|After sitting out more than three months with post-concussion symptoms, Senators forward Jesse Winchester couldn't be happier to be a participant in the Stanley Cup playoffs (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images).
Even in the toughest moments, Jesse Winchester
never lost hope.
For three months, the Ottawa Senators forward couldn't do much more than watch as his teammates battled to nail down a coveted berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Such were the effects of a concussion that kept him on the sidelines for 44 games, the most frustrating period of his four-year National Hockey League career.
Perhaps that's why the 28-year-old Winchester has reason to savour this post-season journey more than the rest of his Senators teammates. He returned to action on April 1, the day the Senators clinched a playoff berth with a road victory over the New York Islanders. And he's been brimming with joy about Ottawa's current opportunity against the New York Rangers ever since.
"I have a different appreciation for it," admitted Winchester, who suffered the concussion on a hit by then-Buffalo Sabres centre Paul Gaustad in a Dec. 20 game at Scotiabank Place. "I didn't know if I was going to be back. You miss so many things that go on with your teammates, and that's what you notice when you get back into the room.
"The vibe before the game and all that stuff is special. To be going into the playoffs and to experience that again ... I'm energized and refreshed and hopeful that I can contribute here in any way that I'm asked to. I'm just happy and I'm going to play as hard as I possibly can."
Winchester, who saw just under nine minutes' worth of duty during Thursday's 4-2 loss to the Blueshirts at Madison Square Garden in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final, has suffered other injuries during his time with the Senators. But none quite like the one that limited him to 32 games this season, alternately teasing him with moments of hope and despair.
"It was really tough watching the team, especially them playing well (while he was out), and you're so happy for them," said the 6-1, 206-pound forward. "But you just want to be a part of it, too. Not having any control over when I was going to come back, I just had to hope for the best for the team and for myself ... get a chance to play and, hopefully, make a difference come playoff time. I couldn't ask for any more."
"You play for the playoffs and a chance to get into the playoffs. The boys have played unbelievably well here and I've had to watch a lot of that. To be back and to be able to fit back in makes you feel more alive and happy, and not take any of it for granted. I'm going to help in any way I can ... When the weather's warm outside and you're still playing, it doesn't get much better than that. I feel great, I'm healthy and I'm refreshed." - Jesse Winchester
It was that wait, which seemed endless at times, that proved to be the most difficult to take. But as frustrating as it was at times, Winchester never truly doubted he'd make it back. The question that lingered was simply 'when?'
"I knew I was going to be fine and I knew I was going to recover, but it was just on what timetable," he said. "Sometimes, we make it out to be such a big deal, missing an extra game. But when it comes down to it, that's what I learned, not to rush it. I'm going to be okay. Now, especially, I understand I can come back and be at the level I need to be despite the time I spent off.
"To say that it was easy to sit there and just wait ... no, it wasn't. But I knew I wasn't in danger of losing my life or anything like that. I just wanted to be here with the boys doing what I love. That's the part that was the hardest, but I was always hopeful I was going to come back."
And, as Winchester can likely tell you more emphatically now than he ever has, nothing beats playoff time in the National Hockey League. While the Senators dropped the opener against the Rangers, they have a chance to get back on even terms on Saturday, when Game 2 will be contested at MSG (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).
"It's special," said Winchester. "You play for the playoffs and a chance to get into the playoffs. The boys have played unbelievably well here and I've had to watch a lot of that. To be back and to be able to fit back in makes you feel more alive and happy, and not take any of it for granted. I'm going to help in any way I can.
"We play for a chance to play for the Stanley Cup and last year, we didn't get a chance to do that. When the weather's warm outside and you're still playing, it doesn't get much better than that. I feel great, I'm healthy and I'm refreshed. I'm ready to go."