When the Wild arrived in picturesque Newark two months ago, Brian Rolston was humbled, a bit embarrassed. That game against Minnesota, the team with which he experienced so many highs, would be the veteran's first in a New Jersey Devils uniform since twice passing unclaimed through waivers.
The Devils stunk. And GM Lou Lamoriello was hoping to free salary-cap space, even trying to create room by enticing others to take Rolston at half his $5 million salary on re-entry waivers.
Rolston saw it coming, but it was still a brutal experience.
This is a proud, quality hockey player, one who registered three straight 30-goal seasons with the Wild. He felt omnipotent (his word, with a chuckle) when the Devils came calling with a monster four-year, $20.25 million contract in 2008.
He scored 15 goals his first year back with the team that drafted him in 1991, 20 his second year. But even though he scored two goals through early January, Rolston believed, "I can still play in a top-six capacity."
Well, guess what?
"It's been vindicating for me," Rolston said.
"That's the word to describe it. Vindicating," he repeated again, with a chuckle.
As part of the Devils' remarkable 21-3-2 resurrection, Rolston has scored 10 goals and 22 points in the past 26 games. Playing on the top line, the 38-year-old resembles the Rolston who wore Iron Range Red.
He's getting five, six, seven, eight shots a game again -- big, booming howitzers that Wild fans saw often.
"I never felt like I got a shot here," Rolston said. "They bring me in and pay me all this money. You know the money is great and obviously we're well-paid. We're not curing cancer, I understand. But as a hockey player, you want to produce."
After Rolston was put on waivers, captain Jamie Langenbrunner was traded. With Zach Parise still hurt, Rolston suddenly wasn't trapped behind bodies anymore.
"I tried to tell them all along that's what I need," Rolston said. "I knew I wasn't playing that good, but when you play 12, 13 minutes, that's the hardest job in hockey, I think, and it's not easy for me. I was averaging 21 in Minnesota.
"The thing is, I wouldn't get a regular shift. Then they'd put me out on the power play and say, 'Go get 'em.' You just can't play that way."
Rolston is mostly proud that he played the good soldier.
"If I was negative and causing problems in our dressing room, Lou may have just sent me down," Rolston said. "But I'm not that guy. ... Then Jacques [Lemaire] came back [as coach]. He took the reins of the team like he did in Minnesota."
The Devils have responded. They've played Jacques Lemaire hockey, won close games and chopped a 27-point playoff deficit on Jan. 8 to eight as of Saturday.
"The first half of the year was a humbling situation for our whole team," Rolston said. "When that happens to you, you don't have individuals anymore. It becomes more of a team because we're all feeling the pain together. That's where it began and ended.
"But I've played for Jacques nine out of my 16 years. I said to him, 'If you're the best professor in this sport, then I've got to be the master student.' I've gotten an education plus a masters and then some. They'll open the suitcase to keep him this summer, for sure."
As for Rolston, he's feeling "awesome" again and hopes to help the Devils complete the miracle turnaround.
After a huge game recently against Carolina, Rolston skated by the Hurricanes' bench and said, laughing, 'You could have had me at half price.' Honestly, I'm not that type of guy. It's more for comic relief in our dressing room."