Defenseman returns after two months

Originally Published: June 3, 2004
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

TAMPA -- On Thursday morning, just hours before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, Calgary Flames defenseman Toni Lydman and assistant coach Jim Playfair stood together on the ice at the then-empty St. Pete Times Forum. Playfair was briefing Lydman on the opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Lydman needed the refresher course because he hadn't played in the first four games of the final series. In fact, he hadn't played at all since April 11, when he suffered his second concussion in less than a month during an opening-round loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

Finally, after almost two months of watching, Lydman was just about ready to get back in the game. But there was one more hurdle for the Finnish-born defenseman.

"In this situation, it's the player's call," Playfair said after the Flames' 3-2 overtime win moved them to within one victory of the Stanley Cup. "We didn't know for sure until after the pregame skate."

Lydman, who missed the final 10 games of the regular season after suffering his first concussion on March 14 in St. Louis, wanted to be sure.

"The decision was made just after the warmup," Lydman said. "It was really good to get back in the lineup after watching for so long."

And, as luck would have it, Lydman had an immediate impact on the game, assisting on the game's first goal -- a power play tally by left wing Martin Gelinas at the 2:13 mark of the first period.

"It wasn't much of a shot," Lydman said. "Marty made a good play and the puck found a way into the net."

Veteran defenseman Rhett Warrener, who was on the losing end in two previous appearances in the Cup finals, felt the early power play chance helped his teammate get his skates under him.

"For him to get out there in that situation and have some early success, I think that gave him some confidence going forward in the game," Warrener said. "He has been a big part of our team, so it was good to finally get him back."

For Lydman to get back into the lineup, someone had to come out. That someone was red-haired blueliner Mike Commodore, who received just 2:46 of ice time in Game 4. Despite the disappointment of the demotion, Commodore offered Lydman some words of encouragement before the game.

"He was great," Lydman said. "We talked and it made me feel even better about getting back in."

By the end of the night, including the overtime, Lydman logged 16:47 of ice time on 23 shifts. Not bad for a guy who hadn't played in nearly two months.

"I felt pretty good considering the time I took off," Lydman said. "The legs were there. I felt a little bit rusty, but I think the adrenaline took care of that."

Obviously, Flames head coach Darryl Sutter was happy to have one of his regular defenders back on the blue line.

"He's one of those high-end skill guys that we missed," said Sutter, who told the media after the morning skate that Lydman would probably not play in Game 5. "It's hard to believe that he missed 20 games in the playoffs. So to step back in with only four days of practice was important for us."

Playfair was impressed with Lydman's performance under adverse conditions.

"I thought he managed his ice well," Playfair said. "He tried to take short shifts and keep things simple. We knew he could step in and do it because he's a pretty smart player.

"The fact that he gave us 16 minutes in a big playoff game was huge. I mean, he's a solid NHL player. It's not easy to replace what he brings to the table."

Changing faces

The Lydman-for-Commodore switch wasn't the only lineup change for Game 5.

The Flames also added 39-year-old veteran left wing Dave Lowry, replacing suspended left wing Ville Nieminen. Lowry received 12:08 of ice time on 23 shifts.

On the other bench, defenseman Pavel Kubina (headaches) and left wing Ruslan Fedotenko (facial injuries) returned to action after missing Game 4. Kubina led all Lightning defensemen with 27:19 of ice time. His return was a gametime decision.

Fedotenko returned without the benefit of the protective cage he wore during the morning skate. He didn't feel comfortable with the added headgear. He finished with 19:06 of ice time.

To accommodate the return of Kubina and Fedotenko, banged-up right wing Cory Stillman watched from the stands. Stillman missed Game 4 of the club's first-round series against the Islanders with a hip injury. He's day-to-day.

Coach John Tortorella also decided to scratch defenseman Brad Lukowich, who has struggled in recent games. Defenseman Nolan Pratt paired with Dan Boyle, who has been Lukowich's usual partner.

Unusual suspects
After the game, Tortorella wasn't too happy with his team's performance in a big spot. He did offer a little backhand praise for his fourth line.

"If Martin Cibak, Chris Dingman and Ben Clymer is your best line, it's simply not going to happen for you," Tortorella said. "No offense to them -- they played pretty well."

Tortorella said the loss could be chalked up to simple math.

"You are not going to win in the finals playing a 40 minutes like we played tonight," he said. "When the other team simply wins all the battles in the first 40 minutes, it comes back and grabs you."

Center Vinny Lecavalier had a bit of a tough night, finishing a minus-2. It was Lecavalier's neutral-zone turnover that eventually led to the winning goal. Without mentioning names, Tortorella acknowledged the play.

"We turned it over in the neutral zone and they rammed it down our throat," he said.

Donovan done?

Flames right wing Shean Donovan appeared to suffer an injury to his right knee during a second period collision with Lightning defenseman Jassen Cullimore. He left the ice under his own power, but returned for just one more shift before calling it a night.

Afterward, Sutter made this statement: "He has got a charley horse, honestly."

Of course, Sutter also said that Ville Nieminen didn't make the trip to Tampa after being suspended by the league.

If Donovan can't dress for Game 6, Nieminen will take his place and Lowry will remain in the lineup.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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