SAN JOSE -- It was a surprising development when Sharks center Logan Couture stepped out on the ice on Wednesday morning at the team’s practice facility.
It was even more extraordinary when Joe Thornton joined him just a few minutes later.
Despite the Sharks’ top two centers suffering what appeared to be gruesome injuries, as well as some mixed messaging from all sides since the injuries occurred, both could potentially be on their way to rejoining their teammates sooner than later.
Thornton said after lightly skating for about 25 minutes that there was “no doubt” that he would be in for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Wednesday or Thursday of next week, and even left open the possibility he could play on Thursday. Couture, who ruled himself out for Thursday, left open the chance that he could be back by next week.
There was speculation that Thornton suffered sprained ligaments – or worse – on Sunday in Vancouver, when replays showed his left knee bending the wrong direction after a collision with the Canucks’ Michael Chaput. The veteran center made his way back to the bench on one leg, and then collapsed behind it before he required help getting to the dressing room.
“I think I was just kind of nervous. That’s all that was,” Thornton said. “Don’t want to put too much pressure on it, just didn’t know what quite happened. The next morning I woke up, no swelling, no nothing. Probably like a bruise, I guess.”
Is he surprised to be back on the ice so quickly?
“I’m pretty optimistic about things so I never thought it was going to be too, too bad. The training staff didn’t think so either,” Thornton said. “[They] just kind of told me day-to-day type thing. I felt good today. It was good skating. We’ll see if it feels good [Thursday] morning.”
An MRI on Thornton’s knee on Monday revealed “everything was fine,” said Thornton, who wasn’t wearing a brace but was still slightly limping.
Sharks assistant coach Steve Spott, filling in for an ill Pete DeBoer, was asked if Thornton skating on Wednesday was an indication that the future Hall of Famer’s condition isn’t overly serious. He seemed to pull back the reigns a bit on Thornton’s optimism.
“Well, we hope so,” Spott said. “That’s up to our medical team and to Joe. Obviously he’s a critical part of our hockey club, and the sooner we can get him back, the better.”
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Couture skated for only about 10 minutes, wearing a full face shield to protect his significantly damaged mouth. That could put him ahead of schedule, as teammate Brenden Dillon said he thought the original timeframe on Couture was to get back on the ice “three or four weeks” after the injury occurred on March 25.
Couture said he has to get used to the extra protection, as he hasn’t worn a cage since he was a teenager.
“It’s not like a lower body or shoulder or anything like that, so it’s all about breathing and comfort – and, obviously, protection,” he said.
The biggest issue, other than still dealing with the pain, is seeing the puck.
“It’s tough to look down and find the puck on the ice,” Couture said. “But, that’s what I’m going to have to get used to. It’s all about protection right now, protecting my mouth area. That thing is going to do the job, so have to deal with it.”
He was less certain about Thornton that he would be ready for Game 1.
“I want to be back tomorrow if I could, but it’s just not realistic at this time,” Couture said. “We’re going to try to get back as soon as possible. I don’t know when that’s going to be. But, I hate watching games, and I’m going to try as best as I can to get back as soon as possible.”
In the meantime, the Sharks will host the Oilers on Thursday in what could be a potential first round preview, and close out the regular season on Saturday with Calgary. They’ll look to be better than they were on Tuesday against Vancouver, when jumped out to a 2-0 lead before essentially putting their game on cruise control in a 3-1 final.
Home ice in the first round will likely require winning both of their final two games.
“We’ve got to realize that we’re two games away from four games and you’re out,” Dillon said. “It’s got to be better for these last two.”