WEST ORANGE, N.J. (AP) -The New Jersey Devils' chances of winning the Atlantic Division improved a little on Monday with the return of left wing Patrik Elias.
The Devils' captain skated with the team at the Codey Arena and pronounced himself ready to go for the big game at the Nassau Coliseum against the New York Islanders on Tuesday night.
It will be Elias' first game since suffering a groin injury on March 15, and this is a big one for both teams.
New Jersey is tied with Pittsburgh for first place in the division with seven games left in the regular season. The Penguins have six to go, while the Islanders are in a pack of six teams battling for the last three playoff spots.
"We have been here long enough, everybody, to know that you just can't turn the switch on or off," Elias said. "We have to get it going now. Our goal isn't to look at the standings, but to work hard and get into the playoff mode."
Injuries this past month have raised questions about the Devils.
A year ago, they won their final 11 games to win the division title. They swept the Rangers in the first round before being eliminated by the eventual champion Carolina Hurricanes in the second.
New Jersey is literally limping down the stretch this season, winning only four of its last 11 games.
Besides Elias, the Devils' leading scorer, John Madden and Brian Gionta have battled groin injuries this month. Jamie Langenbrunner, the team's second-leading scorer, was forced to leave a game against Florida on Saturday night with an illness. He did not practice on Monday.
"The last couple of days, I don't think panic has set in, but you are concerned," said center Scott Gomez. "You get that attitude that certain guys will come back and we'll get back to where we were. But that's not how it works in this league sometimes."
The good news for New Jersey is that Madden has skated the past two days and Gionta, who is on the long-term injury list until next month, practiced on Monday.
The young kids the Devils have called up from the minors - Rod Pelley and David Clarkson - have filled in admirably. New Jersey has struggled scoring, which is to be expected with Elias (21 goals) and Gionta (24) out of the lineup along with their best defensive forward, Madden.
"It's better to have these injuries now than right before the playoffs," forward Jay Pandolfo said. "I think if the guys can get back in time we can get it going again."
And if they can't, the Devils still have Martin Brodeur in goal.
"You want to go out there and feel good when the playoffs start," Brodeur said. "Last year was special, winning 11 in a row going in. Regardless of what happens, we just have to play well every game; get consistent effort, get the power play going. It's a fine line, though. You want guys back, but you want them healthy."
Elias said no one is pushing him to get back. He's ready, and he hopes the Devils are ready when the race for the Stanley Cup starts in two weeks.