GLENDALE, Ariz. -- He's once again in the lineup due to necessity, but the Phoenix Coyotes are hoping defenseman David Schlemko again plays the role of "closer" for the second time in these playoffs.
Schlemko subbed for the injured Michal Rozsival in Phoenix's 4-0 series-clinching, Game 6 win over Chicago, and now gets the call to replace the Coyotes' other Czech defenseman after Rostislav Klesla was suspended for one game by the NHL on Sunday.
Tippett said he was surprised and disappointed by the decision on Klesla's hit from behind on Matt Halischuk in Game 4. But while Klesla has been a top performer in these playoffs, it is a luxury to have rearguard depth like Schlemko -- who turned 25 on Monday and was part of the top six for three months before slicing a tendon in his foot with his own skate against the Islanders on Jan. 7.
"He's one of those guys right on the bubble, champing at the bit to make an impact," Tippett said of Schlemko. "I'm glad he's had a couple of games in the playoffs and he knows what to expect. I think he'll come in and give us a real strong game."
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Schlemko, who sliced a tendon across the top of his right foot with his own skate while making a crossover move to run down a puck, had surgery to repair the tendon in mid-January and was ruled out for the season. But with the Coyotes down three defensemen in mid-March -- Klesla and Adrian Aucoin were injured, while Derek Morris was away from the team -- Schlemko pushed his rehab and returned to play four regular-season games even though he knew he wasn't ready.
"It was obviously a long-term injury and it was tough and it's still tough, but I'm trying to put that in the back of my mind now and we're worried about playing playoff hockey and getting wins," Schlemko said. "It has been tough and frustrating these last few months for me. But the positive is now I get to go in tonight and have fun and get a big win here."
The injury couldn't have come at a worse time for Schlemko. One minute he was playing in his 40th straight game, averaging 20 minutes of ice a night with 10 assists and feeling as if "I had taken the next step in my career." But one minute and one freak injury later, he had a severed tendon and an uncertain future.
"I was trying to keep a puck in that was rimming around the boards and I felt it hit my foot. I went to go after it and I tried to push off and my skate caught the top of my boot and sliced it open," he said. "I went to the hospital for an MRI thinking it was just a cut, maybe a week or so to let the stitches heal. But when they told me the tendon was gone … that was tough to take."
The tendon had to be repaired and the healing process has been slow. Schlemko still has range of motion issues in the big toe, "but it's good enough to skate." He always had it in the back of his mind that he would be able to come back this season, and when the injuries started to pile up his return was more than just a good story.
"We were pretty banged up in March and that was probably too early. I really didn't feel comfortable," he said. "But the last month has made a big difference. Right now it feels better in the boot that anywhere else, and that's all that matters."
Tippett said he knew Schlemko was struggling and doing what he could for the team. And while losing Klesla for Game 5 hurts, having a chance to reward Schlemko for his perseverance feels good to the coach.
"It's been a struggle for him, but since the last week of the (regular) season he's pushed through it and you can tell he's not thinking about it, he's just playing," Tippett said. "You could tell it was on his mind before, but now he's back to a regular player. He's a guy who has to use agility and smarts to make good reads, and when he didn't have that full capacity it was a struggle.
"Now he's back, and I think he'll give us a great game."