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Exorcised! Things are looking up for the Devils and their goalie, Martin Brodeur, who put their recent postseason failures behind them with a sweep of the Panthers

May 01, 2000
May 01, 2000

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May 1, 2000

Baseball

Exorcised! Things are looking up for the Devils and their goalie, Martin Brodeur, who put their recent postseason failures behind them with a sweep of the Panthers

The sensation was unmistakable, like the words of a sad song
that suddenly come flooding back. The racing mind. The quick
breath. The queasy stomach. New Jersey Devils goalie Martin
Brodeur marveled at this intrusion on his serenity behind the
mask, this anxiety that he probably hadn't felt since the
delivery of his twin sons 3 1/2 years ago. Brodeur, so
unflappable that he often gazes at scoreboards to check replays
of his handiwork in net, was now, for the first time in his NHL
career, a butterflies goalie. When the game was going on, when
his goaltender's life was distilled to the elementary act of
stopping a puck, Brodeur was fine. Yet he was haunted during all
the stoppages of play, when there was nothing to do but conjure
up his worst fears: What if I don't hold the lead? What if this
is the start of another early playoff exit? What if?

This is an article from the May 1, 2000 issue Original Layout

"I just don't get nervous at a hockey rink," Brodeur said two
days after the Devils had blown through the Florida Panthers to
win their first-round playoff series in four games. "Maybe a
little when we played for the Stanley Cup [in 1995], but not
really. Now I'm on the ice thinking, Wow, this is amazing. It's
supposed to be easy to play hockey, and I was making it hard.
Third period, Game 1, we're up on Florida 4-3, and I'm worrying
about all the things that might happen. I guess it's because
we've had some bad experiences lately."

In 1996 New Jersey suffered the ignominy of being the first team
in 26 years to miss the playoffs the season after winning the
Cup. The next year the Devils were eliminated in the second
round when Brodeur was outplayed by his New York Rangers
counterpart, Mike Richter. Richter, who had led New York to the
Cup in '94, carried a hefty portfolio, but the next playoff
goalie Brodeur and New Jersey would face, Damian Rhodes of the
Ottawa Senators in '98, had a reputation for fragility. When the
top-seeded Devils lost that first-round series, it was an
unqualified disaster. Last year New Jersey, again the No. 1 seed
in the Eastern Conference, was fewer than three minutes from
winning its opening-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins
in six games. But a limping Jaromir Jagr beat Brodeur to tie the
score, Pittsburgh won in overtime, and the Penguins prevailed in
Game 7 at the Meadowlands.

Brodeur's 2.20 career goals-against average is the best since
1943-44, the beginning of the NHL's modern era, but for all his
gaudy stats, Brodeur had become easy to overlook. In the late
'90s there were goalies who simply played better (the Buffalo
Sabres' two-time Hart Trophy winner Dominik Hasek) or assumed
more significant roles on their teams (the Toronto Maple Leafs'
acrobatic Curtis Joseph, who allowed the Leafs to revamp their
style and play a more wide-open game). Even when Brodeur had a
monster year, as he did this season (with 43 wins, tying a
career high), another monster, the Washington Capitals' Olaf
(Godzilla) Kolzig, came along and shoved him into the
background. Brodeur, one of five netminders to have five
straight seasons with at least 30 victories, had become like a
pair of snow tires--sturdy, reliable and off the road by late
April. He needed this year's playoffs to restore the luster, to
make him more than an afterthought in this golden age of
goaltending. "I understood my [playoff] responsibilities," the
27-year-old Brodeur says. "That goes with trying to be one of
the best goalies in the league. I take that pressure with a lot
of pride. If you want to be the best, you have to perform like
it."

The Game 1 nerves dissipated, and the Panthers followed quickly.
Brodeur didn't allow Florida to score in the third period in a
series in which each of the first three games was decided by one
goal. "That's the Marty we've seen in the past," center Bobby
Holik said after the 4-1 victory last Thursday gave the Devils
their first sweep since the 1995 finals. "He was awesome."

The exorcism was most notable for the Devils' tenacity. They've
been infused with the enthusiasm of rookies such as forward
Scott Gomez and defenseman Brian Rafalski, but New Jersey was
all the more impressive because of the postseason reincarnation
of veterans like Brodeur and defenseman Scott Stevens, who
scored two goals, including the winner in Game 2. Stevens also
helped neuter 58-goal man Pavel Bure, who had one goal, on a
power play, and three assists.

While whipping the one-dimensional Panthers wasn't cause for
drawing up a Stanley Cup party list, it was a marked improvement
over New Jersey's last playoff appearance. During a visit with
Devils goalie coach Jacques Caron last summer, Larry Robinson,
who had been an assistant on New Jersey's Cup-winning team and
had just rejoined the Devils in that capacity, began watching a
tape of that Game 7 against Pittsburgh. Robinson quickly asked
Caron to turn off the TV. "I wasn't going to let it ruin my
summer," Robinson says. "I was so disappointed, but only because
I remembered this club from '95. When you think of that club,
the first thing that comes to mind is how disciplined it was,
how well it played positionally. Here I was watching stupid
penalties, bad line changes, three-on-ones, three-on-oh's. I
didn't like what I saw."

