Thursday, January 05, 2006

Elias' Excellence Lifting Devils

They waited 39 games and three months for their best forward Patrik Elias to return from a serious illness Hepatitis A which he contracted playing in Russia during last year's lockout. After two games in which a less than 100 percent Elias helped lead his struggling team to back-to-back victories in the New Year, it has to be considered a huge lift for the Devils.

The team's leading scorer the past five seasons, the 29-year-old Elias wasn't able to start skating until late October and didn't return to practice with his teammates until two weeks ago. His target date for coming back was the following week against Vancouver. However, with his team uncharacteristically out of the postseason at this juncture, Elias pushed up the date to Tuesday night at home against Florida. Just what the doctor ordered.

On a team without a captain since Scott Stevens retired, Elias returned to the ice wearing an 'A' in front of diehard supporters who braved icy weather conditions to cheer their hero. He didn't disappoint. In over 15 minutes of ice-time, the most skilled forward the Devils possess showed a lot of determination and grit in his first game back.

Reunited with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta to form the EGG Line which had much success the last time they played together two years ago, Elias led not just with the usual skills many fans have come accustomed to seeing. He also took the body at will, throwing several clean hits into Panthers. One allowed Gomez to retrieve a puck in the corner and make a perfect backhand feed to a cutting Gionta for a goal. Already, Elias had made a difference on a team that has been searching for an identity for far too long this season.

Though his hands weren't there when it came to finishing plays including a breakaway late, Elias continued to do the little things well to setup a second Gionta goal. With another good check, he forced a turnover and then made a no-look pass to a wide open Gionta for an easy tap-in to help boost his club to a much needed 3-0 triumph Tuesday night. No coincidence that the 16 save shutout was Martin Brodeur's first of the season.

What would Elias have for an encore last night for his legions of growing fans? Only a two-goal, two assist performance worthy of what a two-time All-Star and former First All-Star Team selection could do in a 5-4 win over Montreal. Elias, Gomez and Gionta combined for 11 points (3-8-11) in conquering the Habs.

For those keeping score at home, in two games (both wins) the EGG line has been responsible for six of the Devils' last eight goals. Not too shabby for a line that just got its most integral part back. Just imagine what they can do when Elias is back up to full speed. Opponents beware.

The best part for Elias and his teammates is that by helping them win two straight to get back to .500, the Devils are only one point behind eighth place Montreal and Atlanta and just five in back of seventh place Tampa Bay.

What Elias' return has also done is provide a huge lift for his hockey club. No longer do they have to wonder when their star left wing would return. Finally, Elias has provided the Devils with some much needed momentum heading into the second half of their schedule.

By showing that he still can create magic on the ice with the puck as Brian Rafalski will attest after the winning goal setup by Elias, it should give his teammates plenty of confidence.

He might not have a 'C' on his chest but his actions so far say otherwise. Just what a leader is supposed to do. Super indeed.

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