ST. PAUL, Minn. Pierre-Marc Bouchard skated in on goaltender Niklas Backstrom to start off a shootout at the end of the Minnesota Wild's scrimmage on Monday night, showing off the nifty stick work and hands that have allowed him to be a shootout star in his career.
He deked Backstrom, switching from his backhand to his forehand, and slid the puck past Minnesota's starting goaltender into the net. He turned back to his bench, a combination of players from the Wild and their AHL minor-league team the Houston Aeros with a big smile on his face.
Bouchard and his team have been waiting for such a moment for over a year. Only Bouchard doesn't seem like he's missed over a year with concussion symptoms.
"Not at all," said forward Cal Clutterbuck, who's been skating on the third line with Bouchard and Kyle Brodziak. "He's probably the fastest guy out there. He's got the quickest hands. He's got great vision. He's really eager to get back, so Brodzy and I are going to try and help him feel good, but I don't think right now he needs any help."
Bouchard was the one helping his teammates during Monday's scrimmage, in which the coaches mixed players from Minnesota and Houston to assemble two squads, much like they will do for Wednesday's live scrimmage open to the public. Before opening the shootout round with his nifty goal past Backstrom, Bouchard also assisted on two power-play goals, scored by Mikael Granlund and Dany Heatley and showed the dramatic impact he can make offensively, especially on the Wild's power-play.
"Before he got hurt last year that's what we were using and when we started to win a lot of games, our power-play started going really well for us," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. "He's so skilled. He's on the point, but there's many times he might look like a forward, many times we want him and Mikko (Koivu) both being active on those half-walls. And for some of those situations where you're walking down the half-wall and now you've got a lefty and he's on his forehand making plays to four guys with one time shots. It's interesting."
Interesting has been the key word when it's comes to Bouchard. He's been plagued by concussion issues, which limited him to 96 games over the past two seasons. When he's on the ice, there've been few questions about his production. Bouchard has scored 20 goals in a season once and has three seasons with over 50 points. Last year, in 37 games, he had nine goals and 13 assists. In 59 games the previous season, he had 12 goals and 26 assists.
His last game in a Wild sweater was Jan. 4 last season. The concussion symptoms lingered and he said last week that he's only been symptom-free for a month.
"Personally, I feel pretty confident about how I feel," Bouchard said last week. "It's been pretty nice the last few weeks without any headaches or any symptoms. I'm just ready to go through the next step and be ready for training camp."
Bouchard has been cleared for contact, allowing him to participate in training camp and the scheduled scrimmages, but he still needs to be cleared to play in a game. He said he has a few more tests to complete and feels if everything goes well this week, he should "have the green light."
The only hurdle left is for Bouchard to receive contact in practice and prove he's over any issues after taking the contact. Monday's scrimmage offered the latest test.
"This was a big step as far as I know," Yeo said. "Because you get contact in practice, but there was some real contact out there. There were some big hits in that game, guys were competing hard. Again, if he continues to come out of these, not only does it help put him in a position to get cleared, but I think it helps his confidence too."
His teammates' confidence in him will be soaring too as he proves he's healthy while making the types of plays he did Monday.
"He looks great," Clutterbuck said. "He's definitely a top-end talent and I'm just lucky to be playing with a guy like that right now."
Yeo noted the reason he received several questions about Bouchard after Monday's scrimmage and it wasn't because of health worries. Finally, after a long wait, Bouchard questions now revolve as much around his impact on the ice as any health-related concerns.
"He's an unbelievable player," Yeo said. "He's so valuable. I was talking about it this morning. You don't realize the difference in our record if we have him in our lineup. The points from when he's there, we're a playoff team. And when he's out of the lineup, it's obviously a much different story. So, we're all very hopeful that he can stay healthy."
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