When New Jersey president Lou Lamoriello fired coach Robbie
Ftorek on March 23, although the Devils were leading the Eastern
Conference, he promoted Robinson. New Jersey continued to
stumble down the stretch--it was 4-4 under Robinson, including
only one win against a playoff team--but the mood in the
dressing room seemed lighter. In a quotidian world Robinson
never lost sight of the grand scheme, resting Brodeur and
Stevens in an April 3 loss at Florida, a defeat that would cost
the Devils the best record in the conference but gave them the
comfort of the fourth seed and a postseason date with the
Panthers. "That was the best matchup for us," Brodeur says. "Not
that we knew we'd definitely beat Florida, but the guys were
pretty confident."

After Game 1, Brodeur was confident too, even though wing Peter
Worrell's 55-foot floater had beaten him at the end of the first
period and he'd had that attack of nerves in the third. Brodeur
always has been able to summon a Gallic shrug since bursting
into prominence as a rookie by carrying the Devils to double
overtime in Game 7 of the 1994 conference finals against the
Rangers. He was lauded at that time for a quick glove hand and
an unrivaled ability to handle the puck, but he's technically
better now. Brodeur then was an angle goalie who played high in
his crease in anticipation of the occasional shot, a by-product
of the smothering New Jersey trap that severely limited
opponents' scoring chances. When the Devils opened up a little,
Brodeur had to adjust. He had to make more eye-catching saves
and increase his range and awareness.

Brodeur's lateral movement, showcased last week on a sprawling
pad save against forward Ray Whitney in the final minute of Game
3 that preserved a 2-1 win, has grown exponentially. He also has
shrunk his five hole by moving his knees back and forth,
tantalizing shooters with the space between his legs and then
taking it away, like the windmill that guards the 17th hole on a
miniature golf course. If Hasek is unquestionably the best
second-shot goalie in history, then Brodeur is among the finest
at not giving rebounds, at deadening shots or deflecting them
into relatively harmless areas.

"Marty looks at tapes after every game," Caron says. "He's not
hard to correct; he accepts criticism. He listens, and he sees
reality. He's also at the point where he sees what should be
done himself, and at the end of every tape session he always
says, 'Thanks a lot.' That's Marty--a star who still says thank
you." Brodeur said thanks in a more tangible, V-8,
power-steering sort of way three years ago when he presented
Caron with a Cadillac for all his help.

"I've seen a lot of goalies," says wing Alexander Mogilny, an
11-year NHL veteran who was acquired by New Jersey in March,
"but he's as close to being a normal guy as you can get."

Brodeur has been imbued not with a sense of privilege but with a
sense of wonder that he plays in the NHL. His father, Denis, was
a goalie on Canada's 1956 Olympic bronze-medal-winning team. "I
only got to see him play once, on tape, and that was black and
white," Brodeur says. "My sons"--he and his wife, Melanie, have
Anthony, who turns five next month, and twins William and
Jeremy--"can see what I do, and they're starting to get it.
After the first game against Florida, Anthony asked how
Worrell's knuckleball could beat me."

Martin had already been forced to explain NHL life to Anthony
last October after he whacked Pittsburgh pest Matthew Barnaby
with his stick and earned a match penalty. Instead of telling
his son that he had performed a public service on the
incorrigible Barnaby, Martin explained the referee had given him
a time-out, just as Martin gives Anthony one when the boy
doesn't play nicely with his brothers. "Answering to my sons,"
Brodeur says, "is the hardest thing I have to do."

He might change his mind about that in the next six weeks, but
the Devils did erase the Panthers and quickly wiped out four
years of misery. Brodeur greeted the Game 4 victory not by
bleating that no one had any faith in him but by simply handing
the puck to Robinson in recognition of Robinson's first series
win as a head coach. "He didn't say anything," Robinson says.
"He didn't have to."

The Devils have advanced into May, and Brodeur looks as if he
has much more to give.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO THE PUCK STOPS HERE Brodeur, who blocked this shot in Game 4, didn't allow a third-period goal in the series against Florida.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: LOU CAPOZZOLA (2) ROUGH AND READY Stevens knocked Bure off his game during the series, while Mogilny and Worrell (8) got lots of ice time in Game 1.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO

Diminishing Returns

Since leading the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 1995, Martin
Brodeur's postseason performances have dipped slightly each
year. Here are his playoff statistics, beginning with his
Cup-winning performance.

YEAR W L GAA SHUTOUTS

1995 16 4 1.67 3
1996 (New Jersey Missed Playoffs)
1997 5 5 1.73 2
1998 2 4 1.97 0
1999 3 4 2.82 0