When asked why he would go through the endless hours of rehabilitation to continue playing hockey at 37, Ed Jovanovski sat back in his locker stall and sighed.
If there was any question whether Jovanovski loves playing this game, it quickly disappears.
“I take every day as a win,” Jovanovski said Tuesday night, not long after he had his biggest moment since returning to the Panthers earlier this month.
“I’m very fortunate.’’
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Jovanovski was the biggest story to come out of Florida’s 4-3 victory over the Sabres as the Panthers’ captain scored their third goal of the first period and assisted on the first.
The goal was Jovanovski’s first since the end of the 2012 season. He played six games last season, one in which the pain in his hip got so bad he says he couldn’t bend over to tie his shoes.
After traveling to Europe to try to find relief through Platelet Rich Plasma therapy, Jovanovski returned to the Panthers for a game on March 16. He lasted just two periods. For him to have any chance to continue playing, he needed to take the extreme measure of surgery for undergoing hip resurfacing. It’s possible Jovanovski will eventually need a hip replacement.
“I had no options,’’ he said during training camp.
It’s believed no professional athlete has ever returned from that surgery to such a high level of competition, but Jovanovski worked throughout the summer and early part of this season to come back.
Although many doubted he would ever come back — or at least return at the level it takes to play his position in the NHL — he played his first game of the season on Jan. 4 and had a plus-3 rating against Nashville.
“I’m getting a little up there,’’ Jovanovski said, “but I think for me, being able to be in the locker room and do something that I love ... to continue to do that is a privilege.’’
Tuesday’s game was his ninth of the year. He has yet to take a game off since returning.
“I think his pain has been relieved,’’ said general manager Dale Tallon, who signed Jovanovski to a four-year deal worth $16.5 million in 2011.
“He’s a leader and God bless him. What’s he’s doing is unbelievable. He’s a tough SOB and I really like him. His teammates love him. If anyone would come back from this, it’s Jovo. He’s been terrific.’’
Obviously the financial situation comes into play, although Jovanovski’s contract is guaranteed and he would be paid out whether he played or not.
It appears that Jovanovski’s main motivation has been to not only keep playing the game, but to continue to stay around it as well.
The camaraderie of the locker room, continuing to be one of the boys, is something he’s not willing to give up just yet.
“He cares and wants to win, but he also wants to have fun, and that’s been important to us, too,’’ Brian Campbell said. “He loves being in this locker room. Time goes pretty fast and this can go away pretty quick. I think it’s a good lesson for everyone. He loves what this is. This is him, where he strives.’’
Tuesday’s game was a big test for Jovanovski and his hip as it was the first time he played on consecutive nights. The Panthers have tried to manage his time but with Mike Mottau on the injured list, the team is carrying six defensemen. For Jovanovski to take a night off, a roster move would need to be made.
Coach Peter Horachek said that he didn’t use Jovanovski in the latter stages of Monday’s 5-1 win at Pittsburgh knowing that he would be needed the next night in Buffalo.
On Tuesday, Jovanovski not only got the Panthers going offensively, but logged big minutes in the latter stages when the Sabres were bringing everything they had in trying to tie the score.
Jovanovski played eight shifts in the third period, including the final 46 seconds when Buffalo was up a skater after pulling goalie Ryan Miller.
“He’s just a warrior,’’ Horachek said. “His leadership is outstanding, he wants to win. What he’s gone through to get here is just incredible.’’
• The Panthers will hold an open practice at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Coral Springs Iceplex.