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Giving the Devil his due

When one stops to consider the many accomplishments of Marty Brodeur, the hardest part is deciding where to begin. Is it his consistency, longevity, championships, work ethic, or the joie de vie with which he approaches a position that is packed with pressures so intense they have made former greats throw up before they went out to man their nets?

Success in any one element can qualify a player for legend status. Excellence in all of the above is improbably rare. Yet, that's where Brodeur is at this stage of his career. He plays over 70 games a season and routinely wins at least 40. His 24-save, 4-2 victory over Colorado on Saturday night put him at that milestone marker for an unprecedented third season in a row, extending his record overall total of such campaigns to seven. Even though he is in net on so many nights, Brodeur eschews days off, preferring practice to rest. All of that preparation has added up to a New Jersey Devils franchise that is repeatedly relevant and the winner of three Stanley Cup championships.

All of that would be enough to deify Brodeur. There certainly is plenty of empirical evidence to quantify him as one of the best, if not the best goaltender ever. But Brodeur isn't some moody loner who just happens to be able to stop pucks. He is an outgoing, gregarious team guy who understands his role and enjoys the life around the game. That is hardly the norm for goaltenders. And while the days of Roger Crozier and Glen Hall getting physically ill before games are long relegated to hockey lore, the brooding of Ed Belfour or the temper of Patrick Roy are still part of this generation's legacy.

Brodeur's greatness is maybe best considered in the context of generations. He is a big burly athlete (6-2, 215 poungs) not unlike Turk Broda. He handles the puck like Ed Giacomin and skates like Jacques Plante. He challenges shooters aggressively and boldly gives the glove side like Grant Fuhr. When it comes to scrambling and ad-libbing, Brodeur invokes the derring-do of Terry Sawchuk. And when you think of a goalie as one of the guys on a team with a set identity, Brodeur seems directly descended from Bernie Parent of Philadelphia's legendary Broad Street Bullies.

In other words, one can envision Martin Brodeur in any era, and successful in them all. While equipment changes and defensive strategies have allowed most of today's goaltenders to become automaton shot blockers, Brodeur has accomplished the truly unique: he has become at once iconic and iconoclastic. As the impressive numbers pile up, he continues to do it his way.

Brodeur's way is best summed up in one of my first encounters with him nearly a decade ago. We asked for an interview on a game day -- taboo for almost every other goaltender at the time. Instead of giving us a few minutes after the morning skate, Marty sat down for a full studio interview at 5:15 PM -- on a night in which, of course, he was playing. When I commented how much we appreciated his appearance and how rare it was for a player, and goaltender especially, to be so giving of his time before a game, he just smiled, shrugged and said, "The last time I checked, the game starts at seven."

To me, that simple statement of perspective puts Martin Brodeur and all of his feats and accolades in, well, the proper perspective.

He is the best.

Brodeur and the Eastern Conference-leading Devils have three key games on tap this week. The first is on Wednesday, when they host their cross-Hudson River rivals the New York Rangers, who are in sudden, surprising mini-skid that has left them only four points ahead of the ninth-place Sabres and five in front of the tenth-place Capitals. Expect a dash of Blueshirt desperation in the mix as the Devils will be intent on holding off the Penguins and Canadiens, who were both a point behind as the week began.

After a Friday night tussle with the struggling Islanders, who have been giving New Jersey fits this season (winning five of their first six meetings), the Devils travel to Pittsburgh for a Saturday night showdown with the Penguins.

As it is at this time of year, where a team plays and who they match up against has dual implications. That's the case all week around the circuit. Two teams, the Phoenix Coyotes and the Washington Capitals, are both on the outside looking in. Each heads out on the road with the Coyotes playing the Canucks -- the team they're chasing in the West -- in Vancouver on Monday. Then it's on to Anaheim to face the feisty Ducks on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, back in the East, the Caps play out of Conference and away from home at Nashville against the Predators on Tuesday before taking on the Blackhawks in Chicago. The Caps are battling the Sabres (Lightning and Leafs at home on Wed. and Fri. respectively) and Flyers (Thrasher on Tues., Rangers on Fri., Isles on Sun.; all at home) for the final berth in the East.

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