There's no denying the high threshold of pain that hockey players tolerate on an annual basis. When the Stanley Cup Playoffs come around, you'd have to amputate limbs to keep most guys off the ice.
The day after Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jordan Staal(notes) left Game 1 with a foot injury, there were early reports that he'd played his last game of the playoffs, a huge blow for the defending Cup champs.
When head coach Dan Bylsma finally addressed the media, he ruled Staal as "day-to-day" and hope returned that the Penguins' third-line centerman would be able to return at some point in the playoffs.
We've officially arrived at the "some point" mark of the playoffs. Five days after having surgery on a severed tendon in his right foot, Staal is on the verge of coming back to the Pittsburgh lineup after missing the first games of his NHL career.
He began skating again with a short, five-minute session on Tuesday and then Wednesday Staal took part in his first full practice since the injury. (He and Bill Guerin(notes) skated again Thursday morning; both are game-time decisions.)
The original "day-to-day" prognosis and return for the conference finals hinged on the healing of his foot. When asked about Staal returning for Thursday night's Game 4 against Montreal, there wasn't a flat out "no" given by Bylsma, opening the door that the towering center could be back very soon:
"It's a good question," Bylsma said. "You watched the 4-on-4 (drill), and a couple of times he busted through the defense and skated by guys, and you didn't see anything that reminded you he'd had a major injury on his foot.
"We'll see how his foot reacts, but judging by the end of his practice I'm a lot more comfortable with how he skated than when he first got out there. If he can skate like that there's a possibility, depending on how he is [Thursday morning], that he could be day-to-day."
If Pittsburgh goes up 3-1 in the series tonight, there may be a feeling to give him a few more days to recover; but should Montreal even things up, could that be the opening Staal needs to return?
For the Canadiens, they aren't worrying about whether or not Staal will be back Thursday night, they have to figure out how to beat Marc-Andre Fleury(notes), something they've done only once in the last two games.
Montreal head coach Jacques Martin's strategy of strong defensive play and counterattacking to get opportunities worked against Washington, but can they stretch it out across two series?
The Montreal defense has been the team MVP through their 10 playoff games and against the Penguins; they've shut down Sidney Crosby(notes) to the point where the Pittsburgh captain is goalless in the series. Crosby hasn't scored in his last eight trips to Bell Centre.
The Canadiens' home crowd has been talked about a lot during the series and for good reason. It's always an electric atmosphere inside, and Tomas Plekanec(notes) told reporters Wednesday that now is a good time to play off their enthusiasm:
"With the crowd we have behind us, we definitely should make it be our advantage," Plekanec said after the Canadiens had a team meeting and an optional practice in Brossard. "I remember from previous years, we haven't been able to take advantage of that. It seems on the road we're defending the lead and playing strong defensively and we're able to score on the rush and on the power play. Maybe we play a different game at home."
While the Bell Centre atmosphere is one of the tops, if not the best in the NHL, the electricity in the crowd hasn't transferred over to the team -- the Canadiens were 20-16-5 during the regular season and are currently 1-3 there in the playoffs.
Tonight's Game 4 will swing the series momentum in one direction and should Montreal be able to even things up, its road success in the playoffs could be a factor as the series plays out.