Nino Niederreiter looked as if he was back to normal.
The Wild winger completed a hat trick in barely a period of play, helping to ignite an almost blemish-free victory over the Sabres four weeks ago in his return following his second injury of the season.
But after suiting up only once more, he was sidelined again.
“Just felt like I had to man up and play through it,” Niederreiter said. “At some point [I] just couldn’t take the pain anymore.”
Niederreiter has been letting the bone bruise on his left ankle heal up since and, after a handful of sessions with team skating and skills instructor Andy Ness and a team practice for the first time Wednesday at TRIA Rink, it’s possible he resurfaces Friday when the Wild plays host to the Vegas Golden Knights.
It will be a timely boost if Niederreiter, 25, can flex his skills while sticking in the lineup.
“It’s getting better and better,” he said. “It’s a matter of trusting the ankle, that it holds up and it’s all good.”
Niederreiter has been mostly idle since the end of last year.
He was injured Dec. 22 against the Panthers, getting hit by a puck and going into the boards. Niederreiter missed five games — a layoff that included the holiday break — before he returned to action Jan. 4 against Buffalo.
Although his performance in front of his parents visiting from Switzerland suggested otherwise — a three-goal outburst he credited to the passing prowess of linemates Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund — Niederreiter still didn’t appear to be at full strength, and he moved gingerly off the ice.
And after playing Jan. 6 in Colorado, he disappeared from the lineup to rest up.
“It’s definitely very frustrating,” said Niederreiter, who explained his latest setback is the same issue he dealt with during his previous absence. “But at the end, things you can’t control you just gotta go through it, let it heal and do everything it takes to get back.”
His eight-game hiatus is Niederreiter’s longest of the season; he missed six games in October after suffering a high left ankle sprain. Whether that injury spawned his other problems is unclear to Niederreiter.
“It’s tough to say,” he said. “Obviously, it’s been awhile since the first injury happened, and I want to get back as quick as possible. Maybe I just came back a little too quick. Same mistake I did again. At the end of the day, you just want to get back on the ice and battle through it. At some point, you gotta be smart and take the break you need.”
Skating alongside Charlie Coyle and Zach Parise on Wednesday (scoring leader Eric Staal missed the practice to take a maintenance day), Niederreiter focused on his edge work and gaining a comfort level with his ankle. Trusting it’ll hold up is his main objective.
Coach Bruce Boudreau is keeping an eye on how Niederreiter is maneuvering with the puck.
“When you’ve been off for a while, your puck handling gets rusty and sometimes you need those ‘battle practices’ where you get in there and handle the puck and I think that’s what he needs,” Boudreau said. “But we’ll see how he feels.”
The team plans to evaluate Niederreiter after another practice Thursday, and he’ll be a game-time decision Friday, Boudreau said.
Although the Wild has been able to secure enough offense to go 5-1-2 while Niederreiter has been out, adding another scoring option — Niederreiter still ranks fourth on the team with 13 goals — can’t hurt a playoff pursuit that Niederreiter is eager to rejoin.
“You see how the guys battle hard, and it was obviously a great victory for us [3-2 at Columbus on Tuesday],” he said. “Little things like that obviously make you want to get back even quicker.”