- Scott Burnside, NHL
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BOSTON -- Bruins netminder Manny Fernandez has lost his tickets to this evening's game against the Florida Panthers. They have fallen between his dressing-room stall and the cinder-block wall, so he is trying to fish them out of the slim space using a coat hanger with a piece of hockey tape attached to the end of it.
It is not going well.
He learns it will cost $50 to reprint the tickets, leading Fernandez to redouble his efforts to extricate the missing ducats.
There is something both comical and tragic about Fernandez's single-minded efforts. The process is mindful of Fernandez's struggles to find himself, to find that happy and comfortable place that all NHL netminders seek. It is a place that is often close, yet just as often so distant. Like the tickets.
At the start of training camp, we spent some time with Fernandez and teammate Patrice Bergeron as they began their return from cataclysmic injuries. A quarter of the way through the season, it would be reasonable to suggest both journeys are going as well as could be expected. The Bruins are the toast of the East with a conference-best 14-3-4 record through Tuesday's games.
Bergeron and Fernandez have both contributed to that success. Yet we in the media are sometimes guilty of assuming moments like this represent a destination. No one has arrived anywhere, least of all Bergeron and Fernandez. This is merely a signpost on a journey whose destination is as yet unknown.
Bergeron points his hand in a steep upward motion. "I'm going up the hill," he said with a smile.
Through his first 21 games, Bergeron has 14 points and figures there is more to bring offensively, but his impact has gone beyond what is seen on the score sheet. Whether it's the power play or penalty kill, or providing offensive depth on the Bruins' suddenly potent attack, Bergeron has answered the bell.
"He really has a presence on the power play. He's a really good leader," said former NHL coach and national analyst Pierre McGuire.
Last season, Bergeron suffered a broken nose and concussion after Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Randy Jones rammed him face-first into the boards during an Oct. 27 game. It ended Bergeron's season and very nearly ended his career.
It's been months since doctors cleared Bergeron to play, and he no longer has any special medical tests he must undergo in terms of maintenance, yet there are nonetheless incremental steps to returning to where he was before his injury. Back-to-back games, travel in and out of time zones, things that he might have taken for granted before, have a brand-new feel to them.
"I have to adjust to all these things," he said.
Other things took time, too. Like his routines on those trips or on those back-to-back nights. "What was I eating, what was making me feel good before a game," Bergeron said.
On the ice, there may have been small issues of timing, things that are more obvious with a skilled player like Bergeron. But GM Peter Chiarelli said he sees little to indicate any tentativeness. Bergeron doesn't avoid the high-traffic, high-impact areas of the ice and is still an integral part of the Bruins' solid special-teams play.
"I've taken some hits that kind of helped me gain confidence in knowing that I'm good," Bergeron said.
After a potentially career-ending injury like Bergeron's, the natural inclination is to avoid being in a similar position, but Chiarelli praised the forward's mental toughness. "He's a very strong person, strong-willed," Chiarelli said. "Quiet, but strong-willed."
Before the season started, Bergeron talked about how the injury and his time away from the game taught him to appreciate what he has, how much loves what he does. Since his return, he relishes the moments he was without for so long, the feeling of contributing and being part of the group.
"The feeling after a game [when you've contributed]," Bergeron said. "That satisfaction that it brings to you and your teammates, just being happy with the way you played."
Not far from Bergeron's dressing-room stall at TD Banknorth Garden, Fernandez has enlisted the help of a number of Bruins staff to help retrieve the tickets.
For the Montreal native, the first quarter of the season has answered many of the questions that plagued him before the start of training camp.
After playing in just four games last season and missing the last couple of months of the 2006-07 campaign with recurring knee problems, Fernandez began this season haunted by the unknown.
Was he still an NHL netminder?
Slowly but surely, the answer has revealed itself unequivocally: yes.
Fernandez is 5-1-1 with a respectable 2.55 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. He has won his past four starts and hasn't lost in regulation in six straight (5-0-1).
There is a small amount of restriction in his range of movement in the surgically repaired left knee, but nothing compared to what it was before.
"Now I've got two legs that work," Fernandez said. "Now it's easier to put it in the back of your mind. I've got other stuff to worry about, like getting my game back."
He notices incremental steps forward in his game. His ability to pick up pucks through a screen has improved, and so has his agility. He feels lighter on his feet, and his ability to make routine saves (and not feel like he got away with something) has also grown.
"Little things creeping back that I used to take for granted," Fernandez said. "These are things you lose when you're for out a long time. It's been kind of rough, you know. I'm not going to say it's been easy."
But as much as Fernandez is slowly answering questions about his place in the game, those unknowns are giving way to more uncertainty and bigger-picture questions. The better he plays, the more uncertain his future in Boston becomes.
The 34-year-old shared the 2007 William M. Jennings Trophy (for the NHL's best goals-against average) with Niklas Backstrom when both were in Minnesota, and Fernandez will become an unrestricted free agent in July. Bruins starter Tim Thomas leads the NHL in GAA and save percentage, and prospect Tuukka Rask is waiting in the wings for a chance to establish himself as an NHL netminder.
Fernandez's play has given Chiarelli more options as the season progresses.
With top netminders like Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur on the long-term shelf, there is a market for a goaltender who can provide quality NHL starts. Teams will be looking for goaltending depth as the playoffs approach.
It doesn't mean Fernandez will be dealt for certain. There's also the attractive prospect of heading into the playoffs, possibly as a top seed, with two capable, veteran netminders backstopping a Bruins team that suddenly looks built for a long playoff run.
Fernandez understands all of the permutations that float on the horizon.
"I'm not stupid," he said. "A million things can happen between now and the end of the season, between now and the summer. Whatever happens next year are the least of my problems."
The best part? "Those are decisions I don't have to make. Thank God."
Meanwhile, the Bruins' staff reports Fernandez was successful in retrieving his erstwhile tickets.
And so, the journey continues ...
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.