In what surely will be well-received news to Pittsburgh Penguins fans, center Teddy Blueger looks likely to return from jaw surgery Tuesday when the Florida Panthers visit PPG Paints Arena.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan acknowledged after practice Monday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex that Blueger will be a game-time decision. That nearly always means that Blueger is expected to play barring some sort of unforeseen issue arising.
“I feel really good,” Blueger said. “As far as practice, I’ve done everything I would have needed to do to feel comfortable getting back into a game situation.”
Blueger is primarily the Penguins’ fourth-line center, although he has filled in at times on the third line and seems perfectly fine there, too. His value as a solid two-way forward, top penalty-killer and accomplished faceoff man who can mix in some offense has made him a fan favorite, judging from the responses to his absence and reports about his recovery stages.
He got hurt Jan. 23 when he was hit into the boards by Brenden Dillon of Winnipeg. He had surgery on his broken jaw, with recovery time said to be six to eight weeks. We are at the six-week point. He started practicing without contact restrictions last week.
Asked if he might have any hesitancy coming off the injury, Blueger waved it off.
“You don’t really know for sure until you get into that situation, but I don’t think so,” he said. “I think everything I’ve done leading up to it – all the contact (in practice) – has felt really good. I do have that extra layer of protection with the (jaw protection) bubble.”
Blueger, 27, from Latvia, was a second-round pick by the Penguins at the 2012 draft and, on a team more known for its star players, has become an integral part of the lineup. This season, he has eight goals, 17 points in 40 games and was part of the penalty-killing unit earlier this season when it led the NHL for a good stretch.
At practice Monday, Blueger participated in drills at the fourth-line center spot, and the Penguins made some adjustments based on that.
In particular, Brock McGinn skated on Blueger’s right wing, with Zach Aston-Reese still on the left side; Dominik Simon moved to the third line with Jeff Carter and Evan Rodrigues; and Brian Boyle seemed to be the odd man out. (As an aside, Boyle has been all the Penguins wanted and more, reliable, physical, but when healthy the team’s center position is deep.)
It’s not set in stone that that will be the look the team goes with Tuesday if Blueger plays, but it speaks to his importance in getting back into the lineup.
“He adds so much versatility to our lineup,” Penguins top-line winger Bryan Rust said. “He’s a guy who plays a lot of minutes in our (defensive) zone because we gets a lot of faceoffs there. He does an unbelievable job.
“We rely on him a lot. If the opportunity comes to get him back (Tuesday), it’s going to be really nice.”
Blueger said he will take on whatever role the coaches ask when he returns, including his regular tasks and ice time.
“It will probably take a couple shifts to get acquainted with the pace and all that stuff,” Blueger said.
He also almost surely will have to continue to wear the clunky jaw protector at least initially in games. That, historically, has not been very popular with players who have needed to wear one, but Blueger mostly shrugged it off.
“Obviously, you can see a lot different with just a visor on,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to get back to that soon, but I’ve had plenty of time in practice to kind of get used to it. It does kind of fog up a little bit, and the little squares on the bottom of it don’t help you see the puck any better. But we all played with that stuff on (in lower levels of hockey) our whole life growing up, and it was fine. I think it’s just something you get used to.”