BACK AT IT
Injury behind him, Czuczman gaining confidence
WILKES-BARRE — Even if the outcome didn’t change, Kevin Czuczman would have given just about anything to be on the ice.
Instead, a severe shoulder injury meant the 27-year-old could only watch from afar as the Charlotte Checkers eliminated the Penguins from the Calder Cup Playoffs on April 26.
“You feel helpless,” Czuczman said Wednesday at the Toyota Sportsplex. “You want to be out there making an impact, making a difference in the game, and you’re sitting there 200 feet away watching. It’s one of the worst feelings. You’re with the guys all year battling, in three-in-threes and whatnot, and then you’re not there for the last game. It hurt.”
While the emotional distress of that game might linger for the defenseman, he’s put the physical pain fully behind him.
After undergoing surgery in the offseason to repair his shoulder, Czuczman completed his recovery and returned to the Wilkes-barre/scranton lineup on Nov. 2 against Hartford. He didn’t record any points, but immediately made his presence felt with his puck-moving ability and performance on the penalty kill late in the game.
Czuczman was originally expected to be out through November and into December, but his early return comes at an opportune time for WilkesBarre/scranton. The team lost captain Garrett Wilson to a call-up on Tuesday and defenseman Zach Trotman to an injury last weekend.
“One (defenseman) comes back, and we lose one; that’s just how it goes,” Penguins head coach Clark Donatelli said. “(Czuczman’s) a big addition, obviously. One of our leaders, wears an A.
“Just his quickness, his speed and getting pucks out the zone, getting back to pucks, he’s just really good for us back there. I know he’s been itching to get in for a long time. It’s been a long time off.”
Czuczman suffered his injury during Game 2 of the Charlotte series, and it was evident something was seriously wrong when he struggled to properly grip his stick with both hands in the third period.
When doctors figured out he had suffered a complete tear, it was a “nobrainer” that he’d need to have surgery. It was uncharted territory for the Ontario native, whose durability is evidenced by the 71 or more games he has played in each of his three full seasons in the AHL. He couldn’t even recall a time he missed a game because of a significant injury.
“It tests you mentally,” he said. “It’s a lot of long days and a lot of uncertainty.”
Czuczman got a boost when Pittsburgh re-signed him to a one-year contract in late June, but he still faced a long recovery process. He had his own regimen at training camp, practicing with skating and skills development coach Ty Hennes instead of the main group, but said it’s impossible to fully replicate the speed and emotion of actually playing.
That all came rushing back though in his season debut, as Czuczman said he found himself needing to take a deep breath when he first stepped onto the ice.
“I had a lot of adrenaline and a lot of ... (I was) anxious, nervous and excited, and it’s all balled up into one,” Czuczman said. “I feel a lot more calm now. I can just play hockey again. It’s just back to playing like how I used to play and confident with the swagger and owning the puck and winning my one-on-one battles.”
As much as Donatelli and assistant coach J.D. Forrest praise Czuczman for his skill set, they also rave about his demeanor and intangibles. So, it was no surprise when he was named an alternate captain for his first game back and was on the top pairing with Chris Summers. His lead-by-example approach will stand out even more with Wilson getting his first opportunity to play in Pittsburgh.
The makeup of Wilkes-barre/ Scranton’s defensive corps is quite different from last season, with big bruisers like Jarred Tinordi and Andrey Pedan being replaced by offensive ly skilled players like Stefan Elliott and Will O’neill. At 6-foot-3, Czuczman brings the best of both worlds with his two-way ability — he had a careerhigh 31 assists in 2017-18.
The Lake Superior State product looks at the group as a competitive think tank, of sorts, where the defensemen all push one another but also are sharing tips and pointers. He’s thrilled to be back and build on some of the tweaks he picked up last season.
“It’s been a long six months thinking about them,” he said. “It’ll be fun to put them to use and get to start playing games and some meaningful hockey.”
“I feel a lot more calm now. I can just play hockey again. It’s just back to playing like how I used to play and confident with the swagger and owning the puck and winning my one-on-one battles.” KEVIN CZUCZMAN Hilkes-barre/scranton Penguins defenseman
Defenseman Kevin Czuczman returned to the Penguins lineup on Nov. 2 after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.