GABRIEL'S RETURN EXPECTED TO PLAY BIG ROLE IN IOWA'S PLAYOFF RACEFeb 9, 2018
By Tom Witosky | Follow @toskyAHLWild
When Kurtis Gabriel takes the ice this weekend for Iowa Wild, his smile will tell the story of what it feels like to get back in the game.
“It really feels good to be back and part of the team,” the 24-year-old forward said Thursday. “I’ve been spending way too much time by myself and the physio people.”
Gabriel is expected to get plenty of ice time as the Wild takes on two division rivals, Chicago and Rockford, and San Antonio over the next four days. For Gabriel, it will be his first home-ice game since he sustained a serious injury when his wrist was cut accidently by an opponent’s skate blade on Nov. 17.
The cut injured a nerve in Gabriel’s wrist that required his arm to be immobilized for nearly two months. During that time, Gabriel spent much of his time working out with one arm in the Wild’s weight room.
“It’s not been a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s hard because you just don’t feel a part of the team really because you can’t even practice with them.”
Gabriel returned to the ice last weekend during the Wild’s recent California road trip and received a good assessment from Coach Derek Lalonde.
“I am really happy with his two games,” Lalonde said. “He went right back to his identity when he got on the ice. He played smart and had a huge impact in both games.”
“I felt better than I thought I would. Obviously, the first game is always a little bit faster and more tiring than you expect, but I won my puck battles and did the simple things,” he said. “I really thought it carried over in the second game and I felt a lot better.”
Gabriel said part of the reason he returned in better shape was due to the coaching staff of the Des Moines Buccaneers who agreed to allow Gabriel to practice with the team during the AHL All-Star break.
“I really want to thank them for letting me practice for a few days,” Gabriel said. “It was great for me to be able to pass the puck and work on drills with them when everyone else was off.”
Lalonde said Gabriel’s practicing with the Buccaneers helped him at an important moment.
“He had just gotten cleared when the All-Star break happened and they were nice enough to let him practice with them,” Lalonde said.
With the Wild in a tight race with four other Central Division teams for a playoff spot, Lalonde said Gabriel’s return to the ice will be important to the Wild’s chances as games become more physical and tight checking.
“I honestly think it will go down to the last game of the year,” the veteran coach said. “It is unbelievably competitive and every team in the playoff hunt is improving its roster. We need to elevate our game as well.”
Lalonde said Gabriel and defenseman Hunter Warner will be key players in helping the Wild to meet the challenge of more close-checking physical games as the season comes to a close with a hot playoff race.
“Every game is going to mean something important,” Lalonde said. “Fact is we are already having playoff-caliber games and we have just started the second half of the season.”
Gabriel said he is looking forward to the challenge, but right now he just wants to get back on the home ice.
“I’ve got a good sense of how the teams will play and it is going to be harder and heavier,” Gabriel said. “I feel a lot better about my game and I just hope it carries over this weekend.”