DENVER - Peter Mueller was in the spotlight and at long last the glare didn't make his head hurt.
The Colorado Avalanche forward scored twice in a 4-3 overtime win over Florida on Wednesday night, his first goals since returning last week from concussion symptoms that have plagued him for nearly two years.
These days, Mueller wears bigger shoulder pads along with a custom-fitted helmet that loops around his ears to better cushion his head and neck. He also dons a tinted visor that cuts down on the reflection from the arena lights, which at one point really affected him.
Not as much anymore as he's starting to feel like himself again.
Mueller certainly showed flashes of his offensive flair on Wednesday with two nifty scores and an assist on Paul Stastny's game-tying goal late in the third period.
"It feels unbelievable," Mueller said.
Maybe even a touch surreal.
This has been an arduous road back for the gifted goal scorer, one full of false starts and hopes. He missed all of the 2010-11 season because of a head injury and then a chunk of games this season.
"What a battle it is to get back to where I am right now," Mueller said. "I wish that would never happen to anyone."
But it is—and to the game's biggest and brightest stars, too. Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby is sidelined indefinitely with a recurrence of concussion-like symptoms. That's the frustrating thing with this injury—there's simply no timetable for a return.
And even a return to the ice guarantees nothing.
Mueller thought he was well on his way to recovery at the beginning of the season, only to suffer a relapse and have to sit out 40 more games. It was tough to swallow.
"You don't practice, you don't see the guys—you almost feel like you're not part of the team," Mueller said. "But now, coming in every day, being a part of everything, it's a great feeling. It's long overdue."
His smirk after the game was proof of that. Ryan O'Reilly may have scored the overtime game-winner against Florida, but Mueller stole the spotlight.
"I can't tell you what this means to me," said Mueller, who's from Bloomington, Minn. "I feel good, a little tired, but I felt great out there."
Steadily, he's been getting his touch back, especially as his ice time increases. He played 13 minutes in his return four games ago at Nashville on Jan. 12 and logged nearly 20 minutes on Wednesday.
In the second period, Mueller broke a long scoring drought by lining a shot past Panthers goaltender Jose Theodore.
It was his first goal since April 4, 2010, against San Jose—a game he will never forget.
He also suffered a head injury in that contest, which has hindered him ever since. Mueller was tracking down a puck in the corner when he was smashed into the boards. He missed the rest of that season and the playoffs.
Mueller tried to return in the fall of 2010, only to hurt his head again in a preseason game.
From there, it's been a grinding march back to health with something as simple as stepping into the sunlight giving him instant headaches.
That is, until recently.
"Everything is coming back to normal," Mueller said. "Slowly, but it's coming back."
Here's an optimistic sign: Mueller isn't as fearful of hard checks anymore. He's even learned to reposition his body in a way to better absorb the blows.
Not only that, but he's been dishing out some licks, too.
"And nothing has been bothering me, which is awesome," Mueller said. "Every time I get touched or hit, there seems to be no problem. I'm looking to get right back into the play. Things have been great so far."
The only real obstacle has been his conditioning. He still needs a few more games to get his hockey legs back.
"I'm right there," Mueller said. "Just a couple of more notchesand then it will be good."
Not that his teammates have noticed any rust. He still resembles the player the Avs acquired in a deal that sent Wojtek Wolski to Phoenix in March 2010.
Right away, Mueller showed his scoring prowess, notching 20 points in 15 games.
And then came the head injury.
"It's been a tough year and a half for him," Stastny said. "He's been through a lot of ups and downs, but he's been battling through that and his spirit has stayed high. To see him have a night like this, it's awesome for him."
Mueller added his second goal of the night with a laser of a slap shot in the third period. Later, he nearly completed the hat trick as fans littered the ice with hats after believing Mueller, not Stastny, had tapped in the tying goal.
"Would have been nice if he got the hat trick," Stastny said. "He was flying all night and it was long time coming for him. I think it was something special for him."
Sure was, feeling right at home again in the glare of the spotlight.
"Nothing comes easy in this league, especially if you're dealing with your health," Mueller said. "Everyone has been so supportive through this whole process. What a night to cap it off."