Lombardi eager to find his place with Coyotes

– Matthew Lombardi had barely settled into the idea of being a Phoenix Coyote when that identity took a hit – literally. In just his fourth game in a Coyotes sweater, Lombardi was back on the sidelines with a shoulder injury suffered against the San Jose Sharks on Jan. 24.

“Man, it was pretty disappointing with the excitement of coming back and coming to a team I had played with before, and then you have a setback,” he said.  

Setbacks have been the norm for Lombardi the past three seasons. He missed 80 games two seasons ago with Nashville while dealing with a neck issue. Last season in Toronto, a separated shoulder forced him out of the lineup for a month and half. When he did return, he had a rough year, notching eight goals and 18 points in 62 games with a minus-19 plus-minus rating while playing primarily on the wing, instead of at his natural center position.

The good news for Lombardi and the team is that he is due to play on the Coyotes’ upcoming road trip through Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. That’s a week or two before anybody expected him to return when he first suffered the injury. He’s been skating with the team, so he hasn’t lost much in the way of conditioning. But just because Lombardi experienced a speedy recovery and will be back in the lineup this weekend doesn’t mean everything’s back to normal.

Lombardi never got to experience normal with the Coyotes. The 113-day NHL lockout killed all but a few days of training camp, the injury killed any chance he had of establishing quick chemistry with his linemates, and past injuries made it difficult for Tippett and his staff to figure out the best home for their newest member.

“It’s hard to evaluate him right now because he missed a lot of hockey the last couple of years, and then in Toronto he probably played more wing than center,” Tippett said. “We’ve got to find where he fits best in that group, the players that will help him and the players that he can help.”

Lombardi’s obvious attributes are his speed and his versatility. He can and likely will see time on both the power play and penalty-killing units when he rounds back into game shape. But who he plays with on a regular basis will be a work in progress, and there will be elements of his game that take awhile to hone.

“Your decision making,” said captain Shane Doan, when asked which element has taken the longest to return after the lengthy lockout. “My decision making is still slow right now, so I’m sure he’ll catch up and pass me right away here. Because of his speed, the game is easier for him. (The speed of the game) is usually the biggest problem, and yet that’s his strength, so I’m assuming it will be a quick transition.”

Tippett isn’t concerned with the amount of time Lombardi has missed, noting there are still 32 games to play. Nor is he concerned with Lombardi’s psyche after three seasons of hard knocks.

“There’s still time to get him up and going, and we think he can be a valuable piece for us,” Tippett said. “He’s a pretty driven guy right now. He’s just got to get out there and get himself feeling comfortable. It’s just all about playing right now. The mental preparation in his head has been gone over and over.”

Lombardi insists that mental side doesn’t include any excess baggage.

“There’s no point in pouting and feeling sorry for yourself,” he said. “You want to, but then you look at the big picture of things and you realize it’s not that big of a deal. It could have been worse. Three weeks later, I’m back here and feeling a lot better.

“Luckily enough, I know most of the guys here and the coaching staff as well. I got to travel with the team last week and I got to practice with the guys. You start to create a little bit of chemistry that way; maybe not as much as on the ice, but just being around the guys was good for me. “

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