RALEIGH, N.C. -- Carlo Colaiacovo is being as cautious as that chubby bearded dude in the red suit who doesn't want to get his rump singed on glowing embers while sliding down a few fireplaces next week.
Having been burned so many times before in his predictions of a potential return to the lineup, Colaiacovo is proceeding gingerly when the subject of his comeback is mentioned.
"It's too early to predict an actual date," the hard-luck defenceman said yesterday.
'OUT TOO LONG'
"I've been out too long for that. I'm hoping by the end of the month. But I'm not going to put a date on it."
Despite the uncertainty of his comeback, the injury-plagued Colaiacovo could not hide his euphoria when chatting with a trio of Toronto writers. He had, after all, been waiting for this day for a long time.
Having not participated in a full practice since last spring, Colaiacovo joined his teammates for the morning skate at the RBC Center yesterday and was in his own personal heaven. Not only was he the first Leaf on the ice, he then stayed behind for a bag-skate with one of the assistant coaches long after most of the Leafs had left the ice.
It had been almost eight months since he underwent knee surgery, and the road back just to get to this point had been far too long.
"The last three or four months, I've been skating by myself. There has been no one to pass to. There has been no goalie out there. I felt like a 50-goal scorer because there was no goalie," he said.
All that changed yesterday when he finally able to feel like a member of the team again by participating in the game day skate, just another step in coach Paul Maurice's plan.
According to Maurice, Colaiacovo's recovery will come in stages. The first two -- skating with the team's power-skating coach, then skating with the assistant coaches, each time pain-free -- have been achieved. Colaiacovo passed the third stage yesterday by getting through a game-day skate pain-free, thereby clearing the way for him to participate in a full practice tomorrow in Tampa.
CLEARED FOR PRACTICE
"Yes, as far as I'm concerned, I'll be practising," Colaiacovo, 24, said. "I had two really good, hard skates back to back, especially after not skating that hard for that long.
"It was great to get out there with the guys (yesterday), to move the puck around and just be part of the group again. I think this whole trip is going to be a great experience for me, just to get back and be a hockey player again."
One of the oldest, most tiresome cliches in pro sports these days is the phrase "one day at a time." But for Colaiacovo, that is the only logical way he can view his comeback attempt, given his history of false alarms.