Paul Gaustad took a one-timer at the end of practice Wednesday, and it was a rocket. The puck glanced off the goaltender's arm and continued into the net.
Gaustad raised his stick, smiled broadly and shouted, "I'm back!"
Everyone is about to get proof. Gaustad is set to make his season debut for the Buffalo Sabres tonight against Tampa Bay. Gaustad missed the opening nine games with a thumb injury but got through Thursday's final tests just fine.
"I'm ready to be back," he said in the Amherst Pepsi Center. "It's been a lot of hard work, but right now I feel really comfortable coming back on the ice."
Gaustad had surgery to repair torn ligaments in his thumb Sept. 30 and said he'd miss four to six weeks. It's been just more than four. Because it was a hand injury, Gaustad has been able to skate for a few weeks.
"I've done a good job of working hard at staying in shape, staying in playing shape, and trying to watch as much video with the team so I'm not as much of a stranger when I come back," he said.
Gaustad will wear a plastic cast on his right thumb for three more weeks. He's under doctor's orders to refrain from fighting, but everything else should be full go. His shot had obviously returned Thursday, and he handled faceoff drills well.
"It shouldn't be a problem," he said. "There's going to be some pain, and I'm getting prepared for that. But it's not a re-injury pain."
Gaustad is expected to center the fourth line for wingers Patrick Kaleta and Andrew Peters. Matt Ellis is the likely scratch.
As Chris Neil predicted, Adam Mair's wallet is a little thinner.
The NHL reportedly fined Mair $2,500 for an altercation near the Ottawa dressing room near the conclusion of Monday's loss to the Senators. Mair was said to be looking for Neil, his archrival, but instead had words with Jarkko Ruutu and Luke Richardson and was restrained by Senators Vice President of Communications Phil Legault.
"It was dealt with by the league, and I'm just looking forward to playing on Thursday," said Mair, who took a light-hearted tone regarding the situation. "I know we don't play those guys again until January, so I just wanted to wish them a happy Halloween."
And how did they respond?
"I think they said Merry Christmas," Mair said.
The incident was caught on video. The words weren't merry.
"That's part of playing a team that number of times, and it is a carryover, but that carryover stays on our side of the doors," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said.
Defenseman Henrik Tallinder (ankle laceration) was the only player who didn't practice. Ruff hopes Tallinder can return this weekend and said center Tim Connolly (back) might debut next week. Center Jochen Hecht (finger) also skated but is expected to come back after Connolly.
Buffalo fans have seen new Tampa Bay coach Barry Melrose often on their television sets, but it's been almost a generation since they've seen him behind the bench. The last time he coached in Buffalo was Dec. 17, 1993, when the Sabres beat his Los Angeles Kings, 2-0, in a Dominik Hasek shutout.
Two facts gathered by Kevin Snow, Sabres manager of hockey information, put that time gap into further perspective:
Ruff was in his first season as an assistant coach for the Florida Panthers.
Patrick Kaleta and Andrej Sekera were 7 years old, and Tampa's Steven Stamkos was 3.