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Sekera return provides boost on, off ice for Oilers

Defenseman played 16:10 in season debut after May surgery to repair torn knee ligament

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- Defenseman Andrej Sekera's return from seven months of rehabilitation for a knee injury was not the front-and-center story for the Edmonton Oilers in their 3-2 victory against the St. Louis Blues at Rogers Place on Thursday.

It took a back seat to the Oilers' first three-game winning streak of the season, helped by two third-period comebacks against the Blues, a high-skill goal by captain Connor McDavid and the game-winner from third-line forward Drake Caggiula with 49.8 seconds remaining in the third period.

But Sekera's first game of the season is a layer beneath the surface that can help the Oilers turn a disastrous start into a run at a Stanley Cup playoff spot.

The winning streak has coincided with the return from injury of No. 1 goaltender Cam Talbot and defenseman Adam Larsson. Talbot returned from a seven-game absence because of an upper-body injury for a 3-2 win against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday that started the streak. Larsson missed eight games because of an upper-body injury, returning against the San Jose Sharks on Monday. Now adding Sekera to the lineup only adds to momentum.

Video: STL@EDM: Caggiula buries one-timer for late lead

Sekera, 31, sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Game 5 of the Western Conference Second Round against the Anaheim Ducks on May 5, a series the Oilers lost in seven games.

He had knee surgery May 18 but was unable to start skating until near the end of September.

His absence compounded the trouble for the Oilers early in the season. Among their issues have been ranking No. 30 on the penalty kill at 73.2 percent; inconsistent goaltending, including a combined .899 save percentage for Talbot and Laurent Brossoit, and a 3.17 goals-allowed per game average that is No. 23 in the NHL; and poor starts, with opponents scoring the first goal in 22 of 35 games. 

After being 7-12-2 on Nov. 21, the Oilers have improved to 16-17-2. They still have a distance to go, but with 34 points, they entered the weekend five points behind the Chicago Blackhawks for the second wild from the Western Conference.

Video: Tom Gazzola on the Oilers and the return of Sekera

Some veteran stability, wisdom and execution from a healthy Sekera only can help that mission.

"I think we were all excited about having [Sekera] back in the lineup," Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. "I think it was his second shift, you could see the poise he had with the puck, held it and held it and made the right play, put it on somebody's tape and got off.

"Just that veteran presence back there was nice to see. He had a big smile on his face before, during and certainly after."

Smiles, Sekera agreed, were plentiful, but what made him happiest with his first game of the season was that there was no pain from his 16:10 of ice time.

"I felt pretty good," he said. "I got my legs in the first period and it was a good, high-tempo game, a good test for me, and I felt really good out there."

He said the pace of the game was the biggest challenge Thursday.

"I tried to keep it simple, skate hard and make the first play I saw," he said. "I didn't try to do too much. Once I get going, it will get better and better."

Getting going is something McLellan will be watching closely in the coming days and weeks.

"The one thing that holds true for most [returns from injury] is the first one's usually your easiest, then it becomes a grind," he said.

The next one for Sekera and the Oilers is against the Montreal Canadiens at Rogers Place on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV), followed by the three-day Christmas break.

Sekera, a veteran of 648 NHL games, won't fear that challenge.

He's more likely to prefer it to the one that involved the arduous schedule he'd been keeping through his recovery.

"I didn't have a lot of time on my hands," he said. "I'd come here at 8 o'clock, ready for my rehab, do something for an hour, then skate by myself or then when I was cleared to skate with the team, then stay after and do a bit more work. So it was a longer process. But once I got used to it, it was good.

"Injuries, rehab, they are part of the game so you have to be positive and make sure you do all of it 100 percent."

The long recovery did have at least one bright spot. He married his long-time girlfriend, Katarina, on Aug. 1.

And now he has enjoyed another highlight day.

"It obviously elevates us a little bit," Caggiula said. "He's a tremendous player. You saw what he did for us last year and it's great to have him back in the lineup. It's a veteran presence. He's a calm defenseman back there. He helps on the power play, he helps on the penalty kill and his overall play gives us a lot of confidence."

Even Sekera seemed to realize the importance, given how his teammates seemed to be grasping for any straw three or four weeks ago.

"On a scale of one to 10, how big is a win like this?" Sekera was asked Thursday.

"Eleven," he said. "For us, every point is important. Doesn't matter who you play, but especially against a good team like this, it's a good confidence boost for the group."

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