Last Friday night’s playoff matchup against the Victoria Royals wasn’t just another game for Justin Kirkland.
The Kelowna Rockets’ forward was playing for the first time in more than two months after suffering what turned out to be a stubborn and slow-to-heal lower body injury on Feb. 14.
The Camrose, AB native is, not surprisingly, thrilled to be back after sitting out the longest stretch of his junior career.
“It was tough watching the guys, not being able to compete with them,” said Kirkland, who had an assist in his team’s series clinching 7-3 win over the Royals.
“I was pretty nervous, it was a big game and there was a lot on the line. Honestly, there were nerves, but after the first couple of shifts, I took a hit and I gave a hit, got back in the game and it kind of felt like I’d never been away.”
Kirkland’s greatest fear during his extended absence was the prospects of missing his team’s entire playoff run.
Now the 6-foot-3, 188-pound forward is thrilled to be back in the mix in time for the Western Conference final against Portland.
“There never is a good time to be out, it’s tough missing playoffs, I mean you never know what can happen with the team,” said Kirkland. “I’ve gotta thank the guys for getting through the first couple of rounds and giving me a chance to come back and play.
“I’m really looking forward to this next series (with Portland),” he said. “It should be exciting…a hard-fought series between two good teams.”
Based on the length of his absence, head coach Dan Lambert said Kirkland did an admirable job of fitting back into the Rockets lineup.
“Anybody who sits out that long is not going to just jump out there and be right back where they were,” said Lambert. “Having said that, I thought he looked good, he had an assist and got his feet back under him again. It’s good to have him back.”
Kirkland’s return gives the Rockets one of healthiest lineups they’ve had in months, with only forward Tanner Wishnowski remaining on the sidelines.