Once the New Jersey Devils finished their Wednesday morning workout at the Prudential Center, coach Brent Sutter skated over to goalie Martin Brodeur and began the inquisition.
Sutter asked Brodeur how he was feeling? The goalie said, "Good." Sutter asked, "Are you ready to play?" Brodeur said, "Yup."
"I said, 'Well, then you're playing tomorrow," Sutter concluded. "Oh yeah, Marty was excited."
Exactly four months after surgery to repair a tendon in his left biceps, Brodeur will be back in the Devils' net Thursday night when they host the Colorado Avalanche. He last played against Atlanta on Nov. 1, when in the second period he reached out to make a save and felt a pop in his elbow. It was the tendon tearing completely off the elbow bone.
Brodeur returns with seven wins to go before he ties Patrick Roy for the all-time wins record. The Devils, paced by the strong play of Scott Clemmensen, who reeled off 25 wins and was still sent back to Lowell of the AHL Thursday, are first in the Atlantic Division with 79 points. They have 22 games remaining.
"Practices feel normal, but the game, I can't tell you," said Brodeur, who returned to practices full time on Feb. 14. "I feel I haven't lost much out there practicing and moving around and feeling the puck, controlling my rebounds and all that. Now it's just a question of seeing game action and I'm sure that will take a bit for me to get used to."
The NHL schedule makers were kind to Brodeur and the Devils this week. With three full practice days leading up to Thursday's game, Brodeur could test his elbow in game-like conditions and show Sutter that, yes, he does belong on the ice again.
Sutter likely came to the conclusion Tuesday night because by the time the Devils arrived at the rink Wednesday morning Clemmensen's name tag had been stripped off his locker stall and he was on his way to Lowell. Kevin Weekes remains the backup.
"He practiced like Marty practices," Sutter said. "He treats practices like games. He doesn't want to be scored on. His competitive nature kicks in in practices. After being around him for a while you can just tell when he's sharp in practice and when he isn't."
For his part, Brodeur, who had his own net for Monday and Tuesday's practices while Clemmensen and Weekes shared, said he "felt really good all week." He added that he is pain free, too, "knock on wood."
"It's amazing when you turn it on and you have more practice time and your own net how much better you feel in the net," Brodeur said. "It's been a long time coming and I feel really good."
Brodeur has been preparing to return Thursday for quite some time. He admits to studying up on the Avalanche as well as the Devils next two opponents, Florida and Philadelphia. When he was with the team last week in Florida, he began watching games with a players' eye, not a fans' eye.
"At first I was just enjoying the show like everyone else, but when I went on the road trip I was watching the game and thinking, 'I'll be there soon,' " Brodeur said. "That's part of my homework that I do to get myself as ready as I can. I did my homework."
The goalie was his usual affable self Wednesday, joking around with the media, smiling and laughing. At one point he even fumbled a Gatorade cup and but said, "It's still in front of me, that's what's important." Asked if the Devils will get a big crowd for his return, Brodeur responded, "I don't know. That depends on how you guys write it."
All kidding aside, Brodeur admits Thursday may feel a bit weird because he hasn't prepared for a weekday game at home since Oct. 29.
"It starts with preparation, like having a good meal and getting early to bed," Brodeur said. "It's something I haven't done in a while. I'm kind of excited for my nap (Thursday)."
"Yes, Marty looks really good in net now, but we have to be patient through this too and always keep in mind that decisions are made daily on what is right for the team. Obviously he's got to play. He's going to play. I can say it's not going to be every game, but how much over the next 22 games? His play and how he feels will dictate that."
-- Brent Sutter
"The most important thing here is let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. I'm taking it game to game," Sutter said. "Yes, Marty looks really good in net now, but we have to be patient through this too and always keep in mind that decisions are made daily on what is right for the team. Obviously he's got to play. He's going to play. I can say it's not going to be every game, but how much over the next 22 games? His play and how he feels will dictate that."
The big cloud hanging over all of this is Brodeur's assault on Roy's record of 551 wins. Brodeur currently has 544 and was a lock to break the record this season had he not gotten hurt.
With 22 games remaining it certainly is possible that the record falls this season, but Brodeur would just as well put any talk of it on the back burner for as long as possible.
"I want to get back to my game, and if the record happens that's great, but right now it's way, way back in my mind," Brodeur said. "I know a lot of people will put emphasis on it because at the end of the day it is something that's pretty amazing, but me personally, I just want to get back to playing well."
"(The Devils) have worked so hard all year long to get in this position and I want to make sure I'm going to contribute to the success of this hockey club for the next 22 games and going into the playoffs," he continued. "So, I can't think about it too much. I just want to get my game to the level where it needs to be to bring this team as far as possible."
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