Zednik hopes for playoff return as condition improves

Florida Panthers right winger Richard Zednik is helped off the ice by a trainer and teammate Jassen Cullimore during the third period of a game against the Buffalo Sabres in Buffalo, N.Y. on Sunday. Buffalo won 5-3. Don Heupel, The Associated Press


Florida Panthers right winger Richard Zednik is helped off the ice by a trainer and teammate Jassen Cullimore during the third period of a game against the Buffalo Sabres in Buffalo, N.Y. on Sunday. Buffalo won 5-3. Don Heupel, The Associated Press

By Tim Reynolds

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – Upon hearing Richard Zednik’s recovery from a life-threatening neck laceration could last six to eight weeks, Olli Jokinen checked his calendar.

That would be playoff time in the NHL.

And suddenly, the Florida Panthers have a huge source of postseason motivation.

Zednik continued what some termed a remarkable recovery Tuesday, when his condition was upgraded to good and he was moved out of the intensive care unit at Buffalo General Hospital.

That was just two days after Jokinen’s razor-sharp skate blade sliced the 32-year-old forward’s neck, cutting his carotid artery and stopping just shy of his jugular vein.

As Zednik recovers, so do the Panthers, who returned to the ice Tuesday, albeit still somber and shaken, yet somewhat uplifted by the continued good reports about their teammate.

“We’ve got 24 games to go,” Jokinen said. “If we do our jobs, there is a possibility Richard’s going to play with us and join the team in the playoffs. The doctors say six to eight weeks … there’s a possibility he could play this year. So every game now, it’s going to be big, big for us.”

Zednik playing again this season is a real longshot. Doctors in Buffalo have already told him next year is the realistic return target.

Still, the notion just might be enough of a reason for the playoff-starved Panthers to have some hope.

“We have to set it aside now and play hockey,” said Florida defenseman Jassen Cullimore, who helped Zednik off the ice. “That’s what we do.”

The Panthers hope Zednik can travel home to South Florida by the weekend.

As he helped Zednik leave the ice, Cullimore didn’t fully understand the magnitude of the moment.

Then he looked down, and the shock hit him.

“I had blood splattered all over my shirt and my hands and everything,” Cullimore said. “It’s quite a shocking experience to see that much blood, and if I felt that way, I can just imagine how Richard felt.”

Knowing that Zednik – who can talk and is alert – is doing as well can be expected, the Panthers also felt a sense of some relief. Zednik isn’t believed to have suffered any long-term brain or nerve damage, and one surgeon described him as “very lucky.”

“It’s a sign of how good medicine can be and how good medical people can be,” Panthers coach Jacques Martin said.

The accident remains the dominant topic in the NHL.

When Jokinen’s skate hit Zednik’s neck, a significant amount of blood immediately began pouring from a 1 1/2-inch wound, leaving a wide, ghastly red trail on the ice. Zednik skated to the Panthers’ bench, desperate for help. His carotid artery – which carries blood to the brain – was nearly severed and emergency surgery that night at Buffalo General probably saved his life.

“Shows how tough the guy is,” Jokinen said. “He was able to skate to the bench, with the cut in his throat, losing blood like that. It was pretty amazing, you know?”

Zednik never lost consciousness. He actually complained that Sabres’ orthopedic surgeon Dr. Les Bisson was applying too much pressure to his neck in an effort to stop the bleeding.

By the time he reached the hospital, Zednik needed five units (roughly five pints) of blood, a figure that suggests one-third of the blood in his body gushed from the wound before bleeding could be controlled.

By all accounts, his recovery was going as well as could be expected.

Practice seemed normal Tuesday for the Panthers, who had a team meeting before the 60-minute workout, filled with all the usual skating and puck handling and shooting drills.

Rob Globke, who was called up from Florida’s AHL affiliate in Rochester to fill Zednik’s roster spot, was with the team for the session.

A 12-year veteran, Zednik had 15 goals and 11 assists in 54 games this season, his first with the Panthers, and was clearly playing his best hockey of the season.

He didn’t manage a single point over 16 games – spanning 361 shifts and 4 hours, 32 minutes of on-ice time – between Dec. 28 and Feb. 1. But he had six goals and three assists in the four games that preceded Sunday’s game in Buffalo, giving the Panthers a clear boost as the team tries to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000.

“It’s not like he wasn’t having some scoring chances,” Martin said. “They just weren’t going in. Suddenly they started going in, and there’s no doubt that the last two weeks that line had been very productive for our hockey team.”

The Panthers entered Tuesday in fourth place in the Southeast Division, two points behind Washington for first place and the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff standings.

Montreal visits Florida on Wednesday night.