VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks have finally received some good news from their battered blue-line corps.
Dan Hamhuis, one of five key defencemen injured during the last four weeks, will play Monday against the visiting Montreal Canadiens after missing five games with a concussion.
And Keith Ballard, out seven games with a knee sprain, could also suit up.
“For any team, it’s big to get a top D-man or a forward back,” Sami Salo, no stranger to the injury bug himself, said after Monday’s practice.
“(Hamhuis) moves the puck well, plays against the other team’s top line, shuts them down. He’s pretty good offensively as well so he’s a big part of this team.”
Hamhuis, a six-foot-one, 209-pound native of Smithers, B.C., is coming off a third career concussion but surprised team doctors with his quick recovery.
He was crushed into the end glass Feb. 9 by Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks and lay unconscious on the ice for about half a minute.
It was the hardest hit of the three that produced concussions.
“The others were just little knocks to the head but I felt way worse the next day,” said Hamhuis, who signed as a free agent to join Kevin Bieksa on the Canucks’shutdown pair.
“It was a quick recovery, considering. I was quite symptom free most of the time, just dealing with some minor head pressure.
“The doctors have been a little bit surprised about how quickly things have moved along but I’m certainly happy about it.”
Hamhuis agreed with Salo that injuries bring mental strain along with the physical pain.
“It’s an injury that’s always in the back of your mind, especially coming back off of one,” Hamhuis said.
“It’s an injury that nobody wants. An arm breaks or gets sore you can fix that up. Heads are a little different story.”
The Canucks have clung to the top spot in the NHL despite the roster presence in the medical room.
There are no projected return dates for Bieksa, who has missed two games with a foot fracture, Andrew Alberts, out three games with a broken wrist or Alex Edler, sidelined 11 games by back surgery.
Edler, who developed a more physical game in the playoffs last spring, is a key component of the Vancouver power play with eight goals and 24 assists.
Forwards Mikael Samuelsson and Mason Raymond have manned the points in his absence.
Bieksa is having his best season, leading the NHL at plus-26 goals playing at even strength.
Alberts, a trade deadline pickup last season, has become more comfortable with his teammates.
Lee Sweatt, called up from the AHL Manitoba Moose to help plug the holes, soon found himself in the infirmary and has missed seven games with a foot injury.
Salo was on the shelf for the first 55 games of the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered playing floorball in the off-season in Finland.
Still, the Canucks have found a way to stay two points ahead of Philadelphia for the overall lead, have a five-point cushion on Detroit atop the Western Conference and are 15 ahead of surging Calgary in the Northwest Division.
“We’re not changing our game plan because we’re missing a couple of guys back there,” said rugged centre Ryan Kesler. “That was the biggest thing last game (Saturday’s 5-2 win over Dallas).
“We made plays, held the puck for most of the game and got a lot of shots on net.
“It’s tough right now missing a couple of key D-men but we’ve got guys back there that can play. They’re very reliable, they want to make plays. The biggest thing is we’re very deep and it’s something we have to go through right now.”
The Canucks have been getting through it with minor-league call-ups Chris Tanev, Yann Sauve and Evan Oberg. Sauve’s season was delayed by a concussion suffered when he was hit by a car on a Vancouver street.
But Tanev, who was playing Junior A in Ontario two years ago, has shown poise with the puck and has averaged 14:28 over 14 games.
It also doesn’t hurt that Daniel Sedin (77 points) and brother Henrik (72) are one-three in NHL scoring and that the Canucks have the league’s best power play and rank fourth in penalty kills.
“The young guys coming in have done a really good job,” said Hamhuis. “Our forwards have been a little more conscious of their defensive responsibilities as well.”
Ballard, acquired in an off-season trade with Florida, said he didn’t think he’d be pushing the envelope if he returned Tuesday.
“I’ve sat out long enough,” Ballard said after his first practice since the injury. “If I’m healthy and can play, I don’t see any reason why not.”
NOTES: With Hamhuis’s return, the Canucks assigned Oberg to the AHL Manitoba Moose. They also recalled centre Cody Hodgson who coach Alain Vigneault described as another fourth-line option before next week’s trade deadline. . . Hodgson scored his first NHL goal in a five-game call-up earlier this season.