Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell says he may be able to play on Thursday

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VANCOUVER - Defenceman Willie Mitchell says he could return to the Vancouver Canucks lineup Thursday after missing 10 NHL games with a back injury.

But Mitchell and coach Alain Vigneault still seem to be on different pages when it comes to his health. Mitchell, who has been sidelined with a fractured vertebra in his back, skated with the team at practice Tuesday and said he could be ready to play against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday.

"I'm feeling good, the stiffness is OK," said Mitchell. "We will see how it is tomorrow.

"This is the time of year when I play my best hockey, when you're going down the stretch, fighting for a playoff berth."

Mitchell first revealed the back injury prior to the Canucks leaving on a four-game road trip at the end of last month.

At the time Vigneault called Mitchell's injury a stress fracture and said he expected the defenceman to join the team on the road.

"He wants me in the lineup," Mitchell said Tuesday. "He's a coach. He doesn't know how I feel, he doesn't feel my pain, he doesn't feel those things.

"At the end of the day he knows if I'm out on the ice I'm going to help the team win, so he wants me out there."

The Canucks could certainly use Mitchell's help, having fallen to ninth in the Western Conference with just three wins in their past 12 games. But Vigneault, who was named the NHL's coach of year last season in his first year in Vancouver, said he'd never put pressure on an injured player to dress.

"I don't put pressure on players to play if they tell me they are hurt," said Vigneault. "No organization can do that. Players are the ones that have the ultimate decision."

At this time of year few players are totally healthy, the coach added.

"The schedule is so demanding that throughout the season a player is never really at 100 per cent," he said. "That being said, the players are the ones that make the final decision if they can play or not.

"Some guys play through things, some other guys have a tougher time. It depends on the state of the injury. All players want to play, and if they are healthy enough, they do."

Mitchell said he hurt his back when checked into the boards in a game against Calgary just after Christmas. He played the next nine games until "I couldn't control my legs because of the pain."

Athletes always walk the fine line of playing hurt but knowing when they are jeopardizing a team's chances by being on the ice, Mitchell said.

"It's a little tough at times because I'm the player," he said. "I understand the pain I'm going through and how I'm not ready and stuff like that.

"I understand where he (Vigneault) is coming from, where he wants the player back in the lineup. That's professional sports. As a player you have to be professional. They don't want me back for two games and then gone for the rest of the season."

Mitchell and Vigneault haven't spoken to each other since the defenceman began missing games. They communicate through trainer Mike Burnstein.

"Sometimes there is a miscommunication around here," said Mitchell. "We've seen that."

In 47 games this season, the six-foot-three, 210-pound Mitchell has been one of the Canucks most consistent defenceman. He has one goal, six assists and is a plus-seven.

Among the other injured Canucks, defenceman Kevin Bieksa skated again before practice. It's still not known when Bieksa, sidelined since Nov. 1 with a lacerated calf, will return to the lineup.

Lukas Krajicek is scheduled to undergo further tests to determine the extent of his shoulder injury.



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