NEWARK, N.J. - A pinched nerve in his neck and upper back sidelined New Jersey's Martin Brodeur for 12 games, and doctors told the NHL's winningest goaltender there was a chance it could have been a lot longer.
Brodeur returned to Devils practice for the first time in nearly a month Monday and felt pain-free after working out for an hour at the team's practice rink at the Prudential Center. The 40-year-old will not start against the rival New York Rangers Tuesday night, but he did not rule out backing up Johan Hedberg, who has started every game in his absence.
"It's definitely the best I have felt on the ice so far," said Brodeur, who has been skating for a little more than a week. "We'll see how my body reacts and we'll go from there. I don't expect nothing to change. I'll skate in the morning but I don't think I'll be playing, that's for sure."
Brodeur last played in a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals on Feb. 21. He said his back was bothering him for about a week or two before that. He was scheduled to start at Winnipeg on Feb. 24 but shut himself down for almost three weeks because the injury was causing spasms and numbness in his shoulder and arm.
"I didn't feel good," Brodeur said. "I didn't feel right. Not that I was in pain much, I was for a while when we left Winnipeg. We did a lot of different things and saw a lot of different doctors to see that there was nothing where I could hurt myself. They wanted me to take it easy for a long time. I didn't like that, but you have to follow the advice of the people who know what they are doing."
Brodeur took some medications to reduce the inflammation and stayed off the ice. He has not had symptoms with his back and neck for about 7-to-10 days.
"Doctors didn't know if it was going to be three days, five days, a week, two weeks, two months," said Brodeur, who had an 8-2-3 mark, a shutout and a 2.27 goals-against average before being sidelined. "They couldn't tell me how it was going to respond so I needed to kind of stay focused on not knowing when it would be back. It's a little longer than I thought, but a lot shorter than some of those doctors told me it was going to be. I am pretty happy right where I am now."
The Devils were happy to have Brodeur on the ice Monday. They went 3-7-2 with the 39-year-old Hedberg starting the last 12 games and have slipped from near the top of the Eastern Conference to being in a dogfight for one of the last playoff spots with six weeks left in the lockout-shortened regular-season.
No one is blaming Hedberg for the slump.
"There were a lot of games in that streak where we deserved better and things weren't happening for us," Brodeur said. "Guys sort of got cold scoring. You look at the last two games we played really well. We stayed in games and 'Heddy' played really well, but we have not much to show for. That's the type of season we are going through, and a lot of teams are going the same. I don't know if I would have made a difference. Nobody knows that."
Brodeur's return to practice had some funny moments.
Early in the workout, Devils leading goal-scorer David Clarkson hit Brodeur in the mask practicing a one-on-one drill, and the two exchanged comments with Clarkson laughing while skating away.
After practice, Brodeur said it wasn't the first time that has happened, while Clarkson said: 'Who me?'
When told Brodeur spoke about it, Clarkson laughed, insisting his shot wasn't even hard and didn't make much noise hitting off the goaltender's mask.
"He is a leader in this room and he is someone that pushes you as a player," Clarkson said. "He pushes you to be better just by his work ethic. It's great to see him back in the net and he looks like he feels better."
Hedberg understands that the starting job belongs to Brodeur once he is ready.
"You don't want him to rush into something and it's counterproductive," Hedberg said. "When the time is right for him to come back, we're glad to have him back."
Brodeur hopes to start Thursday's game in Carolina. Coach Peter DeBoer said Hedberg would start Tuesday but he did not rule out dressing Brodeur as the backup if he is healthy. In Brodeur's absence, the Devils have dressed Jeff Frazee to back up Hedberg.
Neither Brodeur nor DeBoer thought it was a bad move to dress the three-time Stanley Cup winner if he wasn't starting.
"If I am on the bench that means I am going to be OK to play," said Brodeur, who had 24 saves in a 3-1 win over the Rangers earlier this season. "I guess I might not be able to start a game because I don't think my game is there, but adrenaline takes over in these types of situations and I'll be fine if something happens."