The line between courageous and crazy is thinner than a skate blade, and it is a line a couple of Flyers are toeing today.
For Kimmo Timonen, it's a matter of having toes to toe the line with. A week ago, doctors told the veteran defenseman he could lose a couple if he played with a blood clot in his foot. Now Timonen is trying to play in the Flyers' win-or-go-home Game 5 in Pittsburgh.
His young partner, Braydon Coburn, is trying to do the same in spite of the damage done by the chunk of frozen rubber that crashed into his left eye in Game 2.
Even in a sport that reveres toughness, where playing hurt is the norm, these two are pushing the limits. With their team in a desperate situation, down three games to one, the two defensemen have to weigh playing in pain, their future health, their ability to contribute in place of a healthy teammate, and the emotional pressure to be part of a possible championship run.
The first and most important consideration must be their health. It is up to the Flyers, from their medical staff to coach John Stevens to general manager Paul Holmgren, to make sure that is the case.
"I don't believe we'd ever put a player in harm's way," Holmgren said Friday afternoon at the Skate Zone in Voorhees.
That isn't possible for an NHL team, of course. All of the players are always in harm's way. The injuries in question are proof of the risks all players assume when they take the ice.
Timonen was struck in the foot by a slapshot in Montreal. His toes went numb and it was days before doctors diagnosed the blood clot. The news was stunning, both to Timonen and his teammates. He would not play in the playoffs.
"Go back a week," Timonen said. "The doctors told me it could be a week or two weeks or two months or five months."
"It's a little scary when they say that if he gets hit in that spot, they might have to cut his foot off or his toes off," Holmgren said. "That's scary."
There was no need to figure out what happened to Coburn. A Hal Gill slapshot caught a stick blade and shot straight up into his face. Blood poured out of the circular gash around his nose and eye socket, soaking the leather of his gloves and pooling on the ice below him.
Attendants came out and scraped the blood off the ice, but they couldn't wash away that sick feeling that lingers after seeing a man take a shot like that.
"He got hit in the head with a puck at a high rate of speed," said Holmgren, who bears facial evidence of similar experiences. "And he doesn't feel right."
Coburn is fighting the very human impulse to lie in bed for a month or so in favor of the inhuman attempt to throw his traumatized body into on-ice collisions for three hours.
"I don't think they'd put me out there if they didn't feel that I would be able to contribute and felt well, and I wouldn't put myself in that situation either," Coburn said after practicing yesterday.
Timonen said he "trusts the doctors" that he is in no danger, just as he trusted them when he sat out the first four games of the series.
"It's just a matter of how much pain I can take," Timonen said.
He smiled as he said it.
Any number of Flyers are playing hurt in this postseason. The same is surely true of the Penguins, Red Wings and Stars. Derian Hatcher, who limped visibly down the hallway at Skate Zone Friday, played nearly half of Game 2 on gimpy knees, not to mention the tibia he fractured March 15. Jason Smith's shoulder, Danny Briere's knee, Mike Knuble's hamstring - those are just some of the nicks we know about.
"It amazes me sometimes," Holmgren said. "Derian Hatcher is a prime example on our team, with what he goes through to play."
They are hockey players. They are different. The scarred chins and stiff knees and gleaming dentures are only the outward signs.
They will take stitches on the bench so they don't miss a shift. Now, three rounds into the most brutal tournament in sports, with their chance to play for the Stanley Cup riding on one game? They will skate near and sometimes over that thin line between courageous and crazy.
"It's a precarious position for these guys to be in," Holmgren said. "They feel a pressure to play, I'm sure. This is how they make their living. They play hockey."
The games they are playing now mean so much. It's just important for everyone to remember they don't mean as much as the men who play them.
Today at 3 p.m. (NBC10)
Penguins lead series, 3-1
The Flyers say the pressure is on Pittsburgh.