-- After sitting out the entire regular season because of broken leg suffered in training camp, San Jose center Torrey Mitchell
made his 2009 debut Tuesday night and didn’t exactly light up the scoresheet against the Anaheim Ducks.
Mitchell failed to score a point in six minutes and 34 seconds of ice time, a team low, but that does not mean Mitchell’s presence wasn’t felt in a positive way for the Sharks who defeated the Ducks, 4-3, in Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfinal at Honda Center.
“He had an impact before the puck was dropped,” Head Coach Todd McLellan said following the Sharks afternoon practice on Wednesday. “Not a whole lot of his teammates knew that he was playing.”
Since the start of the playoffs, it had become somewhat of a running joke for reporters when they asked McLellan about Mitchell’s return to the lineup. Although Mitchell had been skating in practice and looking stronger every day, McLellan seemed to enjoy verbally dancing around any direct answer.
On Tuesday, McLellan’s close-to-the-vest approach was extended to the Sharks players, who also were kept in the dark about Mitchell until shortly before the start of Game 3.
“Torrey knew in the morning, but his teammates didn’t,” said McLellan about Mitchell, who broke his leg in two places on Sept. 21 and then reinjured the leg while on a conditioning assignment in January.
“When they found out he was playing, you could feel a little lift and a little excitement in everybody because it was Torrey’s first game.”
For Mitchell, keeping a secret from his teammates for a few hours was easy compared to watching them play from the sidelines most of the season.
“[McLellan] told me after the pre-game skate and that I wasn’t supposed to tell everyone,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t too hard to do because I was so excited about finally getting a chance to play.”
Inserted on San Jose's fourth line with Mike Grier and Marcel Goc, Mitchell didn’t get too much work early in Game 3, thanks to a first period dominated by special teams. But once Mitchell got the call, his speed and energy stood out.
“It took a little while for us to get him on the ice because of all the early penalties but he played with the energy that we thought he would with his speed,” McLellan said. “Obviously he was a very tenacious guy that was excited about playing.”
Added San Jose forward Devin Setoguchi, who’s a close friend to Mitchell: “It was great to see him out there…It’s tough to sit out the whole year and not play. Then to come in here and play in such a critical, high-tempo and high-pace game.”
For McLellan, the decision to finally play Mitchell was actually made on Monday, the day after San Jose lost Game 2 to the Ducks to fall behind, 0-2, in the best-of-seven series.
|Mitchell celebrates with his teammates. (AP Photo/Richard Lam,The Canadian Press) |
That’s when Mitchell did something that he had not done since his training camp injury. He walked into McLellan’s office and told him, “I’m ready”.
“That was the first time,” McLellan said about Mitchell’s words. “A lot of times, we would go to him and ask how he felt…This time, he came to us and that made me feel good by him telling me that he’s ready.”
For any hockey player, sitting out for any lengthy period is tough and that was certainly the case for Mitchell. But he said that he feels like a smarter player now, thanks to his long layoff.
“It was definitely a difficult experience and the toughest part was mental,” Mitchell said. “It was so different for me because I’ve always played. But at the same time, I was able sit back and learn. I learned was able to watch so much hockey. I also learned to appreciate the game more.”
That’s why it was so special for Mitchell to call his parents—who live on the East Coast-- before the start of Game 3 that he would finally get back on the ice against the Ducks.
“Yeah, I tried to keep it from my teammates but I [couldn’t wait to tell] my parents as soon as I knew,” Mitchell said. “They only knew about my progress from whatever I had been telling them. I had told them that I was close but I didn’t really know when I would play.
“They were really excited…They stayed up and watched the game and I talked to both of them on the telephone once the game ended.”
Mitchell’s parents do not have worry about their son’s status for Thursday’s Game 4, thanks to his performance in Game 3, according to McLellan.
“Seeing him work so hard to get back in the lineup, you had a pretty good idea that he was a committed player.” McLellan said.
“He worked hard to get back to this spot..you have no idea what he’s gone through, not only physically but mentally…There’s been a lot of down days for him but he’s stuck with it and now he’s finding a way to contribute.”BLAKE DEFENDS MARLEAU
After being criticized for his lack of production in Game 1 and 2, San Jose captain Patrick Marleau
scored the game-winning power-play goal in Game 3, which did not come as a surprise to veteran defenseman Rob Blake.
“He’s been our leader all year,” Blake said about Marleau. “When we’ve needed someone to step up, he’s been there. On that power-play goal, he was the one who battled hard early to get the puck back and keep it in the zone. We scrambled around and he got his stick open to make the play.”
Blake said Marleau’s critics have been out of line.
“Any other team would love to have a guy like him as their franchise player,” Blake said. “People are going to write what they want and that happens to everybody at some time during their career. But he’s been the guy for us all year and he’s going to continue to get the job done.”