The Devils started on the road in the playoffs and kept advancing, even though nobody really expected it. And before long, other teams fell away, and New Jersey was closing in on a Stanley Cup nobody picked them to sniff.
The year was 1995. Martin Brodeur had just turned 23.
That year, like this year, nobody took the Devils too seriously until it was too late. That year, like this year, the praise for the playoff surge went away from the goalie, at least for the most part. Back then it was the New Jersey “system” that most credited for the team’s unexpected success. This year it’s Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.
That’s fine. The left wing lock was important. So are the forwards this season. But let’s be plain about something: The only consistent difference over the past generation between the New Jersey Devils and the rest of the Eastern Conference is goaltending. That’s why the Devils hang around. That’s why every other team implodes. Including the Flyers. Right now.
Please let this be no offense to GM Lou Lamoriello and all the wonderful players the Devils have had, from Jason Arnott to John Madden to Scott Niedermayer to the current group of guys. All of them have been heady when everyone else has lost their minds. Credit to them. But credit also to Brodeur, who has allowed teammates to be heady by being the calmest and most reliable of them all. Any hockey player who has played a single postseason game will say confidence comes from the guy backing you up, and nobody this side of Patrick Roy has exuded more confidence over as many years as Brodeur.
So it’s laughable that a man who has backstopped three Stanley Cup championship teams – and has three shutouts already this spring – has never won a Conn Smythe Trophy. Brodeur hasn’t won a Hart Trophy either. It’s borderline insane how a guy who’s been arguably the most valuable player of the modern era has never been named most valuable player of anything in the NHL.
It probably won’t happen this year, either.
Yeah, Brodeur’s at the end of his career. Yeah, he’s 40. Yeah, he hasn’t won a Vezina Trophy since 2008 (the horror!). And lately he hasn’t always been his old self, including in these playoffs, when he was benched during the opening round after allowing three quick goals in Game 2 against the Panthers.
Some Devils fans got panicky when that happened. But even that was foreign. Devils fans? Fretful about the goaltending situation? How often has that happened in the last 20 years? About as often as Flyers fans have been fretful about the goaltending over the last 20 minutes.
Let’s put it another way: How many Cups would the Flyers have won if Brodeur had been their goaltender all this time? More than zero? And how many Flyers fans would trade Ilya Bryzgalov for Martin Brodeur this very minute? More than zero.
What’s even more impressive about Brodeur is that he’s been more reliable through the years than even some of the best goalies. Roberto Luongo beat out Brodeur for the top spot on the Canadian Olympic team in 2010. He led the Canucks to the Stanley Cup final last year.
And now? There’s a chance he’ll never play for Vancouver again. If that’s the case, Cory Schneider will be asked to do something Luongo couldn’t – lead his team all the way to the final and win a clincher. Brodeur not only did that in ’03, he did it in the form of a Game 7 shutout. (He still didn’t win MVP. That honor went to the opposing goalie, Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Worthy recipient. But still.)
How about Marc-Andre Fleury? A couple of years ago, he was the next Martin Brodeur. He was a top pick for a franchise destined for a generation of greatness. He won a Cup at a young age, just like Brodeur did. He may still be a Hall of Famer, but he looked quite mediocre this spring. When the cast of characters changes in front of Fleury, as it surely will, how will it affect his game?
Brodeur has answered that question emphatically, over and over again. None of the players in front of him have stayed in Jersey the entire time, nor the coaches, and the sport itself has changed, too. Brodeur won when hockey was a slog, he won when it opened up, and he is winning now. He won when his passing ability was not vital, and he won when he could sling the puck far down the ice and get praised for it. That’s no small thing, as even in these playoffs puckhandling from goalies has been noticeably important. Those who can do it, like Phoenix’s Mike Smith, have in some cases added an extra defenseman of sorts. Brodeur had an assist in Game 4 against Philadelphia, becoming the oldest NHL player ever to record an assist on his birthday. He’s also the only goalie ever to appear in a playoff game in his teens and in his 40s. That by itself is incredible. Brodeur is the Mariano Rivera of hockey, sending men swinging sticks to their doom for longer than anyone can remember.
Now, it’s not breaking news that Brodeur is an all-time great. He’s one of hockey’s few household names. But it’s a bit odd that that the names on the lips of pundits and broadcasters like Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones are the hot goalies – L.A.’s Jonathan Quick and the Coyotes’ Smith – when Brodeur has basically been a hot playoff goalie since Roenick was a Blackhawk and Jones was a Cap.
If the Devils close out the Flyers and complete yet another playoff upset, they will be underdogs in the Eastern Conference final yet again. Maybe it’ll be a bookend to the last time the Rangers made it to the Cup final, beating Brodeur and the Devils in 1994. That’s what Blueshirts backers will automatically think, if they aren’t already.
But the broader scope of hockey history would point to a different result. Of the six goalies still suiting up in these playoffs, only one has ever advanced this far before as a starter. And in the four years that Martin Brodeur has played 20 or more playoff games, he’s won the Cup three times.
Go ahead and bet against the old man. Your father probably did it once, too. Ask him how that turned out.