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Elias returns to practice

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Elias skated with the team at Monday's practice.

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One week ago, the Devils learned that Paul Martin and Jay Pandolfo would both miss significant time due to injury. On Monday, there was a much sunnier outlook at Devils practice after Patrik Elias hit the ice and skated with the team for the first time this season.

Wearing a blue jersey on the left side of a line with Travis Zajac and David Clarkson, Elias took part in Monday's uptempo practice at AmeriHealth Pavilion. Afterward, Elias admitted it was a tiring morning.

“Obviously, you can skate as much as you want on your own, conditioning-wise, but it’s just when you get out there with the guys and the puck and doing everything, it’s so different,” Elias said. “I was quite winded throughout the practice, but the leg felt OK. Me and the puck really didn’t understand each other that much. That’s going to take a while. Just seeing guys around me, it’s totally different. It’s going to take a few practices for me to get comfortable with the puck, comfortable with guys bumping into me, and all the stuff that, to play hockey, you have to be comfortable with doing. I don’t think you want to get out there if you’re still kind of questioning and keeping your head down so you don’t get killed.”

The Devils’ all-time leading scorer, Elias has not played since September surgery to break up scar tissue in his groin.

Talk of his return was a welcome change from seven days ago, when it was announced that Martin (forearm) and Pandolfo (shoulder) would be on the shelf for four to six weeks. The Devils have also had to overcome recent short-term injuries to Mike Mottau (lower body), who sat out a 4-1 win at Pittsburgh on Oct. 24, and Johnny Oduya (lower body), who missed Saturday’s 2-1 shootout win in Tampa Bay.

Finally, head coach Jacques Lemaire received some good news.

“With the guys we were losing there, it’s nice to see someone coming back, or getting close to coming back,” Lemaire said.

Said Zajac: “Any time you have a player like Patty coming back, you’re definitely excited. He brings a lot of skill to this team and his playmaking ability; he plays with a lot of poise. He can control the play and do a lot of good things with the puck and that’s what we need.”

The Devils have gotten off to a 8-4-0 start – including a franchise-best 7-0 mark on the road – without one of their top forwards. That the team has coped so well meant that Elias didn't have to rush his recovery.

“The guys did great on their own,” Elias said. “You look at the standings, I think that they surprised a lot of people. This team does well no matter what you throw at it. That may have made it a little bit easier also. I did enjoy my recovery time, doing the right things, and the time off. From now on, it’s going to be a grind to get through the rest of the season. It’s good if you can get a positive out of injuries and just get better, get healthy and enjoy the time (away from) everyday hockey.”

Conditioning aside, Zajac said Elias hadn’t lost his scoring touch. In 2008-09, Elias enjoyed his best campaign since the lockout, compiling 31 goals and 47 assists for 78 points in 77 games. He finished second to Zach Parise in all three categories and notched his 702nd point on March 17 to surpass John MacLean atop the Devils’ all-time scoring list.

He will add scoring punch for a Devils squad that currently sits 27th overall with 2.33 goals per game.

“He looks like he hasn’t missed a beat; still making plays,” Zajac said. “I’m sure his wind wasn’t where he wants it to be. But he didn’t look out of place out there at all.”

Now the question is when Elias will be ready for game action. The Devils host Washington on Wednesday and the Islanders on Friday before heading to Ottawa on Saturday. New Jersey doesn’t play again until the following Wednesday, when it hosts Anaheim.

Elias said Monday that there's no timetable for a comeback, adding that there’s potentially more harm in returning too soon. 

“Nobody’s said a word,” he said. “I haven’t practiced, I haven’t played a game in five months. I don’t think two practices will do it. I think there’s more of a danger to it than a positive. Today was practice; the guys knew it was my first time, so they backed off me a little bit and gave me time. Nobody’s going to do that in a game. You don’t want to get caught out there with your head down looking for the puck and give the other team an opportunity to get you.”

The Friday-Saturday back-to-back followed by three days off could be just the window Elias needs.

“There’s back to back games, so one game would be great to jump in just to get my feet wet a little bit,” he said. “Then we have three more practices after that, and that would be a perfect scenario. Like I said, no one’s said a word. We haven’t talked about it.”

Lemaire did not rule out using him against the Capitals on Wednesday.

“Latest by the weekend, I would say,” Lemaire explained. “It won’t be long. We’ll go day to day because he could make a huge improvement from one day to another and then he’s ready to play.”

Lemaire said he’ll have to be mindful of Elias' ice time as he rounds into form. Elias was third among Devils forwards in average ice time last season (18:34), but will have to work his way back gradually.

“You have to be careful because I don’t think his first game he’s going to come in and play 22, 24 minutes,” Lemaire said. “Usually a guy comes in, you get 15 out of him and that’s good. But it’s always how he’s going to play; how he’s going to feel, so you go with that.”

Lemaire has indicated all along that he expects to use Elias at center. Dainius Zubrus has been ably handling the pivot position in his absence, allowing for Elias to ease in at wing before a potential move to the middle. Zubrus has two goals – both game-winners – including the go-ahead goal in Thursday’s 2-1 win at Boston.

“Zubie has shown he’s playing solid. He’s strong, he’s good with the puck, he brings the puck out, good support. He skates well, covers up for the other guys. He’s done very well in that position. Having him there, then I’m not in a rush to play Pat at center.”

Oduya and Jamie Langenbrunner each had a rest day on Monday. Oduya missed Saturday’s game in Tampa with a lower body injury. “He’s close,” Lemaire said. When asked if Oduya would play Wednesday, Lemaire responded: “Maybe. Maybe yes, maybe no.”

As for the captain, Lemaire said, “Rest is good for him. Rest is his friend.”

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