Tonight’s game against the New York Rangers is an important one for the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference standings, but no player has been looking forward to it more than Jiri Tlusty
The 22-year-old Czech forward will make his return to the lineup following a one-month absence. When he suffered an injury in Atlanta on Dec. 16 he was only supposed to be on the sidelines for a few weeks, but an MRI then showed torn cartilage in his shoulder that caused him to miss 16 games.
Making the injury more frustrating was the fact that he was just starting to round into form after a slow start to the season. Two of his 3 goals on the season came in his last five games, despite playing limited minutes on the third and fourth lines.
“It was all coming together, and then there’s one unlucky play and you get hurt again,” he said.
“Jiri has had a little bit of a history with that,” said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. “He’ll really be playing well and then have a pretty significant injury. He’s not a guy that deals with nagging injuries – he gets a big one when he gets injured. If he can get back to that as soon as possible, that will be a real good thing for him.”
Tlusty’s recent injury came courtesy of Atlanta’s Ben Eager, who has since been traded to San Jose. With Tlusty on his knees along the wall, Eager slammed him against the boards while his arm was still raised. Eager received a two-minute charging minor on the play and later had to answer to the Canes’ Troy Bodie in a fight.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Tlusty. “I would never finish anyone when they’re on their knees like that. I saw him coming and was trying to stay strong for the hit, but in the split second you don’t even know that your arm is up.”
Tlusty is hopeful that he can come back from his shoulder issue faster than he did from offseason knee surgery, which caused him to miss most of training camp and struggle out of the gates.
“At the start of the season I was still worried about my knee,” he said. “I felt like I was skating differently and didn’t have my balance. The biggest thing was finding my legs, and once I got my stride back I was just playing my game.
"2010 is over for me now, and that’s when all the injuries happened. This year is going to be better."
Tlusty will start tonight's game on the fourth line, but like all players will have an opportunity to move higher if his play warrants it.
Although the Hurricanes activated Tlusty from injured reserve in time to face Boston on Monday, the team decided to be cautious and hold him out of what promised to be two physical back-to-back games against the Bruins.
Tonight’s game won’t be much easier, as the New York Rangers, one of the teams the Canes are chasing as they attempt to claw their way into the playoffs, lead the league in hits with 1,387. However, they’ll be going up against a Carolina team that surprisingly ranks second in that category with 1,275.
“We have tried to become a far more physical team in the last month and a half, and I think there’s been a definite benefit to that,” said Maurice. “We’ve won more hockey games, and it’s as much about winning right now as it about building the identity of this team a month, a year and five years from now. A big core of that group is going to be in that group a long, long time, and you have play a physically intense game to win consistently.”
That was Maurice’s message to the 21-year-old Zach Boychuk, who headed to the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers in order to make room for Tlusty’s return.
“For the first time, I liked where he was at in terms of playing in the NHL,” said Maurice of Boychuk. “He has figured out how physically involved he has to be in the game, even though he’s not a big man.
“At the same time, going into the last game he had 5 points, which is great, but he was also -5, which pro-rated is not good. There’s more room, there’s more to give, there’s more to learn and grow, but I liked putting him on the ice because I liked how hard he competed.”
Although the Rangers played on Wednesday night as the Hurricanes sat idle, their game could not have gone much better. They defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-0 in New York – a margin of defeat that the Canes have some recent experience with – and saw star sniper Marian Gaborik break an eight-game goal drought by netting four.
Gaborik’s outing was a great sign for the Rangers, as coach John Tortorella had drastically cut the Slovikian winger’s ice time in the previous game against Philadelphia. However, Gaborik will still need to be more consistent, as 10 of his 15 goals came in three dominant games (two hat tricks and his four-goal outing), leaving just 5 tallies in his other 31.
The injury bug has hit the Rangers hard over the last few days, as the club expects leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky to miss 3-4 weeks with a fractured fibula. Also, Ruslan Fedotenko, who scored a goal Wednesday night, will miss 2-4 weeks with a separated shoulder. They join Ryan Callahan, Erik Christensen, Alex Frolov and Vinny Prospal as forwards who will be unable to face the Hurricanes tonight.