The NHL's lion in winter is back in the spring.
Martin Brodeur turned 40 this month. He should be in his anecdotage -- because there are few players who can tell a story about the good old days like the New Jersey Devils goalie. Instead he is back in the Stanley Cup Final, making his 200th career playoff start in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings, seemingly as comfortable in his own skin as he is in his crease.
Brodeur looked spent more than two years ago when he ceded Team Canada's net to Roberto Luongo at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He was written off -- guilty! -- as an anachronism, a goalie clinging to a dated style of puck-stopping who would never again be a significant factor, no matter how much he padded his historic win and shutout totals.
Despite being on the cusp of playing the equivalent of two-and-a-half complete regular seasons in the playoffs, Brodeur had not been able to put the Devils on his back and hump them into the second round since 2007. He had won just two series since capturing his third Stanley Cup in 2003. His save percentages the past two seasons had dropped below .910 and in 59 games during the 2011-12 campaign, he had only three shutouts, tied for the fewest in his career. He was at the end of a contract, but he looked as if he were nearing the end of the line.
Now he reminds us of his greatness, why he has not expired like a carton of old milk. He is not the magnificent Brodeur of nearly two decades ago -- although, in truth, he still exhibits some of his familiar flaws: shots at his feet and bad angles. But for every goofy goal like the one the Rangers' Ryan Callahan scored in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final after a rare puckhandling gaffe, there is a uniquely brilliant save like the stacked-pads stop Brodeur made midway through the third period of Game 6 against Brad Richards. That one magically transported hockey back to an era when hockey was rife with stand-up guys and stand-up goalies.
The joy of Brodeur always has been his ability to tailor his save to the specifications of the shot. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, no reflexive drop into a butterfly to increase the percentages of a puck simply hitting him. He does butterfly more than he cares to admit, but he will kick out pucks or stack pads or stand tall and snag the rubber. When you played goal at the rink or were out in the street playing ball hockey as a child, the play-by-play calls that whirled in your brain were exact descriptions of how the NHL's oldest kid still goes about his job.
"I know some 20-year-olds going on 40 and some 50-year-olds going on 20," Devils president Lou Lamoriello says. "He is an athlete. He studies the game. The greatest parallel is Mariano [Riviera] with the Yankees. They're natural athletes. Marty can shoot the puck. He can skate. And that's what keeps him where he's at. He knows what to do. He's got a coaching mind."
"When you have a puck coming at you 100 miles-per-hour, your age is the least of your worries," Brodeur says. "... For whatever reason, I'm less nervous now than I was maybe five or six years ago."
When he looks down at the other end of the ice during the next fortnight -- assuming he can peer around big bodies like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Penner, the relentless Dustin Brown, Dwight King and the rest of the black-and-white lunar eclipse known as the Los Angeles Kings forwards -- Brodeur will see a goalie who shares the same ice but hardly the same universe.
In his own curious way, Jonathan Quick is as distinctive as Brodeur. Quick is a percentage goalie, of course, a cover-the-lower-portion-of-the-net man, but none of his contemporaries in the modern style look quite like this 26-year-old.
Quick gets low in his crease -- exceptionally low, like a man who feels the need to stoop in order to talk to a four-year-old at eye level. His angles are calculated, Euclidian. From his crouch he can see around screens and deflect close-in rebound attempts while obscuring much of the net from shooters. Quick is laterally adroit in the crease, scuttling as much as gliding from post to post. While Brodeur is almost erect in his crease, Quick resembles a crab.
The Kings goalie also seems unruffled by the occupational pitfalls of his profession. When Phoenix's Derek Morris skipped one in from center ice in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, a potentially confidence-sapping goal, Quick borrowed a move that Brodeur had long since perfected -- the Gallic shrug. The long-distance goal was barely a speed bump on the Kings' road to the final.
Quick's selective amnesia is as impressive as his 1.54 goals-against average and .946 save percentage in the playoffs. Kelly Hrudey, the goaltender on the 1993 Kings, the only other Los Angeles team to reach the Cup final, judges Quick after 249 regular-season and 26 playoff games to already be the best goalie in a franchise history that includes Rogie Vachon. Adds Hrudey, now an estimable Hockey Night in Canada analyst, "The best by far."
"You don't get here without goaltending," Kings coach Darryl Sutter told reporters last Friday. "Jersey-Rangers. LA-Phoenix. Four best players, four goalies, right?"
But beyond the stylistic clash in the crease, these two teams are remarkably similar in approach. They are not quite doppelgangers, of course, but both teams forecheck aggressively. This needs to be mentioned one final time for those who remember only the soporific Turnpike Exit 16W Devils, the Brahms' Lullaby of the rink. New Jersey's first year coach, Peter DeBoer, favors high-intensity hockey.
