MADISON — Defenseman Joe Piskula stepped onto the ice at the Shell cautiously Wednesday afternoon, testing out the right ankle injury that has kept him out of service since he injured it March 3, in the University of Wisconsin’s 1-0 win over St. Cloud State.
His second practice Thursday was less reserved, and the sophomore who is arguably the Badger hockey team’s fastest skater let loose a little more, under the watchful eyes of the UW training staff, which was seemingly tracking every stride.
“It’s great to be back out there trying,” Piskula said Thursday, after completing his workout. “I skated yesterday and today and there was a big difference just in one day of skating. I felt a lot better today already.
“I have a week here to try to get back to how I was playing before my injury. Hopefully I can do that in a week. The biggest thing I think (is) I’ve got to get my conditioning back in my legs.”
There is no question that Piskula can help the Badgers when healthy. Paired with senior blue-liner Tom Gilbert before the injury, Piskula boasts a +24 rating. In 34 games, he had two goals and nine assists.
But he only has a few practices left before UW takes the ice next Thursday for its Frozen Four showdown with Maine at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. The Badgers will skate at the Shell this afternoon, midday Sunday and again Tuesday afternoon, before leaving for Milwaukee. Add in a practice at the Bradley Center Wednesday, and that is four opportunities for Piskula to try and get back to full strength.
“You could say it’s an outside shot,” head coach Mike Eaves said, referring to Piskula’s chances to play next week. “He still really hasn’t got into practice yet, his conditioning, and the fact that the team’s playing pretty good. You don’t want to change that.
“It’s an outside shot for the first two reasons: he hasn’t had any contact, he hasn’t played in a month. At this point in the season unless — I would surmise that unless we run into some kind of roadblock here, where we needed him, I think it’s still an outside chance.”
Sophomore Josh Engel has played well in Piskula’s absence, and it was his incredible pass to Jack Skille that set up the game-winner in the third overtime of a 1-0 regional final victory over Cornell Sunday.
Hypothetically speaking then, even if Piskula is 100 percent, would it be tough to insert him in the lineup and potentially tweak the team’s chemistry before what it hopes is the two most important games of the season?
“It’s a fact of sports,” Eaves said simply.
Piskula, though, was brimming with optimism Thursday afternoon.
“The improvement from yesterday to (Thursday) was a lot,” he said. “It’s feeling pretty good so they are going to let me just keep progressing as fast as I feel like I can without it hurting…
“I jumped into practice a couple times today, just in like easier drills. And hopefully tomorrow and the next day I can be practicing all the way through.”
The Badgers (28-10-3) were just 3-7-1 in their last 11 games prior to that March 3 win over St. Cloud State, in the second-to-last regular season game of the season. UW went on to sweep the Huskies and has won seven of its last eight games heading into the national semifinals.
“The last couple weeks we’ve been doing pretty well,” Piskula said. “That helps a lot, just knowing that we’re getting it done and my team’s playing well.
“I’m really proud to be watching them, but it’s definitely hard. It’s not the same. You are just not a part of it in the same way. Guys try to keep you in the groove, even though you are not playing, but it’s not the same as being out there. It’s definitely easier when the team’s still winning and doing a great job.”
After being a key component in UW’s success all season, then becoming a spectator as it surged back from a mid-conference-season slump, Piskula hopes to be back patrolling the blue line next week.
“It’s the Frozen Four,” Piskula said with a wide smile. “It’s been hard to sit out these last couple weeks and watching from the stands. I want to get back more than anything. But in order for me to do that I have to be playing well enough to get back in the lineup. It all depends on how well I do in the next week.”
Piskula declined to state the specific nature of his injury, but he did say that it was the first significant lower body injury he has ever suffered in hockey. In each of his two seasons of junior hockey, however, he spent some time playing with a cast under his glove.
“My first year I had a broken hand and my second year I had a broken wrist,” he said. “You can still put a cast on them and play with that.”
“But when you’ve got to skate and you have an ankle injury, it’s pretty difficult,” Piskula said.
It has become much less difficult in the past 48 hours. Piskula was still walking with crutches at the beginning of this week, but after feeling it out with a light skate Wednesday, he picked it up a notch Thursday.
“I wasn’t going as hard as I can or anything, but it’s definitely feeling batter,” he said. “I definitely feel like I was moving a little better (Thursday), a little faster. And starting and stopping was definitely easier (Thursday). Hopefully each day I can just get that quickness back a little more.”