NEWARK, N.J. – Most hockey fans had the same reaction when Martin Brodeur had surgery to repair a torn muscle in his elbow in early November.
No Marty, no chance, might have summed it up. By the time Brodeur recovered, New Jersey surely would be too far behind in the standings to make the playoffs.
Guess what? If Brodeur returned today, he’d rejoin a first-place team.
Not only have the Devils survived months without one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders, they are a top contender in the Eastern Conference.
Brent Sutter’s team is riding an eight-game winning streak – the fourth-longest in the league this season – and has opened a five-point lead in the Atlantic Division heading into Tuesday night’s game against Alexander Ovechkin and the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals.
“I know everyone took it personal when people starting throwing us under the bus just because Marty was hurt,” veteran centre John Madden said. “I know guys wanted to step up and play a little better, but we continued doing what we had been doing and we proved that we could play good hockey.”
There is no secret to the Devils’ success. It’s all team.
General manager Lou Lamoriello has built a three-time Stanley Cup champion by signing and drafting players who are committed to two-way hockey. Even the most skilled forwards come back and check, and the defenceman have learned the right times to jump into the offensive end, taking the pressure off the goaltenders.
New Jersey’s 125 goals allowed is the fifth-fewest in the league, and its 157 goals scored is tied for seventh overall, with 30 goals coming in the current winning streak.
It also hasn’t hurt that seldom used Scott Clemmensen has taken over for Brodeur and posted a 22-9-1 record. He had an 8-7-4 mark in his first three seasons, never winning more than three games.
“I don’t think that I am trying to replace Marty or be as good as Marty,” Clemmensen said after practice Monday. “I feel like if I provide solid goaltending, the team will take care of itself. I don’t think I’ve had to be great this year. I don’t think there have been any games that I had to play great for us to win. I’ve just been solid.”
Brodeur, whose 544 career wins are seven shy of Patrick Roy’s all-time mark, has started skating and facing some easy shots. He is expected to practice sometime this month, and he might even play.
Sutter scoffs at the idea that the Devils are built around Brodeur, insisting the foundation always was the team.
“I don’t think there was ever a misconception in there (the locker-room),” Sutter said. “I think the misconception was always outside, that is was a one-man team. We always felt we had a good hockey team, and we just carried on. Yes, Marty is an elite level player, an elite level goaltender, but he is just one part of it.”
Looking at the Devils’ roster without Brodeur, there isn’t a superstar such as Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby or fellow Pittsburgh forward Evgeni Malkin.
But left-winger Zach Parise is emerging as one of the league’s top forwards with 29 goals in his fourth season. Left wing Patrik Elias is among the NHL’s leaders with 34 assists and captain Jamie Langenbrunner has found his scoring touch with three straight two-goal games, providing the game winner in each contest, the last two in overtime.
In both games, the Devils didn’t allow a shot in the extra session.
The Devils are not only winning, they are wearing teams down, rolling four lines and three defensive pairings during a game. Each line can score and check.
“What is different compared to most other teams is that the so-called star players are the top defensive players here,” said Bobby Holik, a member of the Devils’ first Cup champion in 1995 who was re-signed by Lamoriello in the off-season. “They are a lot more responsible and dedicated here than on other teams. When you have top players doing what needs to be done to win games, it’s a lot easier for everyone to pull in the same direction. That’s leadership.”
There is also a sense of accountability this year. Players have gotten used to Sutter in his second season.
“Last year, we felt we didn’t give an honest effort,” defenceman Colin White said. “We worked hard but we didn’t play smart together. This year we’re pulling together. Sometimes that happens with injuries and guys step up.”
Devils forward Brendan Shanahan, who was drafted by New Jersey and played four seasons for the Devils from 1987-1991, has been impressed with what he has seen since signing with New Jersey on Jan. 15. He admits he was your average fan in November and felt New Jersey was facing a tough season after Brodeur got hurt.
“It just goes to show that hockey is such a team sport,” said Shanahan, who has scored three goals in four games since his return to the Devils. “A strong collective group can accomplish a lot of things because there is no denying Marty is a superstar. What I didn’t realize was how good Clemmensen is and how strong and deep the group is here.”
And the best part for the Devils is that they feel they still can improve.
“Everyone has so much confidence in the guy next to him and it’s very infectious,” Clemmensen said. “You can see it when we play out there. It’s not just a couple of guys that are really carrying the mail. We’re getting contributions from everyone.”