The mornings are the worst.
That’s when Dmitry Kulikov sits on the bed, easing himself up and trying to move his body while his back decides to protest.
“It’s worse in the mornings, I suppose like it is for old people,” the 26-year-old defenseman for the Buffalo Sabres said. “You get out of bed, you’re kind of stiff. So it’s just a little stiffer for me when I get out of bed nowadays and in the mornings I need to make sure I do stuff to have myself ready for the game.”
But in order to be ready for the game, Kulikov has needed to take a different approach. Coach Dan Bylsma said in Montreal on Tuesday that Kulikov would probably not take many, if any, morning skates the rest of the season.
True to form, Thursday he was not on the ice as the Sabres warmed up in the morning before hosting the New York Rangers in KeyBank Center.
That doesn’t mean Kulikov is taking mornings off.
He’s receiving medical treatment and “doing some core work and activation,” Kulikov said. “We’ve developed a plan to try to keep me strong and if I have any soreness to try and take care of it in the morning instead of going out, getting warmed up, cool down then warm up again for the game. So it’s kind of more a maintenance/prevention type thing. I’m not completely taking the morning skate off. I’m not resting.”
Kulikov has done enough resting this season to last him for many seasons.
It all started in the preseason when he was checked into the door of the Sabres bench. The door opened and caught him in the back. He missed the season opener then played in the next 12 games. The injury started to bother him so he sat out the next 13, including going on injured reserve. He returned to the lineup Dec. 9 to play in six straight before again sitting out with back problems for 12 more games.
He returned Jan. 24 with Thursday’s game his fourth-straight.
It’s been the most difficult trial of Kulikov’s hockey career. The back injury prevented him from doing much physical work – no lifting weights, no riding the bike, no skating – during much of the rehabilitation process.
“I’ve never had to deal with a back injury before and the frustrating part of it is the recovery takes a long time and you’re not really able to do anything to keep yourself strong,” Kulikov said. “So when you do come back it takes you longer to get your strength back and the conditioning because none of that stuff you’re able to do when you’re resting. That part was hard to deal with. Then coming back and start playing again and having to go back on injured reserve, I think it’s hard mentally.
“Right now I’m just trying to do everything I can to not have this happen again because I think it’s the hardest thing – for an athlete to come back playing and have the same injury again, go on the injured reserve and come back again.”
Determined to make this return stick, Kulikov and the Sabres’ medical staff have worked on his plan, which includes finding exercises and treatment combinations in the morning that prepare him physically to play more than 20 minutes a night with Rasmus Ristolainen as the Sabres top defensive pairing.
“The way we started the rehab is we had a list of things we had to try and we started eliminating a bunch of those things, narrowed it down to what works and what makes me feel better,” Kulikov said. “Right now I’m just continuing doing those things that make me feel better and doing all the exercises in the morning and every day pretty much for the rest of the season.”