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Sami Salo's return to practice a boost for Canucks blue-line

VANCOUVER, B.C. - The Vancouver Canucks got one of their quiet leaders back Monday when defenceman Sami Salo participated in his first full practice in a week.

Salo scored a game-winner with three assists in the first three games of a first-round sweep of the St. Louis Blues, before missing the series finale.

He was sidelined with what was vaguely described as a lower-body injury. Or general body soreness, the same ailment that caused defence partner Willie Mitchell to miss practice again Monday.

Fellow blue-liner Kevin Bieksa welcomed Salo's return, saying he'll make the Canucks better in many ways as Vancouver awaits its opponent in a best-of-seven, second-round series.

"He's played well for us all season but, much like a few other guys, he stepped his game up in the playoffs," Bieksa said in an interview.

"He's got the big shot teams have to respect and he's shooting the puck now."

But staying in the lineup has been a problem for the 34-year-old Salo in his six seasons in Vancouver. Three groin pulls and a broken rib cost him 22 games this season, alone.

Last year began with a wrist fracture in training camp, followed by a broken nose when he was a hit by teammate Alex Edler's shot. That meant 19 games on the shelf for Salo, who has never played a full 82 games in his 10-year NHL career.

In 2006-07 he missed 15 games with groin strains, knee and shoulder problems. He didn't miss a start in 2005-06 until a shoulder injury ended his season at 59 games.

It's not just the injury bug. The flu bug cost him the final two games of Vancouver's second-round playoff loss to Anaheim in 2007.

But the stoic Salo soldiers on.

"It's been frustrating but it only gives you a reason to work extra hard," he said of his litany of broken bones and muscle strains.

"It's never easy to miss any games. In the playoffs it's even tougher. You can't do anything from the pressbox to help the guys."

But he does help them in a quiet way on the ice.

"I try to lead by example," said Salo who was the third-last player drafted in 1996 (239th overall and obtained from Ottawa in a 2002 trade for Peter Schaefer). "I'm not really a vocal guy in the locker-room."

Coach Alain Vigneault said Salo brings a lot to his shutdown pairing with Mitchell, who is expected to return to practice Tuesday.

"Defensively he's big, he's strong, he's very good one-on-one," Vigneault said.

"But as soon as there's a loose puck and he can get to it, he can beat a forecheck with a pass or by beating their first guy on the forecheck. We spend less time in our zone because of his ability to make that good first pass."

Added defenceman Shane O'Brien: "Every now and then he'll throw a nice surprising hit, so we're lucky to have him."

There was some hitting in Monday's practice as the Canucks stepped up their intensity level preparing for their Western Conference semifinal opponent.

Bieksa and Ryan Kesler exchanged words and bumps after Kesler cross-checked the defenceman during a scrimmage.

"As far as us getting ready for games and getting ready for the next series, we know exactly what we have to do," Vigneault said of his club that could have 11 days off after eliminating the Blues.

"The only thing we're not quite sure of right now is who our opponent's going to be."

Bieksa said the layoff has been difficult.

"Physically you feel pretty good right now but (the challenge is) to stay focused." Goalkeeper Roberto Luongo felt relief that the end of the wait is in sight.

"We know we're going to be starting later on this week so your adrenaline gets going and you start bearing down and realizing we're a few days away," he said. "Right now we feel like we're back to normal pace." Notes: Winger Taylor Pyatt participated in his first full practice since his fiance, Carly Bragnalo, was killed April 2 in a car crash in Jamaica. ... Vigneault said Pyatt should be ready if he's needed "in the next couple of days." ... Eric Wellwood, brother of Canucks centre Kyle Wellwood, leads the Windsor Spitfires into the Ontario Hockey League final against the Brampton Battalion, led by Cody Hodgson, Vancouver's first-round pick in the 2008 entry draft.


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