Wednesday March 18th, 2009

When a goalie reaches a milestone like the one Martin Brodeur achieved in the Devils' 3-2 win against the Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday night, it's hard to look beyond the individual -- and perhaps appropriately so. But winning 552 games means more than just the masked man in the cage. It's a testament to the team that plays before him.

On this point, New Jersey head coach Brent Sutter was reminded of the careers of Jacques Plante and Gump Worsley. Plante had a remarkable career with the Canadiens, winning six Stanley Cups and six Vezina Trophies over 10 years in Montreal. Worsley, meanwhile, backstopped a middling New York Rangers team that rarely made the playoffs. The two swapped places in 1963, and within three years Worsley was the Vezina-winning NHL champion with the Canadiens, and Plante was playing in the minors.

"There's something to it about the team that's playing in front of you," Sutter said Monday.

Brodeur is the first to agree that he owes much of his success to his teammates, not the least of whom was a record-breaker himself Tuesday. Patrik Elias, who became the Devils' all-time leading scorer the same night Brodeur became the winningest goalie in NHL history, has been on the ice for now 399 of Brodeur's wins. "Wow," he says smiling. "So I should be getting credit for a lot of the wins also."

He's joking, of course, but Elias can very well take a certain amount of credit for Tuesday's win, when he earned the game-winning assist. With about three minutes left in the second period and the Devils shorthanded, Elias picked up the puck at center ice and sped through the Blackhawks defense before centering a pass to Brian Gionta, who buried it for his 16th goal of the season.

"He's so patient, and he sees the ice so well," Gionta said. "But the biggest thing is that he's able to hold onto it and force guys to him. It was a great pass."

With the assist, Elias picked up his 702nd point of his career, passing John MacLean on the Devils' all-time scoring list. The fans at the Prudential Center, plenty dressed in green to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, saluted the Devil Patrik by giving the winger an ovation that lasted the better part of three minutes. "Pat-rik!" they roared. And even when the Blackhawk's scored a goal 32 seconds later, it was barely acknowledged as the building shook to celebrate Elias.

The night may have belonged to Brodeur, but this moment was Elias's alone.

"I was very happy to be given the acknowledgement," Elias said. "And you know what, I choked up a little bit. It was great."

With 74 points in 69 games, second on the Devils to Zach Parise, Elias has been showing flashes of his former self in his 13th NHL season. It has seemed like the winger, who once flourished on the best line in Devils history -- the A-line with Jason Arnott and Petr Sykora -- has returned to the days before hockey, and his health, were almost taken from him by disease he knew nothing about.

While playing in Russia during the lockout, Elias says he was in the best shape of his career. Because of the considerably lighter playing schedule, as compared to the NHL, he had more time to work out in the gym, lift weights, run and condition his body. It was health, he says, that helped him put up the fight of his life, when he contracted Hepatitis A from contaminated food.

"I was just lucky that I was at that stage because even when the sickness came, my body could kind of handle it better," he says. Still, Elias fell gravely ill. Bed-ridden for weeks, he couldn't do anything as his liver began to fail.

"After a couple of days [back] in Prague, [the doctors] told my wife that I might not be able to play hockey anymore just because of the severeness of the Hepatitis," Elias says.

But the thought never crossed Elias' mind -- not even when he couldn't move without feeling nauseous, or when he lost 25 pounds because he could barely eat anything for months, or when he could only stand 10 minutes of walking on a treadmill before the pain in his liver became too much to bear. He never thought that he couldn't make his way back to the NHL.

"I just thought I was sick," he says now, laughing a little. "[The doctors] didn't tell me my liver was giving up, and I'm glad I didn't have that knowledge. I probably would've freaked out. It definitely would've worried me more, but I just took my time and worked hard."

It was a long road back -- six months before he felt relatively healthy, 10 months before he could skate again. And when he returned midway through the 2005-06 season, he surprised everyone, including himself, by scoring 45 points in just 38 games. And he looked anything but ill during the playoffs, as he led all Devils with six goals and 16 points in nine games.

In the seasons since, his name has remained near the top of the scoring list, and now, he stands alone in franchise history. In 13 seasons in New Jersey, he's been through it all -- the good (two Stanley Cups) and the bad (a life-threatening illness) -- and he's been able to build a body of work that won't be easy to take down.

"I just hope I've brought some kind of excitement for the fans," he says. "And hopefully, I got some of those fans out of their seats throughout the years."

Well, when the horn blew to end the second period Tuesday night, they were all on their feet, cheering him on.

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