Veteran Elias a vital cog in the machine

NEWARK, N.J. -- He is 36 years old and still among the last of the New Jersey Devils to come in from the morning skate.

Even though Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals looms a few hours in the distance, Patrik Elias is enjoying watching the coaches and extra players playing a little 3-on-3 after the morning skate.

Elias has known nothing else in his NHL life but the New Jersey Devils, a life that began with one game during the 1995-96 season and has gone on to include two Stanley Cup wins and another trip to the finals. He was named to the NHL’s all-rookie team and was an NHL first team All-Star in 2001.

He is back again, two wins from another trip to the finals. And if you expected someone who has seen it all while wearing the Devils jersey to be a little immune to all of the hoopla and the buzz, you would be disappointed.

Instead, Elias seems invigorated by it all.

“You have guys that have never been in this situation, this far, so you see the excitement here,” Elias said Wednesday. "You see, we feel like we are a good enough team to give ourselves a chance each night and it’s fun to watch. For me, even being in the third round, conference finals, you know you haven’t been here for a while so it’s great -- it’s great to experience that again.

“Every year is different, every round is different, every playoffs is different. This is a good group of guys and we’re enjoying just playing for each other."

Although Elias has just five points this spring and has gone six straight games without registering a point, he seems nonplussed.

“We’re winning, so that’s the main thing,” he said.

Certainly coach Pete DeBoer seems to have no concerns about the lack of offensive production from the veteran who moved over to left wing last game, playing with Ilya Kovalchuk and rookie Adam Henrique.

In fact, DeBoer credits Elias with being a key part of the Devils’ success all season.

“Because he’s been around, he’s been in every situation imaginable, there’s nothing that has come up this year that he hasn’t been through before. He’s got a coaching mind in the dressing room for us,” DeBoer said.

“In all honesty, it was critical that he bought into what we were selling as a coaching staff early so it would translate to the room. Probably him more than anybody, because he had played here for so long and won with an obviously different style, it was critical that we got him and Marty to buy in, and he was all-in from day one."

Elias and netminder Martin Brodeur are the last two holdovers from the Devils' glory days, and while Elias’ profile externally might be significantly lower, it is not so in the locker room.

“He’s very vocal in this room. When we’re down a goal and going into the third, he’s always one of the guys that speaks up and tells us just to keep pushing, keep doing the same things,” said forward David Clarkson.

"I haven’t played with a guy that sees the ice as well as Patty does sometimes. It’s amazing some of the plays he makes out there sometimes. I think on a leadership role, he’s really been a key part of why we’re here today."

Defenseman Marek Zidlicky has known Elias since they were teens in the Czech Republic and has played internationally with him over the years. He was excited at the prospect of joining his longtime friend when he was traded by the Minnesota Wild to New Jersey at the trade deadline this season.

"I think he’s legendary. He’s played here his whole career and he’s a pretty good player, very good guy, he’d do anything for the team," Zidlicky said.

Elias and Brodeur are anomalies, of course, choosing to stay their entire careers with one franchise, and for teammates it is something that inspires tremendous respect.

“I think it’s impressive,” Clarkson said. "Especially in today’s game, players move around and are in different places, and I think anytime you’re in one team for a long time, there’s a reason for it. It’s not just because they keep throwing contracts at you; there’s a reason why you’re there. I think being successful, him being successful and making this team successful is part of the reason he’s been here so long."

Elias is asked about his first playoff experience, which would have been in the spring of 1997, and laughs.

“Rich, what do I remember?” he said, nodding to longtime beat writer Rich Chere.

“I scored on Jocelyn Thibault my first playoff game,” Elias said, but admits he initially thought it was Jose Theodore until Chere checked and got it right.

“Hey, I was close enough. It was against Montreal,” he said.

Still, Elias isn’t one for wandering down memory lane. Not just yet.

”I’m still going. I’m still looking forward. It’s not time for me to look back yet,” he said.