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April 11, 2006 - Primeau may return for playoffs

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Primeau may return for playoffs
 
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

By CHUCK GORMLEY
Courier-Post Staff

VOORHEES

If it is true that Keith Primeau's actions speak louder than his words, the Flyers captain could be back in uniform sometime during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Despite cautionary comments from Primeau, Ken Hitchcock, Bob Clarke and head athletic trainer Jim McCrossin, Primeau on Monday participated in his first full practice with the Flyers since leaving the lineup with a concussion 68 games ago Oct. 28.

"Obviously, I feel better than I have," Primeau said after killing penalties and throwing a few light body checks. "It's a huge hurdle for me and I feel really good. By no means does it change anything that I stated earlier. I'm just taking it one day at a time."

At a press conference Feb. 28, Primeau, 34, announced he would not be returning to the Flyers' lineup this season, saying doctors told him returning to the ice while still experiencing post-concussion symptoms could, in a worst-case scenario, result in a stroke.

But he also said doctors would consider allowing him to play in the playoffs if he went four weeks without post-concussion symptoms.

"I'm not going back on the comments I made in my press conference," Primeau said on Monday. "At this point in time there is no way I can make that kind of decision or assumption (on the playoffs). That's a long way off.

"My head will have to feel a lot better than it did today when I was out there. My legs felt somewhat decent, but my head still felt like it was about a foot behind."

McCrossin said most of the spinning and headaches Primeau experienced early in his rehab are gone, but he still has trouble focusing on objects after high-impact workouts. For instance, if Primeau looks down at the floor, then quickly jerks his head to focus on an object down the hallway, the object appears fuzzy.

Still, McCrossin is encouraged by Primeau's progress and is not ruling out a return for the playoffs.

"Is there a chance? Obviously there's a chance," McCrossin said. "You never want to eliminate the chance. But it's a long shot."

McCrossin acknowledged that if Primeau's focus was on returning to the Flyers in September, as he stated in his Feb. 28 press conference, he wouldn't be participating in a full practice less than two weeks before the playoffs.

"We discussed it and we're going to exhaust all efforts and try to do it," McCrossin said. "If it fails, it fails. If it doesn't, it's more power to us."

More specifically, it's more power to the Flyers' ailing penalty kill, which allowed a season-high five power-play goals in a 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. In that loss, centers Mike Richards and Michal Handzus lost several key draws in the defensive zone. Killing penalties and winning faceoffs are two of Primeau's greatest strengths.

"Our main focus is on the guys that we have playing right now," Flyers center Petr Nedved said. "And if Preems gets better that would be a huge lift, a huge bonus."

In the unlikely event that Primeau is medically cleared to play before the end of the regular season, the Flyers would need to make room for his $3,166,700 salary under the NHL's $39 million cap. There is no cap for the playoffs.

Clarke said the club has room under the cap because of long-term injuries to defensemen Kim Johnsson and Chris Therien (both sidelined indefinitely with concussions) and would make room for Primeau if he is cleared to play within the next seven days. The regular season ends one week from tonight against the Islanders.

"We've got to add it all up," Clarke said. "Until he tells me he and the doctors have agreed he can play I'm not even going to worry about it. Whether we can spring enough money to get him into any games or not I don't know. I haven't even thought about it because we've been under the assumption he's not going to play."

Hitchcock is still under that assumption. He said he honored Primeau's request to practice with the team because he felt he owed it to his captain after all of the work he's put in during his rehab. But Hitchcock backed off when asked if he thought he could pencil Primeau into his lineup when the Flyers open the playoffs in about 10 days.

"Don't even go there," Hitchcock said. "He skated with us for one hockey practice. He enjoyed himself out there and it was good to have him back on the ice. But this is light years away from even thinking about playing ice hockey competitively again. Hopefully, he gets the chance to join us sometime down the line. We'll see. It's strictly Keith's call.

"You're talking about 10 or 12 more steps that an athlete has to make and this is step one, which is nine steps before he can even think about playing. That could be months; it could be a year. Who knows?"

Derian Hatcher, who was named Flyers interim captain in place of Primeau on Jan. 29, said Primeau's participation in full practices will not cause a distraction.

"It's not an issue and it's not a dilemma," Hatcher said. "But I will say it is tough to come back. He hasn't played for two years and coming in at the end of the year is not that easy to do when everyone's been playing a full season."

Primeau said if he sees his return to practices becoming a distraction he will begin working out on his own.

"If that's the case then I'll stop right now because the focus can't be on me," he said. "It's gotta be on the guys in the locker room. They're the guys trying their hardest to win in the playoffs. If I'm interfering in any regard, I'll skate on my own."

Primeau spent the better part of two weeks trying to convince Flyers doctors to allow him to practice, saying he would rather try a comeback attempt now than wonder if he could have played a month from now.

"I don't want anyone other than me to regret making a wrong decision," he said.

Primeau didn't waste much time getting into Monday's practice. He discarded the visor he had worn weeks earlier to help minimize glare and jumped right into the first penalty killing drill, even checking a few of his teammates into the boards.

"He did, but we didn't want that to happen," McCrossin said.

Primeau said if he can return this season he wants to return full bore. And the only way of knowing if he can do that is by testing himself in practice.

"My biggest problem is I can only play one way," Primeau said. "I really can't try to play the perimeter and use some level of skill because it's not part of my repertoire. If I can't be physical then I'll never be able to play again. I wasn't any worse for wear after the little bit of contact I had, which is good."

The true test of Primeau's progress will come with how he feels today after his first full practice in more than five months.

"I am working to get better and I want (fans) to see me play again," he said, "but I just can't put a time frame on when that will be."