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Keller healthy, expects to play in Coyotes’ season opener

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HENDERSON, Nev. — Clayton Keller said he expects to be ready to play in the Arizona Coyotes’ season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 13, but the forward doesn’t know yet if he will participate when training camp opens on Sept. 22.

“We’ll see. That’s the goal right now,” Keller said at the NHL North American Player Media Tour at Lifeguard Arena on Friday. “I think the most important thing is I’ll be ready for Game 1.”

It’s been a long road back for the 24-year-old, who fractured his leg after crashing awkwardly into the end boards during the third period of a game against the San Jose Sharks on March 30.

At the time of the surgery, Arizona said Keller would need 4-6 months to recover.

“It was just a fluke accident,” Keller said. “I lost an edge and kind of fell into the boards, and normally you can control yourself, but I was going so fast and I caught an edge, so I couldn’t slide sideways or anything. So it kind of just happened. I knew something was off when I couldn’t move my leg when I was down.”

The injury cut short a season in which Keller led the Coyotes with 28 goals (an NHL career high) and 63 points (two shy of his high he set in 82 games as a rookie in 2017-18) despite missing the final 15 games.

“It was definitely a little disappointing,” Keller said. “I was on track to have my best season ever, but I was just more motivated to get back healthy and do even better this year.”

Keller said the toughest part of the rehab, which he did in Arizona this summer, was “probably being patient.” He added that he was on crutches for about six weeks and walked with a limp for approximately three months.

“You’ve got to get away from the limp,” Keller said. “It wasn’t too painful after the first three weeks, and then it was fine. It was just tough to get around, but every week it seemed to get a little bit better and my leg would get stronger, and I think that’s the biggest thing, just getting that strength back.”

Keller received the go-ahead to resume skating about 3 1/2 months after he broke his leg.

“It was definitely a big day,” he said. “It still felt a little weird, but once I got on the ice, it got better every day, and it was nice for me mentally to be able to skate and have the feeling again. … I’ve skated a lot since then, twice a week for a while and then four times a week, and pretty much every day lately.”

Although he has been cleared medically, the Coyotes have told Keller they are going to be cautious with his return.

That is why he is unsure if he will practice at the start of camp, and why Arizona will also likely hold him out for most, if not all, of its seven-game preseason schedule.

“I probably won’t play preseason,” Keller said. “Maybe one of the last two (games), I would say. Maybe if I’m good to go, I can play the fifth (preseason game). The fifth or the seventh.”

Regardless, Keller is confident he’ll be ready for the season opener.

“I think it will be good,” he said. “That’s been everything I’ve been working for this entire summer is to get back for that game, and I’ll be ready for it and treat it like any other game and have fun.”

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