TAMPA — Jeff Halpern knows the hit is coming. If he could, he'd skate to the spot on the St. Pete Times Forum ice where it will occur tonight against the Avalanche and wait for it, just to get it out of the way. But hockey doesn't work that way.
The first real test of Halpern's surgically reconstructed right knee will come during a puck scrum in a corner, when a defenseman disrupts his balance and forces him to plant awkwardly. Or when a blade catches in the ice as he skates through the neutral zone and absorbs an otherwise ordinary hip check. That's how this whole ordeal started.
Physically, the 32-year-old center says he is fine. But more than seven months since Canada's Brent Burns hip-checked him late in a world championships game, and hours before he plays his first game since, Halpern said his biggest hurdle may be mental.
"I'm pretty confident in the stability of it and the structure of the knee. It's how it will respond to some of the battles and the hits and just the speed of the game," he said. "There's definitely stuff I'm thinking about."
Halpern suffered a rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament, a partially torn medial collateral ligament and a small tear to the lateral meniscus at the tournament, where he was captaining the American squad. Familiar with the grind of the rehabilitation process after a similar injury as a Capital in 2002, he has practiced with the Lightning for weeks. But being practice-ready is not being game-ready, and Halpern was gasping Monday during a rigorous training camp-style practice.
"There's a reason people stress getting into training camp on time and how much that affects you," he said. "The NHL is like a train, and trying to jump right on in the middle of it, that's going to be a tall challenge for me."
Halpern, part of the deal that sent Brad Richards to Dallas, scored 10 goals (18 points) in 19 games for the Lightning last season. He became a favorite of then-coach John Tortorella for his two-way accountability.
Now interim coach Rick Tocchet is counting on Halpern — along with left wing Ryan Malone, who will return from an upper body injury after five games — to bolster an offense that has generated just 67 goals in 30 games, second-worst in the NHL. Halpern helped turned then-Lightning wing Michel Ouellet into a second-line offensive contributor last season.
"He's a leader. He's also a guy who will make some of his wingers more accountable and better," Tocchet said. "Hopefully we can get healthy and put a couple permanent guys on the line, see what guys can do for four or five games. When you're last-place scoring and last place (in the league standings), you're always searching for some combination."
Halpern had the option to make a rehab start Wednesday with AHL Norfolk, but Tocchet, who said he will use Halpern in spot duty, is confident he will be mentally ready against the Avalanche. Halpern said he'll be nervous after such a layoff.
"He needs to get that first game under his belt," Tocchet said. "If he has a bad game, he has a bad game. I know his heart's in the right direction."