STOCKTON -- Sprawled on the ice, Alex Stalock couldn't believe that it almost happened again.
An opposing skater had come up from behind and jumped over Stalock, a top Sharks goaltending prospect playing in only his second game after missing a year because of a chilling injury.
But this time, the player cleared Stalock's legs.
"I just laid there for a moment and thought, 'Holy cow,' " Stalock recalled. "I was having flashbacks."
On Feb. 4, 2011, three days after he made his NHL debut, Stalock suffered a deep skate cut behind his left knee that sliced through nerve, tendon and muscle. The damage was so severe that doctors initially warned him his career might be over.
But despite a continuing lack of sensation in the leg, Stalock has made a remarkable recovery. After a rehabilitation assignment with the Stockton Thunder, Stalock took another big step this week when he was promoted to the Sharks' minor league Worcester affiliate.
"This," general manager Doug Wilson said, "is a special kid."
Stalock, who had a lot of free time over the past year to think about what happened, knows the outcome could have been far different.
"I'm just thankful that I'm able to play again," he said last week.
The diagonal scar is barely noticeable. It doesn't do justice to the seriousness of an injury that a hockey skate can inflict.
"They're basically knives," said Stalock, a 24-year-old Minnesota native. "It's funny how I never really thought about that before."
Stalock, a fourth-round pick in the 2005 entry draft who played at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, is small for a goaltender at 6-foot, 180 pounds. But he's a phenomenal athlete who makes acrobatic saves and has unparalleled puck-handling skills.
He also doesn't fit the goaltender stereotype of the quirky loner. Vocal and well-liked, Stalock had become a leader on the American Hockey League's Worcester Sharks, where he was the team's MVP for the 2009-10 season.
"Just a great dude," said Sharks All-Star Logan Couture, who lived with Stalock for a year. "He always has a smile on his face. He's just so competitive. You want him on your team."
His chance with the Sharks arrived when he was called up to replace an injured Antero Niittymaki. On Feb. 1, with the Sharks down 3-0 to Phoenix at HP Pavilion and starter Antti Niemi struggling, coach Todd McLellan looked at Stalock on the bench and said: "Alex, you're going in."
Stalock, who had no time to get nervous, shut out the Coyotes for the final 29:47 as he made nine saves, helping the Sharks stage a 5-3 comeback victory.
"It was an unbelievable week," he said. "My parents had flown out for the game. It was the ultimate high. And then this."
Surgery at Mayo Clinic
The Sharks started a road trip the next night, beating Anaheim and then flying on to Boston. Stalock was sent back to Worcester so he could play against Manchester, the Los Angeles Kings' affiliate.
The plan was to recall him for the Sharks' game against the Bruins. But a freak play changed all that.
Stalock blocked a routine shot from the point and scrambled to cover the puck. Manchester forward Dwight King, now playing with the Kings, was among the skaters battling for position and was knocked off-balance. He tried to leap over the prone goaltender.
Instead, he stepped on Stalock.
For all the protective gear goaltenders wear, they are vulnerable behind their legs. Stalock, who wasn't yet in pain, knew something was wrong only because he couldn't stand up. Everyone else was baffled.
"No one really knew what happened," said Sharks forward John McCarthy, who was on the Worcester bench. "I hadn't seen any blood on the ice. It was only later that we realized how scary it was."
By the time he reached the locker room, Stalock had decided that his ankle must be broken.
"I remember being on the training table, telling them that I didn't want to look at my ankle if it was bent sideways," he said. "But they took the skate off and it was fine. We were wondering, 'What is going on here?' Then the doctor found the cut."
The rest was a blur. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital where he immediately underwent surgery to repair the sliced hamstring tendon and deep cut into the biceps femoris muscle.
But the biggest concern was that the common peroneal nerve -- one of the two major nerves that travel down the leg -- had been severed. The Sharks privately wondered if Stalock even would be able to walk normally again, let alone play.
The damage resulted in shooting pains that went all the way up his back, and they wouldn't subside until a week later when he underwent an operation at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to reconnect the nerve.
Then, he could only wait to see if the nerve would regenerate. There were no guarantees.
"They told me that it was going to take time and that it probably was 50-50 that I wouldn't play again," said Stalock, who returned home to South St. Paul, basically incapacitated. "In my head, I never thought that. But maybe that's because I'm so young and you never think this stuff can happen."
When Sharks training camp opened in September, there was a growing optimism. Stalock skated for the first time. He slowly worked up to a rehab stint with Stockton, a minor league affiliate for the Sharks and Edmonton Oilers, making his return on Jan. 21.
While healthy enough to play, Stalock's recovery still has a long way to go. It could be another year before the nerve fully regenerates. Places on his leg still have no feeling. He also gets "these weird buzzing sensations" similar to when your arm falls asleep.
"I was told the new nerve grows down through the old nerve at a rate of about a millimeter a day," Stalock said. "We figure it's about halfway down my calf now. The only real problem I have is with the balance on the outside of my foot. It's easy for me to roll my ankle."
Six appearances with the Thunder, going 5-1 with a 2.83 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, showed he was ready to return to Worcester. There, he joins a crowded net that also includes touted prospects Tyson Sexsmith and Harri Sateri.
But Stalock, who now wears socks designed to help prevent cuts, is focused only on his own progress. And he carries a newfound appreciation of hockey's risks.
"Sitting on the couch last season, I would watch goalies almost get run over," he said. "I'd be like, 'That was close.' It's almost every play where something bad can happen."
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.
Sharks (31-17-6) at Tampa Bay (24-26-6), 4:30 p.m. CSNCA