There may have been some worry as to the level of rust Tyler Pitlick might display in his return to the Oilers lineup. He had every excuse to look out of place, having not played a game since December 31. That is a 40-game absence from game action, due to a frightening injury.
Pitlick suffered a lacerated spleen on New Year's Eve in Calgary, which meant a long and frustrating road to recovery. But on Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Kings, Pitlick showed little rust or fatigue and even potted the game-winner.
“Excellent game for him for the first game back after injury,” said Oilers Interim Coach Todd Nelson. “I thought he was involved, he scored a nice goal, he was playing physical, he was moving his feet. It was really encouraging and nice to see. I thought he played outstanding.”
“It felt pretty good to score that goal, that’s for sure. It’s tough missing three months of hockey and bag skating and rehab, all that stuff. It was good to get back on the ice and play a game, even better to score,” said Pitlick.
The path back to playing began as most internal injuries do: pain. It was the first of what Pitlick describes as the two phases to his recovery.
“The first part is the first month, where I was in terrible pain all day, every day. I couldn’t sleep. That was tough,” he said.
The second phase is when the pain has passed.
“Once the pain finally did go away, it sucked too because I felt I could play,” said Pitlick. But only he needed to be patient.
|Tyler Pitlick chats with Sportsnet's Gene Principe. Photo by Andy Devlin. |
That meant a lot of time at the gym or on the ice without his teammates as he continued to mend something he couldn’t see or even feel at the time.
“I was working out every day, bag skating. I felt fine,” said Pitlick. “I wanted them to let me play, but I had to wait for it to be fully healed or small enough to where it wouldn’t reopen if I took another hit. That was kind of the toughest part of it.”
The 23-year-old winger was just wanting to get back to the sport he played for a living. But ultrasound after ultrasound ruled out a return. It was mentally draining on Pitlick, who said he had one last test this week and if that brought with it a negative prognosis, his season was likely done.
“I think I got three ultrasounds. Those all said I was still hurt. I got the last one on Monday, so I was kind of starting to get down. If this one is not good, I’m definitely not playing. I was trying to not get my hopes up too much. Then it ended up being good. I was pretty excited about that,” he said.
Cleared to play, Pitlick suited up for the Oilers for just the 15th time this season. Lucky number 15, as it turned out, which is somewhat interesting because he changed to that number the week leading up to his injury. He laughed off that the number might be unlucky. He did score in his return after all.WEDNESDAY VIDEO: RAW: Nelson
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Helping Pitlick in his return was centre Anton Lander, a familiar face from his time in the American Hockey League. The two played together earlier this season.
“He’s a skilled player, a really smart player,” said Pitlick. “Playing with him is really easy because he’s always in the right spot and he’s always talking to me. I think that definitely helped me a lot.”
Pitlick nearly set up Lander for a goal with about a minute left in the first period. Lander returned the favour by winning an offensive zone draw, which eventually set up Pitlick’s game-winning goal. Pitlick tapped the puck back to the point after the draw. Oscar Klefbom shot the puck and Pitlick picked it up in the slot and scored his third NHL goal, making it a 3-1 game in an eventual 4-2 decision.
“It was fun to play with Tyler again,” said Lander. “He’s using his body well out there. He’s flying around out there and he has a good shot too, as we saw. It’s good to play with him. I felt like the chemistry was still there.”
Returning from injury in time to play again was very important to Pitlick. His one-year contract expires at the end of this season, making him a restricted free agent. He is eager to prove to the Oilers and the fans that he can play and he has two more games this season to do it.
The 2010 second-round pick is also eager to leave a good impression on the fans when the Oilers close out their home schedule on Thursday night against the San Jose Sharks.
“It’s the last home game, so we want to leave the fans feeling good about us and leave them feeling good about me too,” said Pitlick. “(I want to) leave a good last impression and go to Vancouver and have another good game.”