“There was such buildup to coming back,” Halpern said. “It was a great feeling.”
Halpern, who became a fan favorite late last season after being acquired from the Dallas Stars in the Brad Richards trade, is back in the middle of things for the Lightning as they attempt to climb back into the playoff race. It is no coincidence the Lightning gained points in five of seven games after he returned Dec. 18 against Colorado.
“When you have a Jeff Halpern in the lineup, you are a better team,” Lightning right wing Marty St. Louis said. “He is a good player in this league, on both sides of the ice.”
Halpern had 10 goals and 18 points in 19 games for the Lightning last season before being selected captain for the United States team at the World Championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia in May. His tournament ended when he suffered a serious knee injury in the third game against Canada May 6, three days after his 32nd birthday, and he knew the road back to the Lightning lineup would be a long one. Halpern had similar knee surgery six years ago and he said he knew it would take a full year to really get back to where he was.
Halpern was ready for the hard, physical rehabilitation work. The waiting was the hardest part.
“The most difficult thing is the boredom,” Halpern said. “Not being able to do what I normally do, not being able to get ready for the season and be part of the team. It’s not a lot of fun. It makes it that much more special coming back.”
Halpern wanted to get back sooner, but he knew he needed to be sure. He said he believes in this team and the prospect of getting back in contention for the playoffs.
“Any player wants to get back and contribute,” Halpern said. “But I wasn’t going to play until I thought I could play well.”
There’s no doubt his presence was missed in the lineup, on and off the ice. His versatility changes the team’s depth in many areas. When Halpern returned, Coach Rick Tocchet made him an assistant captain, replacing Andrej Meszaros.
“He is a responsible guy,” Tocchet said. “If you watch, he’s always below the puck, always in good position. He just knows where to go in certain situations and does the right things. When he gets the knee in shape, you’re going to see him playing better. It was a hell of a ride for him to get back and he’s done a great job for us.”
Halpern admits the trade last March was difficult. He came to Tampa along with Jussi Jokinen and Mike Smith for 2004 Conn Smyth winner Richards and Johan Holmqvist. Dallas was second in the Western Conference at the time and ended up playing in the Western finals before losing to Detroit.
“To me, in the NHL, the playoffs are everything,” Halpern said. “I’ve made it half of my years in the league…I would have liked to be part of that. But you turn the page and you hope you can create something like that here.”
Halpern, who stole the puck and set up Ryan Malone
’s goal against Washington Thursday, said he is feeling stronger every day. The Lightning needs his scoring ability. They also need his defensive presence. Halpern has been successful as either a second-line scoring pivot, with four seasons of 18 goals or more, or a third-line checking center. It can change each night.
“Sometimes you are given a role where you are playing against the other team’s top line,” Halpern said. “As important as it is for your line to create chances in that situation, it’s more important to make sure that everything is sound in your own end and any chance you take is a good one.”
Tocchet calls Halpern a leader. When he was injured, Halpern said he felt like an outsider. Now he said he wants to help out where he can, keep things loose.
Halpern is a grizzled veteran now. It is hard for him to believe, but he played his 600th game Dec. 23 at Pittsburgh. The Princeton graduate, who scored 50 goals and 97 points combined his last two years in college, has 116 goals and 283 points in his ninth NHL season.
“I remember my first game,” Halpern said. “It’s amazing how quick it has come. Other than the lockout year, it’s been a great run. I’ve always played like someone was ready to take my job. The NHL is an unbelievable place to make a living and you never want it to end. To go through 600 games is really an honor.”
It wouldn’t be a surprise if there will be 600 more to go for him.