CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – Upon hearing Richard Zednik’s recovery from a life-threatening neck laceration could last six to eight weeks, Olli Jokinen checked his calendar.
That would be playoff time in the NHL. And suddenly, the Florida Panthers have a huge source of post-season motivation.
Zednik continued what some termed a remarkable recovery Tuesday, when his condition was upgraded to good and he was moved out of the intensive care unit at Buffalo General Hospital. That was just two days after Jokinen’s razor-sharp skate blade sliced the 32-year-old forward’s neck, cutting his carotid artery and stopping just shy of his jugular vein.
As Zednik recovers, so do the Panthers, who returned to the ice Tuesday, albeit still sombre and shaken, yet somewhat uplifted by the continued good reports about their teammate.
“We’ve got 24 games to go,” Jokinen said. “If we do our jobs, there is a possibility Richard’s going to play with us and join the team in the playoffs. The doctors say six to eight weeks … there’s a possibility he could play this year. So every game now, it’s going to be big, big for us.”
Zednik playing again this season is a real longshot. Doctors in Buffalo have already told him next year is the realistic return target, and on Tuesday, Dr. Sonya Noor – who operated on the forward Sunday night – said she’s recommending he not resume strenuous activity for three months.
Still, the notion just might be enough of a reason for the playoff-starved Panthers to have some hope.
“We have to set it aside now and play hockey,” said Florida defenceman Jassen Cullimore, who helped Zednik off the ice. “That’s what we do.”
The Panthers hope Zednik can travel home to South Florida by the weekend.
He has a photo of his four-year-old daughter at his hospital bedside, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has phoned to check on Zednik’s condition and progress.
“He is awake and in good spirits,” Noor said. “He has minimal neck swelling, or discomfort. He is speaking quite well. His voice is not hoarse. He’s hungry. He wanted eggs for breakfast.”
Noor said Zednik will be asked to sit up and walk a few steps over the next couple days, and if he can do those things, a discharge plan will be discussed.
Knowing that Zednik – who can talk and is alert – is doing as well can be expected, the Panthers also felt a sense of relief. Zednik isn’t believed to have suffered any long-term brain or nerve damage, and one surgeon described him as “very lucky.”
“It’s a sign of how good medicine can be and how good medical people can be,” Panthers coach Jacques Martin said.
The accident remains the dominant topic in the NHL, and to Clint Malarchuk – a goaltender whose neck was slashed in a similar incident in a game at Buffalo in 1989 – it resonated deeply. He won’t watch the Zednik incident, but has offered to meet with Zednik to talk about anything that’s on his mind.
“For any players who are traumatized like this, it’s pretty gruesome,” Malarchuk said.
When Jokinen’s skate hit Zednik’s neck, a significant amount of blood immediately began pouring from a four-centimetre wound, leaving a wide red trail on the ice. Zednik skated to the Panthers’ bench. His carotid artery – which carries blood to the brain – was nearly severed and emergency surgery that night at Buffalo General probably saved his life.
“Shows how tough the guy is,” Jokinen said. “He was able to skate to the bench, with the cut in his throat, losing blood like that. It was pretty amazing, you know?”
Zednik never lost consciousness. He actually complained that Sabres’ orthopedic surgeon Dr. Les Bisson was applying too much pressure to his neck in an effort to stop the bleeding.
By the time he reached the hospital, Zednik needed five units (roughly three litres) of blood, a figure that suggests he had lost one-third of the blood in his body.
“I think he will come back someday and play if that’s what he chooses to do,” Noor said.
Practice seemed normal Tuesday for the Panthers, who had a team meeting before the 60-minute workout, filled with all the usual skating and puck handling and shooting drills. Rob Globke, who was called up from Florida’s AHL affiliate in Rochester to fill Zednik’s roster spot, was with the team for the session.
A 12-year veteran, Zednik had 15 goals and 11 assists in 54 games this season, his first with the Panthers.
He didn’t manage a single point over 16 games between Dec. 28 and Feb. 1. But he had six goals and three assists in the four games that preceded Sunday’s game in Buffalo, giving the Panthers a clear boost as the team tries to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
“It’s not like he wasn’t having some scoring chances,” Martin said. “They just weren’t going in. Suddenly they started going in, and there’s no doubt that the last two weeks that line had been very productive for our hockey team.”
Entering Tuesday’s games, the Panthers were in fourth place in the Southeast Division, two points behind Washington for first place and the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff standings.
Montreal visits Florida on Wednesday night.
AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and Associated Press Writer Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this story.