Ready? Sullivan's play says 'you bet'
The words said this: I am ready.
But they hung in the air around Steve Sullivan like a wisp of smoke.
Even as he spoke them back in early January, you got the sense he had no idea whether they were anything more than just that; whether saying he was ready could possibly be followed by action; whether the words would simply mark the end as opposed to some sort of rebirth.
Yet, here he is, the diminutive winger who spent almost two years fighting through what looked to be a career-ending back injury, improbably dragging the Nashville Predators toward an equally implausible playoff berth.
Each night, the Preds seem to lose another piece of their limited scoring arsenal. Jason Arnott, David Legwand and Martin Erat are all missing in action, with Legwand and Erat gone for the season, and yet Nashville continues to stubbornly hang on to a postseason spot like some sort of icebound barnacle.
Sullivan? After recording just five assists in his first 16 games of the season -- heck, his first 16 games since Feb. 22, 2007 -- Sullivan has put up 21 points in his past 19 games, and six points in his past three games heading into Friday's tilt with Central Division foe Chicago. He helped set up the game winner in a huge win over Detroit on Sunday, about 24 hours after posting two assists and scoring the overtime winner against Los Angeles.
I am ready? You bet he is.
"It's been fantastic. With all that's taken place in the past two or three weeks with our injuries, I can't even imagine where we'd be without him," GM David Poile told ESPN.com this week.
When Sullivan first returned to action Jan. 10, a veritable avalanche of questions followed at his heels.
Could his fragile back stand the physical play?
If the 34-year-old could withstand the physicality, what could he accomplish after missing so much time?
How long would it take to get his timing back, his nerve to go to high-traffic areas?
How long could he last?
"Certainly you try and remain positive, but I'm the first to admit I really had my doubts it was going to happen," Poile said.
Sullivan's goals were modest to start, but even then, they were difficult to achieve.
"My goal was to try and help the hockey club every time I put the skates on," Sullivan said in an interview this week.
He figures he was managing to make two out of 10 plays he normally would make. Then, it was three or four.
"It's just been a slow progress," he said. "I don't think it was one day where I was, 'OK, I'm back.' Every game there were plays that you wanted to do but you couldn't."
Yet simply being on the ice was a measure of success. Sullivan kept pushing, finding more and more of what was once an elite offensive game, finding that comfort zone.
"There was a success story every game," he said.
Veteran analyst and former NHL coach Terry Crisp said he isn't surprised by Sullivan's renaissance for two reasons. First, Sullivan is a gifted skater. "He just glides over the ice," Crisp said. Second, Crisp said Sullivan has terrific skills.
Crisp believes the biggest issue for Sullivan was mental, getting over the uncertainty of what would happen when he was flattened by a hip check or hit into the boards or knocked down in front.
"Once he got through that, it was a piece of cake," Crisp said.
When we spoke to Sullivan on the eve of his return, he said it wasn't an issue of being pain-free, but of playing with a manageable level of pain. Now, 36 games into his rather astounding comeback, Sullivan said the pain is less an issue than he imagined.
"It's more stiffness and soreness, not so much pain," he said.
He does a lot of stretching and limbering up and bike riding to keep the back limber and game ready. His ice time has increased, as has his comfort level. From 12 to 17 minutes a night, Sullivan has jumped to routinely skating more than 20 minutes a night. The last time Sullivan was playing at this time of the season, the Predators had one of the best records in the NHL and were cruising toward the postseason. Now, they live and die every night.
"I'm not going to lie to you. We scoreboard watch," Sullivan said. "We're all looking at different scenarios and looking [at] everyone's schedule."
But, unlike other teams, the Predators have the luxury, if it can be called that, of knowing they don't need to worry about those things if they take care of their own business.
"We know that in our dressing room, we hold our own destiny," Sullivan said.
Destiny? Now there's an interesting term to toss around as this regular season winds to its conclusion. At one point, it seemed it would be Sullivan's destiny to finish up his career almost anonymously, unable to correct his back injury, fading away with so much left undone.
Now, his destiny appears to be something different altogether.
"Selfishly, it's been a great story for the Nashville Predators, but it's a much better story for Steve Sullivan and his family," Poile said.
Sullivan rarely thinks about the road he has traveled these past weeks, but the reminders of that path are constant.
"I'll never forget what I went through to come back," he said. "But we're just looking ahead now. And that's what I'm focusing on, too."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.