The Devils tend to come out strong -- they outscored New York 5-0 in the first period of their final two games -- but they have a curious habit of backing off after grabbing a lead, allowing easy exits from the zone and, ultimately, some odd goals. There is either a lack of a killer instinct or a disquieting shortage of confidence when they are confronted with some misfortune, surprising considering the makeup of the Devils' best players.
The parroted wisdom was that a Kings-Rangers final would have been the NHL's "dream match-up." For accountants, maybe. For television ratings, sure. And yes, the NHL gets Henrique (Adam) and not Henrik (Lundqvist), although after two series-winning goals in overtime, the Devils rookie center has proved to be quite a find. But in terms of artistry, the merits of the organizations, and sheer star power, the Devils, despite their address on the wrong side of the Hudson River, are superior to the shot-blocking kings of Broadway.
New Jersey, which has won three Stanley Cups since 1995 -- only the Red Wings can match that -- clearly has players who rate high on the hockey marquee. Zach Parise, who sent the 2010 Olympic final into overtime with his late goal, is the leading American forward of his generation. And Ilya Kovalchuk, a two-time 50-goal scorer who has averaged at least a point per game in six of his eight NHL seasons, is among the most dynamic scorers of the post-lockout era. Folded into a team with complementary offensive parts in New Jersey, he retired his one-man-show from Atlanta. Sometimes his even-strength shifts linger like the cast of garlic in a kitchen, but he truly is among the most selfless of stars.
Kovalchuk, once a second-team All-Star as a left winger, has switched to the right flank with nary a peep of complaint. He has played with Parise and, for the moment, without Parise. It took a monstrous, salary cap-circumventing contract to keep him, but the leading playoff scorer, who had to miss a game in the second round because of a reported lower-body injury, is playing like a whatever-it-takes winger.
Given the pedigree, the Devils seem more like the prototypical "Hollywood" team than the Kings. Starting with Quick, the Kings have a collection of top-tier players, but the conspicuous star quality, beyond defenseman Drew Doughty -- at least when he is truly fit -- is low. Maybe Doughty or Kopitar or Quick will go on to Hall of Fame-caliber careers, but at the moment the Kings are nothing more than an impressive collection of mostly homegrown talent -- 12 of 22 were draft choices -- that has been bolstered by ex-Flyers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and solidified at the back end by free-agent defensemen Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell.
If a trend has emerged in the past few playoffs -- and it is always tricky to pronounce because Stanley Cup champions tailor the pursuit to their specific needs -- it is the importance of depth. If the Rangers had managed to beat New Jersey, we would be writing about the necessity of giving your best players as much ice time as they can handle. They didn't, so now the hockey world's eyes are obliged to drift past the familiar names to the bottom six forwards or third-pair defensemen. (Rangers coach John Tortorella barely employed his fourth line and primarily used five defensemen, a blueline strategy that was fading just as Brodeur was entering the NHL.)
Like Chicago in 2010 and Boston last season, contributions throughout the lineup have tipped the balance in favor of the Devils and the Kings. New Jersey has had nine goals and 10 assists from its fourth-line forwards -- Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier and Ryan Carter, who has two game-winners. Meanwhile 11 of the 12 Kings forwards have scored. (Colin Fraser, we're waiting.) Indeed the size and muscle of the Kings' bottom forwards, King and Jordan Nolan, eventually could wear down a no-name if relatively effective Devils defense. Sutter also is playing his third pair, Alec Martinez and Matt Greene, a hefty 15 minutes or so per game.
But if Sutter is right about the nature of a confrontation between the Kings, which beat three offensively-challenged teams -- Vancouver's Daniel Sedin was a late entrant into the first-round series -- and a Devils team that scraped by Florida in a Game 7 double overtime and kept furballing leads against New York, the difference will be who can make one more save.
The Lion or The Crab.
"When we played the trap before and played a defensive system, everything slowed down a lot, and you knew exactly [what was going to happen]," Brodeur says. "Having the defensemen that I had in front of me, [Scott] Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko and Scotty Stevens ... with these guys, nobody would come close to me. The back door plays were never there. Our system [now], it's a lot of puck possession. We pressure the puck everywhere, and it's a fun game to play because you never know what's going to happen.
"Now I sit back. I don't feel I need to make a difference every single game. I just want to go out there and be solid for these guys. And it's been great. I just feel fortunate to be in this position at my age still. Because for me, this could be it -- not to play but to be in the situation to do something great in the playoffs."