RALEIGH, N.C. -- Rehabbing an injury never is an enjoyable process for a professional athlete. Carolina Hurricanes forward Tuomo Ruutu has been waging that battle for quite a while.
Two hip surgeries in the past calendar year were bad enough. Then came a leg injury in the preseason that kept him out of the lineup until a game Sunday against the Phoenix Coyotes, in which he logged 10:28 of ice time.
"Every time you come off an injury, at least from my point of view, the other guys are always going left and right," Ruutu said. "The game speed is so different from practice or if you're skating by yourself. But once you get that first hit and that first shot, you stop thinking about it and start playing."
He will need to get into that zone quickly Tuesday when the Hurricanes face the Chicago Blackhawks. After starting on the fourth line against the Coyotes, he will join Eric Staal and Alexander Semin on Carolina's top line.
Ruutu said he's happy to get an early chance to provide a spark on a scoring line, but it's not hard to detect his relief at getting past the long hours of rehab.
"It's not the worst thing in life, but it's tough mentally," he said. "You need good doctors and a good physical therapist and a good work ethic. But most of all you need family around to support you. As hard as it is physically, it's way harder mentally."
That's why Ruutu was smiling so much after the morning skate. It wasn't so much the promise of more ice time or playing against the defending Stanley Cup champions that made this day so promising. It was the simple joy of playing hockey.
"Once you get out there and start playing, you forget everything," Ruutu said. "In the first game, even the first practice, I get the first goal, I have a little grin on my face. That's how you know you love the game a lot."
Here are the projected lineups the teams will use Tuesday:
Bryan Bickell - Jonathan Toews - Patrick Kane
Patrick Sharp - Michal Handzus - Marian Hossa
Brandon Saad - Andrew Shaw - Joakim Nordstrom
Brandon Bollig - Marcus Kruger - Ben Smith
Duncan Keith - Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya - Niklas Hjalmarsson
Nick Leddy - Michal Rozsival
Scratched: Michael Kostka, Sheldon Brookbank, Brandon Pirri
Tuomo Ruutu - Eric Staal - Alexander Semin
Jiri Tlusty - Jordan Staal - Nathan Gerbe
Jeff Skinner - Riley Nash - Patrick Dwyer
Drayson Bowman - Brett Sutter - Radek Dvorak
Andrej Sekera - Justin Faulk
Brett Bellemore - Ron Hainsey
Jay Harrison - Ryan Murphy
Scratched: Kevin Westgarth, Mike Komisarek
Injured: Anton Khudobin (lower body), Tim Gleason (concussion), Elias Lindholm (upper body)