Now, nearly two months ahead of schedule and just 10 weeks after undergoing the procedure, Ruutu is set to return to the Carolina Hurricanes' lineup in the next few days.
Head coach Kirk Muller said Tuomo Ruutu and Joni Pitkanen will travel with the #Canes this weekend.— Michael Smith (@MSmithCanes) March 15, 2013
No word yet on if either will be in the lineup. Will see how they respond to today's practice.— Michael Smith (@MSmithCanes) March 15, 2013
Ruutu practiced without a no-contact jersey for the first time Friday, skating with the team's fourth line alongside Tim Brent and Kevin Westgarth. The status upgrade came after Ruutu skated publicly for the first time last Saturday.
His return comes at just the right time for the 'Canes, whose Southeast Division lead slipped to a mere one point over the Winnipeg Jets after a loss Thursday.
Although Carolina remains a very respectable 15-10-1 on the year and holds the NHL's seventh-best playoff odds as of midday Friday (89.6 percent), a crucial coming week of four games lies on the slate ahead.
They'll visit the Bolts' Tampa Bay Times Forum on Saturday and then the Rangers' Madison Square Garden on Monday in a challenging two-game road trip. They then return home to host the Florida Panthers on Tuesday and the New Jersey Devils on Thursday.
All four of those teams currently lie outside the Eastern Conference top eight.
If the 'Canes hope to hold off the surging Winnipeg Jets—boasting a 9-2-1 record since Feb. 19 that's brought them within one point (with one more game played) of the division lead—they'll need to shoot for six or seven points out of a possible eight in the coming stretch.
Ruutu's return would help that goal become a lot more feasible.
The 30-year-old winger should be able to add the final piece to an already impressive cast of top six forwards. He scored 18 goals and 34 points in 72 appearances last season, ranking fifth on the squad, and set a career high with 57 points in 2010-11.
However, it's off the box score where Ruutu has historically made his biggest impact. He's led the 'Canes in hits three of the past four seasons, including a second-place league-wide finish with 309 hits two years ago.
Will the Hurricanes make the playoffs in 2013?
Outside of brother superstars Eric and Jordan Staal, Ruutu is arguably the Hurricanes' most well-rounded two-way forward.
His return to the lineup would likely come on the second line alongside Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner, allowing Jussi Jokinen—in the midst of a disappointingly inconsistent campaign—to return to the checking line.
The trio would add a dangerous second head to the Hurricanes' offensive monster. The top group of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty has been unstoppable, with 82 combined points in 26 games; tacking on the trio of Staal, Skinner and Ruutu may well give Carolina one of the best one-two punch of top six lines in the league.
Here's how the offensive depth chart is expected to stand after Ruutu's return, with current point totals in parentheses:
|Alexander Semin (28)||Eric Staal (32)||Jiri Tlusty (22)|
|Tuomo Ruutu||Jordan Staal (18)||Jeff Skinner (18)|
|Patrick Dwyer (12)||Riley Nash (6)||Jussi Jokinen (10)|
|Drayson Bowman (4)||Tim Brent (2)||Tim Wallace (1)|
Regardless of whether Ruutu makes his season debut Saturday, Monday or even later in the week, his unexpected return should smooth out matters in all zones as the Hurricanes' battle for the postseason heats up.
Team Notes: Forward Chris Terry was re-assigned to AHL Charlotte Friday after appearing in his first three NHL games this past week...Chad LaRose remains out with a concussion...Should Ruutu not play Saturday, Kevin Westgarth, healthy scratch for three consecutive games, would likely dress in his place.
Mark Jones has been a Bleacher Report featured columnist since 2009, receiving almost a million views on his 450-plus articles to date.