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Gaustad near return from ankle injury

The peculiar scar on the inside of Paul Gaustad's left ankle, as Andrew Peters pointed out, would indicate that Zorro had performed the operation.

Gaustad, dripping with sweat, plopped down at his locker stall Wednesday afternoon in Nassau Coliseum. He was minus his left sock, providing a glimpse at a jagged, lightning-bolt shaped scar.

That's where the brawny Buffalo Sabres forward got sliced twice, first by his own skate and then by a surgeon who sutured together a severed tendon. The freak injury was so rare, doctors had to guess when he would be able to return.

They're finding out it could be a lot sooner than anybody thought.

"He is getting close to skating at full speed," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said before Game Four of his team's Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Islanders. "Things are progressing rapidly with Paul, which is tremendous for our team."

The 6-foot-5, 222-pound Oregonian has been practicing with the team for three days and he might be cleared to play by the second round of the playoffs if the Sabres can eliminate the Islanders. The initial prognosis had him possibly being healthy in time for the Stanley Cup finals.

He worked out Wednesday against backup goalie Ty Conklin with healthy scratches Nathan Paetsch, Daniel Paille and Peters.

"I feel a little fat with the gear on, but not bad," Gaustad said. "It's good to get out there and skate with the guys a little bit. Gets a little lonely skating by myself. It's good to have a goalie to shoot at."

Ruff said "from a conditioning standpoint he's in excellent shape." He never stopped lifting weights with his upper body and was riding a stationary bike for several weeks before he resumed skating last week.

"My atrophy is not too bad," Gaustad said of his left leg. "It's about strengthening the tendon a little bit and stretching it out. It's a little tight. It's about getting back the range of motion."

Gaustad suffered the injury Feb. 7, when he bumped into Ottawa winger Dany Heatley. It had been believed Heatley's skate did the damage, but Gaustad said his right skate got knocked into his left ankle.

His ankle tendon was only 90 percent severed. That thread was significantly beneficial. Had the blade gone all the way through, the tendon would have rolled up like a window shade to his knee, and the arch of his foot would have collapsed.

How close was that to happening? One game earlier he asked equipment manager Dave Williams to reduce the edge of his blades, making them duller. Gaustad hadn't altered the way he had his skates sharpened for five years.

Gaustad was incredibly lucky. For three days he walked on the tattered tendon because doctors originally misdiagnosed the injury.

The blade nearly missed a major nerve and blood vessel. Had either been sliced, Gaustad's career might be over.

"It's been tough watching the team," Gaustad said, "and the nerves that I have in the press box don't really go away during the whole game because I can't go out there and hit somebody. I can't get a shift in. That's the difficult part. I'm yelling and screaming with [goalie coach] Jimmy Corsi every night."


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