Justin Faulk was back at practice Monday with the Carolina Hurricanes, skating, shooting the puck, involved, laughing it up with teammates.
The All-Star defenseman, who has missed 17 of the past 18 games with a leg injury, wore a yellow, no-contact jersey. While he has not been cleared to rejoin the lineup and won’t play Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres at PNC Arena, he does hope to get in some games before the season ends.
“It’s nice to be out there with the guys again and not necessarily skating on your own and staring at the walls,” Faulk said, smiling. “It’s not fun. You never want to miss games, especially where we are and we’re fighting for points every night.”
It has been six weeks since Faulk was injured, almost four weeks since he last played a game. The Canes (31-27-4) remain mathematically alive in the fight for a playoff spot, but in retrospect those playoff chances took a big hit on Feb. 11, when Faulk and forward Brad Malone collided along the boards in a practice at Raleigh Center Ice, Faulk twisting a leg in an awkward fall.
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After missing six games, Faulk was back in the lineup Feb. 23 for a home game against the Philadelphia Flyers, playing almost 17 minutes in a 3-1 win, then went through a full practice the next day. Then he was sidelined again.
“It’s a setback, it’s a blow, for sure,” Canes coach Bill Peters said of the impact of the Faulk injury. “It’s got everyone playing up a little high and at times we don’t move the puck as well. That’s just the reality of it. Our transition game isn’t quite as good.”
We hope to get him back soon. He’ll be a big boost, not only on our five-on-five play but on the power play.
Canes coach Bill Peters on Justin Faulk
Defenseman Jaccob Slavin has had an impressive rookie season but few envisioned him ever being used in the top pairing with Ron Hainsey. That has happened, a lot, with Faulk out of the lineup 17 of the past 18 games.
The Canes went 16-8-4 after their rock-bottom 5-1 loss to New Jersey on Dec. 3, but are 6-6-5 in the games Faulk has missed. Dogged in the defensive zone, Faulk also has 15 goals this season – tying his career high – and scored the first 12 on the power play, where his heavy shot was a weapon the Canes need.
“We hope to get him back soon,” Peters said. “He’ll be a big boost, not only on our five-on-five play but on the power play.”
Losing forward Andrej Nestrasil to a season-ending back injury Feb. 25 against the Toronto Maple Leafs was another blow. Nestrasil, who suffered a fractured vertebra, had joined center Jordan Staal and winger Joakim Nordstrom on what was becoming the Canes’ most effective line.
“A big injury that changed the dynamic of our team to a degree,” Peters said. “Now, we’re not as heavy. We don’t spend as much time in the offensive zone.”
Then came the trades, further reshaping the team. Eric Staal, the Canes’ captain since January 2010, was dealt Feb. 28 to the New York Rangers, and the trades of forward Kris Versteeg and defenseman John-Michael Liles soon followed.
The Canes are 3-1-4 since the Feb. 29 trade deadline, going 0-1-2 in three road games last week with PNC Arena hosting NCAA tournament games.
Faulk, who turned 24 on Sunday, said he probably should not have played in the Feb. 23 game against the Flyers and could have allowed his injured ankle more time to recover.
“At that point I think we were four points out (of playoff position),” he said. “Games are important at that point and I tried playing through it and things didn’t go as well as I wanted in that game and the next practice, too. It just didn’t look right and we took a look at it again and decided I should take some time off and let it heal.”
For a while, as games passed and Faulk was held out of practices and did not make Canes road trips, it appeared he might not return at all, that he might be shut down for the season. But apparently not.
“It’s always nice to see him back on the ice, skating around, and we miss a lot of his game,” Staal said. “It could really help us.”
Before Monday’s games, the Canes (31-27-14) were seven points behind the Detroit Red Wings, who held the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They also have Philadelphia and New Jersey ahead of them in the standings.
“Hopefully we can start getting some W’s,” Staal said Monday.
In truth, the Canes may need to all but run the table in their final 10 games. It has reached that point.