Vancouver defenceman Sami Salo's comeback story was cut short Tuesday night as the Canucks saw their 2009-10 season come to an end.
Salo didn't let an undisclosed injury stop him from playing, but the Canucks fell 5-1 to the Chicago Blackhawks in the sixth game of their Western Conference semifinal series.
Salo said he knew he could play after the warmup.
"I had a feeling that it was good this morning and I wanted to play," said Salo. "Players [must] play when the team is facing elimination. My goal was always: If there was even the slightest chance that I could play, I would play."
The crowd let out a loud cheer as a team website reporter announced that Salo would "indeed play." The Finnish blue-liner, who has suffered numerous freak injuries during his career and likes to keep reporters in suspense about his health, left both the warmup and the morning pre-game skate early.
Although he appeared to be skating gingerly at times, Salo saw considerable action after the Canucks lost rearguard Alex Edler in the first period. Edler left the ice favouring his knee after he sent the puck up the ice and Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien crunched him into the end boards.
Salo wound up playing 19:32, down slightly from his 20:45 average heading into the game.
"It was a gutsy effort for Sami," said Canucks defenceman Shane O'Brien. "Obviously, before the game you could tell he probably wasn't 100 per cent. Only he knows how much pain he's really in, and he battled and that just goes to show you how you don't get too many cracks at a chance at the cup. Unfortunately, we came up a little short again."
Salo was felled by a deflected slapshot at the end of the first period of Game 5 in Chicago and taken to hospital.
"I took a shot in a very sensitive spot," said Salo, when questioned about his injury.
Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa said Salo's effort to return the ice demonstrated his willingness to play through pain.
"He's had a lot of injuries and he's taken a lot of flak for it, but he's played through so many injuries that guys don't know about," said Bieksa. "It's not like he gets an injury and the next day he's out. He's been playing through stuff his whole career."
Bieksa rated Salo and Vancouver centre Ryan Johnson, who kept playing despite broken bones in both feet this season, as two of the toughest players that he has skated alongside.
"I think [Salo's presence on the ice shows] toughness and, obviously, Ryan Johnson has played half a year with two broken feet," said Bieksa. "You see the poor guy hopping around on crutches many times around town here. So he's definitely a warrior."
Salo would not accept Vancouver's injury woes as a reason for the loss.
"I never used injuries as an excuse," said Salo. "I'll never start doing that."
Salo's return denied journeyman blue-liner Lawrence Nycholat his "closest chance" to play his first NHL post-season game since turning pro with the Jackson Bandits of the ECHL in 2000-01.
Nycholat, a 31-year-old Calgary native who has only played 50 NHL regular-season games while spending most of his career in the minors, was with the Ottawa Senators when they went to the Stanley Cup final in 2007, but did not see any action.