Heading into the last 15 games of this season, the Carolina Hurricanes should receive another boost to their forward group.
After missing 10 games with an upper-body injury, forward Tuomo Ruutu
could return to the lineup as early as Saturday, according to head coach Kirk Muller.
“We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. He skated well and hard today,” Muller said. “If he comes off and has no effects of the first practice back, then hopefully we get him back tomorrow. It’d be awesome.”
As for Ruutu, it’s clearly evident that he’s ready to play again.
“I am so ready,” he said. “It was so much fun being out there.”
So, he jumped in head-first. He’s been skating by himself since last Monday, building up this return slowly. He forewent the yellow, no-contact jersey and got right back into the action.
Based on jersey color, he skated on the first line alongside Eric Staal
and Jiri Tlusty
, the spot he occupied before getting injured. Muller also had him practicing with the first power play unit, and, as usual, Ruutu parked his physical, 6-foot, 205-pound frame in front of the net.
No worries, though, he said. It was a relatively easy-going practice.
“It was pretty light, but I still know [I’m ready],” Ruutu said. “You’ve got to know mentally if you’re ready to go or not, and I know I am. That’s really important. If you’re not mentally ready, you’re not going to survive out there.”
Ruutu suffered an upper-body injury in the first period of the Feb. 13 game in Montreal on what looked to be relatively harmless body contact with Tomas Plekanec.
“It wasn’t even a big collsion,” Ruutu said. “Sometimes, you just hit the right spot.”
Ruutu had logged 4 points (2g, 2a) in as many games before Feb. 13. He was a plus-6 and was on pace to record around 10 points in the month, which would have ranked that top line trio in the top three in February team scoring.
“Guys have been playing well, but individually, it’s really frustrating to be up [in the press box],” Ruutu said.
Looking to recapture that magic the first line had in early February, Muller reunited the trio in practice on Friday. With Ruutu out, the other wing slot has been a revolving door of players. It’s not something Muller said he typically likes to do, but he credited the team with adjusting to the different roles in which they’ve had to play on any given night.
“Jiri has been really good with and without the puck. Staalsy has been, obviously, playing his game with speed and size. Ruuts has been aggressive, being first in there,” Muller said. “You’ve got guys that are on the puck, guys that can make plays and finish. So, the combination is pretty good between the three of them.”
Staal, who saw his Carolina (since relocation) record 12-game point streak and franchise record 11-game assist streak end on Wednesday, looks forward to having the 29-year-old, Vantaa, Finland native back in the lineup.
“We were playing well. Ruuts is a physical player with some offensive skills and instincts. He can go to those dirty areas in front of the net,” Staal said. “He’s a big piece to this team, so we’re really happy that he’s going to be back out there.”
Even with Ruutu out of the lineup, Staal and Tlusty have seen continued success. In his last 15 games, Staal has been a minus just three times. He’s been a plus in 10 games and even in two others for a total of a plus-12 rating. In his last 15 games, Tlusty has recorded 13 points (5g, 8a). He put together a nine-game point streak between Feb. 2 and Feb. 23.
“You need to develop chemistry,” Staal said. “The game is so reactionary and different every night … if you can get comfortable with a group, it definitely helps. Jiri and I have found a pretty good niche together, and we had a good thing going with Ruuts before that.”
“Players love to play with guys consistently,” Muller said. “Chemistry is a huge word. You can think people match up on paper properly, but it doesn’t always work that way. When you get the chemistry, you’ve got to stick with it.”