Defenseman Michal Jordan, who has missed the last six games, is cleared for contact and practiced with the team without limitations on Tuesday for the first time since suffering an injury in Toronto on Nov. 16. That gives him a few days to prepare to face the Rockford IceHogs, which he acknowledges are needed.
“Today was a little bit tough, but it’s part of a process,” said Jordan. “When you’ve been out for a while you have to work back into shape. You have to get a couple of bumps and make sure the injury is feeling good and that you’re confident with battles.”
The 23-year-old defenseman who played in his first AHL All-Star Game last season said that the nature of the injury, still undisclosed, is somewhat unusual, which made the recovery process somewhat unpredictable in its early stages. The same was true of his broken ankle last season, an injury similar though clearly not as severe as the one that will end up costing Carolina Hurricanes’ defenseman Joni Pitkanen over a calendar year at the very least.
As such, he feels fortunate that he’s looking at somewhere close to three weeks on the sidelines after a vicious hit into the boards from Toronto’s Jamie Devane, one that earned the Marlies forward a one-game suspension.
“In this type of season you don’t want to be missing games so that sucks, but it’s good it wasn’t longer term,” he said.
Coach Jeff Daniels will certainly be happy to have him back, not only for what he does but for the impact he’ll have on the rest of the lineup.
“He’s a go-to guy back there in all situations and another guy that can play some minutes,” said Daniels. “That cuts down on a little bit on (Rasmus) Rissanen and (Danny) Biega, who are playing extremely well but probably playing too many minutes. He’s a guy that can handle more minutes and that slots other guys more into the position where they need to be right now.
“It’s no different when you lose Chris Terry up top or even Manny Malhotra,” added Daniels, referring to players who began in Charlotte but have spent significant time in Carolina. “You don’t realize how much they’re a part of your team when you lose them. Michal is a big piece of our puzzle.”
Daniels’ desire to balance the ice time was no knock on Biega, the 22-year-old rookie who had been paired with Jordan prior to the injury and was paired with him again on Tuesday. The Harvard University product added some power-play time to an already extensive early-season resume when Jordan got hurt.
“He’s earned it, without a doubt,” said Daniels of Biega’s workload. “He’s come in and earned those hard minutes against top lines and killing penalties. He can do a good job on the power play but we’ve got to make sure we’re not giving him too much.
“He’s a little older coming out of college and he’s very mature and focused in what he needs to do. He’s been a real, real positive for us.”
Due to his four years in college, Biega’s rookie label is something of a misnomer for a player just three months younger than Rissanen, who is in his third pro season. That said, there are still adjustments to be made but they’re happening quickly, particularly during a stretch in which Biega feels he took a step back with the rest of the team during its 2-9-0 November.
“It’s been a learning curve, and it’s crazy how much I’ve learned in 20 games,” said Biega, the Hurricanes’ third-round pick in 2010. “It’s a lot of defensive stuff like how to handle 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s. Geordie (Kinnear, the Checkers’ assistant coach), has been great about teaching me things like that and the art of being patient and knowing when to be aggressive.”
Coping with a tough stretch for the team has also been an eye-opener.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned so far is that every mistake, or most of them, are going to get capitalized on,” he said.
That’s more or less how things are going for the Checkers at the moment. In each of their last four losses, they’ve been tied early in the third period only to come away without a single point. That includes Sunday’s 2-1 setback against Milwaukee, in which Daniels estimated that the Checkers allowed just two scoring chances in the final 20 minutes, both of which came on the same play and one of which resulted in the winning goal.
“It is what it is right now,” said Daniels. “The last five games we’ve been pretty consistent but we’re two and three, which is not where we want to be. We’re not finding a way to win right now, whether it’s not getting a clutch goal at the right time or a big save or a big kill. It’s just not happening right now.”
The Checkers hope that things will begin to turn their way during the upcoming two-game set against Rockford, a team responsible for two of their three victories since Halloween. Though the team will be without center Sean Dolan and perhaps Justin Shugg, who left Tuesday’s practice after a hard crash into the boards and did not return, the possibility of having Jordan in the lineup should give them a boost, even if they believe things were already trending in the right direction.
“It’s a frustrating thing, but at the same time it lights a fire under our (butts) to get going, come to the rink and keep working,” said Biega. “I’ve been on other teams where things weren’t going well and spirits were lower, but we’re confident that we’re a good team and it’s just a matter of piecing it together.”