BACK AT IT

In­jury be­hind him, Czucz­man gain­ing con­fi­dence

The Citizens' Voice - - PENGUINS WEEKLY - BY TYLER PICCOTTI STAFF HRITER Con­tact the writer: tu­ic­cotti@cit­i­zensvoice.com; 570-821-2089; @Cvpic­cotti on Twit­ter

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

MARK MO­RAN / STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

De­fense­man Kevin Czucz­man re­turned to the Pen­guins lineup on Nov. 2 af­ter re­cov­er­ing from off­sea­son shoul­der surgery.

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