The timing is good, and the timing is challenging, all at once for Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz.
He is recovering from a broken leg and probably will return to the lineup at some point this month. He had a full practice with the team Thursday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex but wore a non-contact jersey.
Schultz got hurt Oct. 13, when the season was just days old. He will return during the intense stretch run of the season with the Penguins making a push to secure a playoff spot and perhaps home ice.
“I’ve missed a long time. It think it’s the longest I’ve ever gone in my life without skating,” Schultz said. “And then you add in it’s the NHL and I’m coming back in the playoff race and everyone’s ramping it up now. It’s going to be difficult, but that’s what you put all the work in practice and off the ice for.”
Schultz participated in drills and got in some work on the second power-play unit during the formal part of practice, which was about 40 minutes. He stayed on the ice for some extra work.
“It was good to have him back for a full practice, out there with us, smiling,” fellow defenseman Brian Dumoulin said.
“He’s such a great puck-mover. He fits our system perfect, moving the puck up to the forwards and jumping up in the play and supporting it. He also can play defense pretty well, so he’s just a good all-round defenseman.”
Coach Mike Sullivan, who called Schultz joining the team for the morning skate Wednesday a large step, said participating in a full off-day practice was even more meaningful for the defenseman and his teammates.
“It’s great,” Sullivan said. “And the enthusiasm and the energy is contagious. I think ‘Schultzie’ is excited to be on the ice. He’s excited to be around his teammates. That’s what drives them. When it’s taken away from you, sometimes you appreciate it a little bit more when you get back into the environment.”
You bet, Schultz said.
“It’s been a long time,” he said. “It’s not fun being in rehab by yourself and skating by yourself. It’s good to be with the team. That’s why you love this game – being around your teammates.”
Schultz is not predicting when he will play. The original time frame was four months, which would put him back in two weeks.
“Each day you do notice a little bit of improvement, and that’s what you want,” he said. “It’s not going to get better overnight. It’s a pretty serious injury. As long as there’s no step back, then it’s all good.”
But lately there have been bigger steps in his recovery.
“That was the first real practice,” Schultz said. “It wasn’t much, but it was good to get out there and do reactionary stuff, not just set drills, and test it out that way. It felt pretty good. It’s getting exciting getting closer.
“It’s been really slow. The first couple months were slow. It’s starting to pick up now that I’m with the team most of the time now and skating and everything. It’s getting (more fun) now to be closer to returning.”