March 28, 2012 1:31 PM
Even though they recently suffered another injury at forward, the Checkers can at least take some solace in knowing that their defense is nearly intact.
On Wednesday, rookie Justin Krueger, who quietly emerged as one of the team’s more dependable blueliners over the course of the season, practiced fully with the team for the first time since suffering an upper-body injury on Feb. 18. He could possibly return as soon as the team’s next game in Grand Rapids on Friday, though that’s not a sure thing.
“He’s right on track, but we’re just going to see how he responds to being out there,” said coach Jeff Daniels.
In addition to going through the same drills as other players throughout the session, Krueger also went through some extra tests that included a series of battles along the boards with Brody Sutter, who just happens to be one of the larger players on the team. Despite that challenge, Krueger reported no ill effects.
“We’ll take it one day at a time, but right now I feel like I’m ready,” said Krueger. “They’ve eased me in slowly, and now I’m at the point where I can do everything. I’m excited to be coming back soon.”
Krueger is far and away the team’s plus/minus leader at plus-13. The next highest players, not to mention the only other active Checkers with a positive rating, are Justin Shugg at plus-5 and Zac Dalpe at plus-1. Though scoring goals has been a bigger problem than preventing them, the team has won just three of 13 games since Krueger left the lineup.
“In the last few, we’ve out-shot the other teams and been better, but then we’re not happy with the final score,” said Krueger. “What it shows is that we have the potential to beat any team.”
For the last month, Krueger had been on the ice with the team but usually as a lonely figure doing skating drills at the other end. After some time spent doing solitary suicides, he’d then stay out for an extra 30 minutes or so for one-on-one work with coaches – a grueling stretch that should ensure his legs are at least up to speed.
“The coaches made sure I’m in good shape mentally and physically,” he said. “At the beginning it was tough mentally because I knew I was going to have a long road and I was feeling down, but it helped to set goals for myself.”
One of those goals was returning for this specific weekend, which now seems to be a distinct possibility.
“It’s tough to be out of the lineup and watch the team go through certain tough times, but we have a great team here,” he said. “When the chemistry is there we’re very strong, and I’m excited to come back and contribute.”
Should Krueger return and the roster stay otherwise intact, the Checkers would have no choice but to remove fellow rookie Joe Sova from the lineup. Sova is not on the team’s Clear Day roster and is only eligible to play in emergency situations, such as the one that would be alleviated by Krueger’s return, for the remainder of the season and playoffs.
Other than Krueger, forwards Nicolas Blanchard and Justin Soryal also missed the team’s last game due to injury. Blanchard is out indefinitely and will not play this weekend, while Soryal is out for the season. The only other player not at the Checkers’ disposal is forward Drayson Bowman, who remains with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.