I wrote this cover story for the April 2011 edition of New York Hockey Journal. Since I referenced the time period in my tribute post to Marty Brodeur, I thought I would provide it here for added context.
NEWARK, NJ— If the New Jersey Devils have a glimmer of hope of reaching the 2011 postseason, then a major source of that optimism resides with goaltender Martin Brodeur.
The 38-year-old first ballot Hall of Famer is in his 18th NHL season, all with the team that drafted him 21 years ago has weathered the storm of uneven play and injuries early to reestablish his superstar credentials at just the right time. Through it all, Brodeur sparked his team not only by finding his four-time Vezina Trophy form down the stretch, but with his easygoing style and eternal optimism.
“Nobody expected us to fall in the tank like we did early,” Brodeur told New York Hockey Journal after a March practice. “It was disappointing; there’s no doubt about that. Knowing what we know now, I wish we could go back and play these first 41 games.”
Brian Rolston is one teammate who got to know Brodeur when both were young players less than a year apart in age, winning the team’s first Stanley Cup in 1995. Rolston was traded away few seasons later, but returned to the Devils as a free agent after playing most of the last decade against Brodeur.
“He’s always on an even keel and never gets too high; he’s always in control,” Rolston said. “I went away for a few years and came back, but saw how he’s still real competitive in practice. He’s got that same kind of competitiveness with the even-keeled personality so it’s a good mixture for a goaltender.”
If the 2010-11 campaign has been the toughest challenge of his storied career, you would not know it to hear him speak. Where many of his peers who play the position might have shown overt signs of cracking under the tremendous pressure after the Devils stumbled, the player who never posted less than a .902 in any of his 17 full seasons remained confident in his team’s ability to turn things around.
Fast forward to March, and with Jacques Lemaire back for his third stint behind the New Jersey bench, he’s steadied the ship by getting the Devils to within single digits of a playoff berth. Much of it stems from the fact that he’s shown steadfast faith in the player who backstopped his only championship as an NHL coach.
“Marty’s an important piece of the puzzle on this team,” said Lemaire. “He’s a guy that will give us the chance to win. He’s a guy that can make the big saves in a game that gets us closer to come back in the game, gets us closer to win games. He gives us a chance to stay in and do what we have to do.”
This season has been one of extremes for Brodeur, as he mirrored the team’s struggles early, only to turn it around in stunning fashion. From November 15 through January 1, Brodeur went through the most dismal stretch of his career, going 1-10 with a 3.85 GAA and .851 save percentage. In 2011, he’s posted a 15-3-1 record with a 1.70 GAA while stopping 93 percent of the shots he faced since January 1.
‘We got ourselves back,” Brodeur said. “Not necessarily close enough now, but the games matter. And I think that was the thing back in December- everybody was afraid that we’re just going to have to go through the motions here. That’s got to be awful for everybody. We were able to pull it through with a pretty major streak we got together to get to this point.”
To the surprise of no one, the NHL’s leader in career games (1123) wins (622) and shutouts (114) saved his best hockey for when it matters most. With Brodeur manning the nets for the Devils, the team may or may not reach the playoffs for the first time since 1996, but he’s given his club a fighting chance. That’s something that few would have granted the team just 90 days ago given how bleak the months of October-December were.
“He’s the best ever, so it’s a pleasure to be on the same team with him and be in the locker room every day,” said leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk. “He’s an unbelievable guy; great man who takes care of everybody and the way he treats people around him, that’s impressive. He’s an All-Star everywhere.”
Defenseman Colin White broke in with the Devils as a rookie in 1999-00 when the club won the second of its three Stanley Cup championships. Like Brodeur, every one of White’s 739 NHL games have been played in a Devils uniform. Having gone from a youngster to one of the team’s veteran leaders over the past decade spent with the team gives White quite a perspective on what Brodeur means to the franchise.
“Right away when I came (to New Jersey), he was the backbone along with Scott Stevens (Ken) Daneyko, (Scott Niedermayer) and all those guys,” White said. “Marty came and worked hard in every day. He’s real competitive, challenges himself hard and mentally is very focused on his job and the team. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Brodeur will be 39 when the season ends. He has a trio of Stanley Cups, a pair of Olympic gold medals, myriad major awards including a Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL rookie of the year in 1994 on his resume. Aside from a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, the one individual accolade that has eluded him, he has nothing left to prove other than to add to his seemingly unbreakable records signifying sustained excellence for almost two decades in the sport.
Oh, and there’s the matter of trying to add a fourth Stanley Cup ring to his collection that fuels Brodeur’s inner fire, too.
“I know I don’t have much left,” said Brodeur. “For me this is enjoyable. This is what I know, my whole life I’ve just been doing this. So, I just want to keep it going. Everybody’s dream is winning the Stanley Cup, and that’s why I’m still here, because I believe we have a chance to do it.“
Should the Devils reach the 2011 playoffs and earn the shot at one more championship, it will be in large part because New Jersey’s franchise icon put up a Hall of Fame-worthy push when his team needed it the most.