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Richard Zednik's condition upgraded to good; Panthers return to the ice @NHLdotcom

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) -With Richard Zednik on their top line, the Florida Panthers faced an uphill battle just to make the playoffs.

Without him, they vow to fight harder.

Zednik continued what some termed a remarkable recovery Tuesday, when his condition was upgraded to good and he was moved out of the intensive care unit at Buffalo General Hospital. That was just two days after teammate Olli Jokinen's razor-sharp skate blade sliced the 32-year-old forward's neck, cutting his carotid artery and stopping just shy of his jugular vein.

On Wednesday, the Panthers will play their first game since the accident, hosting the Montreal Canadiens.

"We have to set it aside now and play hockey," said Florida defenseman Jassen Cullimore, who helped Zednik off the ice in Buffalo on Sunday night, as blood spurted in all directions. "That's what we do."

As Zednik recovers, so do the Panthers, who returned to the ice Tuesday, albeit still somber and shaken, yet somewhat uplifted by the continued good reports about their teammate.

"It's a sign of how good medicine can be and how good medical people can be," Panthers coach Jacques Martin said.

Zednik playing again this season is a real long shot. Doctors in Buffalo have already told him next season is the realistic return target, and on Tuesday, Dr. Sonya Noor - who operated on the forward Sunday night - said she's recommending he not resume strenuous activity for three months.

"He is awake and in good spirits," Noor said. "He has minimal neck swelling, or discomfort. He is speaking quite well. His voice is not hoarse. He's hungry. He wanted eggs for breakfast."

Noor said Zednik will be asked to sit up and walk a few steps over the next couple days, and if he can do those things, a discharge plan will be discussed.

He could be home by the weekend.

"Richard continues to improve and we are encouraged each day," Zednik's wife, Jessica Zednik, said in a statement Wednesday. "We thank you for respecting our privacy and would ask everyone to continue to keep Richard in their thoughts over the next few days."

The accident remains the dominant topic in the NHL, and to Clint Malarchuk - a goaltender whose neck was slashed in a similar incident in a game at Buffalo in 1989 - it resonated deeply. He won't watch the Zednik incident, but has offered to meet with Zednik to talk about anything that's on his mind.

"For any players who are traumatized like this, it's pretty gruesome," Malarchuk said.

When Jokinen's skate hit Zednik's neck, a significant amount of blood immediately began pouring from a 1 1/2-inch wound, leaving a wide red trail on the ice. Zednik skated to the Panthers' bench. His carotid artery - which carries blood to the brain - was nearly severed and emergency surgery that night at Buffalo General probably saved his life.

"Shows how tough the guy is," Jokinen said. "He was able to skate to the bench, with the cut in his throat, losing blood like that. It was pretty amazing, you know?"

By the time he reached the hospital, Zednik needed five units (roughly five pints) of blood, a figure that suggests he had lost one-third of the blood in his body.

"I think he will come back someday and play if that's what he chooses to do," Noor said.

A 12-year veteran, Zednik had 15 goals and 11 assists in 54 games this season, his first with the Panthers.

He didn't manage a single point over 16 games between Dec. 28 and Feb. 1. But he had six goals and three assists in the four games that preceded Sunday's game in Buffalo, giving the Panthers a clear boost as the team tries to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

"We've got 24 games to go," Jokinen said. "If we do our jobs, there is a possibility Richard's going to play with us and join the team in the playoffs. The doctors say six to eight weeks ... there's a possibility he could play this year. So every game now, it's going to be big, big for us."


AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and Associated Press Writer Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this story.

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