Dainius Zubrus took one more step toward a return to action Wednesday, when he practiced with the team for the first time in two months.
Zubrus has missed 27 games since taking a shot off his leg at Nashville on Nov. 19. He skated between Andrew Peters and Ilkka Pikkarainen in Wednesday's morning skate and had positive news to report afterward.
"(I feel) pretty good, considering," Zubrus said. "I’m very excited to come back and be a part of the locker room again. It’s been two months, which is the longest stretch I’ve ever had with injuries. But it’s an exciting time for me."
He had gotten off to a strong start in his first 20 games, tallying two goals and five assists before he was hit with the biggest injury of his 13-year career.
"You’re always disappointed when things like that happen," he said. "I don’t think there was that much that I could’ve done differently to avoid it. Unfortunate things happen and you deal with it. Once I got my surgery done and the doctors were happy with it, I needed to stay positive and my goal was to come back in better shape than I was when I got hurt. I’ve been working hard with the trainers doing my rehab. Now I think it’s a matter of skating with the guys and getting back to game shape."
No timetable has been announced for his return to the lineup, but the team will continue to carefully monitor his progress. When healthy, his 6-5, 225-lb. frame adds major size and strength for the Devils up the middle.
"He looks good," said head coach Jacques Lemaire. "We’ll have better practices this week so he’ll be involved in those practices. After the week, we’ll look again and see where he stands, how he feels."
Zubrus wasn't immediately certain that the slapshot from Predators' defenseman Kevin Klein had done any damage.
"Obviously it hurt," he recalled. "I remember myself getting hit and going down from taking a shot, but then you get up. (This time) I knew that something was not all that good. A lot of time during the game, you get a shot in the foot or something and you put some ice on it, and 10 minutes later it feels much better and you’re back in the game. I was kind of hoping that would be the case. It wasn’t."
He explained that if there's a chance they might return to a game, players keep a skate or pad on to prevent an injury from swelling.
"There’s a lot of times it’s painful. You take a shot in the ankle and you’re thinking, ‘Oh no, I can’t put any weight on it,’" he said. "Then you go to the bench and give it 3-5 minutes. The important thing is, don’t take your equipment off. Keep it all tight, keep the compression then you come back five minutes later."
At the time, he didn't rule out getting back on the ice. One of the most durable Devils, Zubrus had not missed a game in two seasons since signing with New Jersey in 2007.
"I’ve been hit before and was hoping I could come back," he said. "You go off the ice, I thought I would miss a few (minutes) and be back out there. The longer it went, the worse it was getting. Right there, we took some X-rays right there that weren’t so great."
The shot dented the cap of his right shinguard, but didn't crack it. Nevertheless, Zubrus said he's considering a new pair.
"These are pretty old," he said. "They mold to your leg after years of use. That’s the most comfortable you feel and that’s what you keep for games. I think I’ll be upgrading my shin pads a little bit quicker these days."
He continued: "The whole shin pad bent all the way to my knee and damaged the knee. More than anything, I think it’s just unfortunate because I don’t think I’ve seen that, ever. I’ve never heard of it in more than 10 years of being in the League."
Excited to be this close to 100 percent, Zubrus isn't ready to set a target date just yet.
"I think right now, we’re trying to give it the best rest we can get," he said. "I don’t think we’re looking too far ahead. We’re just going to see how it’ll be in the next three to four days. We’ll see. We need to test it, and it’s tough because there’s so many games that it’s not easy to get a practice with the guys. But we’ll try to practice as much as I can. So far, it’s been good: no setbacks, nothing. It feels like I’m improving every day."