in useful, as did the moxie he showed in overcoming a tough first shift that saw him caught on the ice for a whopping 1:39 because his line got hemmed in the defensive zone for extended period of time.
It would have been quite unrealistic to expect that, with relatively limited opportunity for full-tempo practice with the team and without the benefit of so much as an exhibition game since his last NHL game on Dec. 7, Lindblom could simply pick up where he left off. His feet, hands, strength, and stamina will take time to fully recover. He is not fully back to his normal playing weight. Nonetheless, he certainly held his own in Game 6, especially given the circumstances of making his return in a game with the sort of intensity and meaning of Game 6 of a second-round playoff series.
Video: Hear from Hart and Lindblom after win
"Considering what he's been through, but for me, doesn't it say so much about the young man that he gets cleared from cancer on July the 2nd? We started our camp on July 13th. He goes back home for a couple of days. It just shows you about the young man and he's will to help. He comes back, spends a couple days in quarantine and starts working out. A month later, he's helping his teammates win a Game 6 that's giving us a chance at Game 7. Considering our situation tonight that Coots and Joel weren't available, for him wanting to play, just say so much about the young man," Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault said.
It is not known yet whether Lindblom will appear in Game 7 of the series on Saturday. That will partially depend on how he's feeling after taking part in such a grueling game on Thursday. It also depends on the availability of injured Flyers forwards Couturier and Joel Farabee for Game 7.
This much is certain: If the call comes for Lindblom to suit up again for the deciding game of the series, he'll do it without hesitation.
"It doesn't matter if it's Game 7 or not. We played like it was Game 7 (on Thursday) and came out with the win. We just have to keep to the system and play the game right. Hopefully we can get a win on Saturday or whenever the next game is. We can't start thinking that it's a Game 7. It's been a Game 7 for us for a long time here," Lindblom said of the team's push back from three games to one series deficit to get to the point of playing on Saturday.