Alex Stalock's journey back to the NHL after his myocarditis diagnosis is well-documented. He started only one game over a three-year span, then made a comeback by signing a one-year contract with the Blackhawks over the offseason and became one of the early feel-good stories in the league with a hot start.
But on Nov. 1, Stalock left 2:56 into the game after New York Islanders forward Casey Cizikas barreled into him while driving hard to the net. It was a scary collision, with Stalock losing his helmet on the play. Cizikas was given a five-minute penalty for interference, a game misconduct and was fined $5,000 the next day.
Stalock has since missed the last 15 games with a concussion, and his recovery process has been up and down. Some days are better than others, but on Thursday, he felt good enough to practice with the team, which is a positive sign, even though there's no clear timetable for his return.
"It's been a few times now where you feel like you're ready to give it a try and then, next day, you wake up and it's not even close to what it was," Stalock said. "I was warned earlier that you're going to have setbacks, but you never feel like it's going to happen, and sure enough, it happens a few times and it's not fun to deal with something like that mentally.
"Obviously want to feel better, but mainly it's good to be back just around the group. It's tough when you're by yourself, especially [when] they're on the road and you're just wondering when, when and if, you're going to be back. Just to be around the group, obviously it's fun.
"Hopefully, at some point, fully engaged in a practice and feel comfortable again, but it's a step, that's for sure."
The timing of the injury couldn't have come at a more inopportune time too, for both the player and the team. Petr Mrazek suffered a groin injury in the fourth game of the season, which thrust Stalock into a full-time starter's role for the time being, and he did well handling the load.
Prior to the injury, Stalock was 3-2-1 with a 2.93 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. For reference, the league average in save percentage this season is .905, so he was playing well above that.
"Anytime you get taken out of your work and things are going well and as a group, we're getting wins and for something like that to happen, obviously, is really unfortunate, [the] timing of it," Stalock said. "You don't want to be sitting out away from the group, not being able to help."
Stalock declined to share his true thoughts about the Cizikas hit, probably for good reason. You can probably read between the lines on how he felt.
"I'm sure it's been talked about all over the Internet and all that," Stalock said. "But yeah, I don't really have much to say about it."
Stalock did, however, appreciate Reese Johnson sticking up for him in Sunday's game against the Islanders, which was the first meeting between the two teams since the injury. Early in the first period, Johnson approached Cizikas and challenged him to a fight, and Cizikas accepted.
It might seem like a minor thing, but stuff like that goes a long way inside the locker room.
"Absolutely, I mean great job by him," Stalock said. "Great team guy. To do that takes a lot of courage, and great on him. Got a lot of respect from the group, obviously for what he did."