NEWARK - The birthday Martin Brodeur likes to joke about comes this Sunday.
The number by itself, the big four-oh, is an indication that time is rapidly running out on the New Jersey Devils netminder. But the question remains: Exactly how much time is there left?
Thursday night at the Prudential Center, Brodeur made his 10th start of these Stanley Cup playoffs, the most starts he’s made in the post-season in almost a decade. While he doesn’t look finished, he doesn’t look much like his old self, either.
He’s more jumpy than ever before, flopping, diving, playing to the officials and yes, acting when and if necessary. If time has taught him anything other than the obvious, it's how to play to the crowd and how to influence the officials. At one enormous moment in Game 3 against the Philadelphia Flyers he utilized both techniques.
Brodeur was cagey enough to will what should have been a good goal into one that was waved off -- and had a penalty called -- late in the second period of a 2-2 tie with the Flyers. It was a huge moment in an eventual 4-3 overtime win for the Devils. The official called goaltender interference, which seems to be the new penalty of choice in this year’s playoffs. Rookie Brayden Schenn was sent to the box, but there was little indication, in the game or the replay, that Brodeur was even touched.
Brodeur jumped, fell and looked out of place, enabling Philadelphia’s James van Riemsdyk to score what appeared to be the go-ahead goal with just over two minutes left in the second. But instead of leading 3-2, Philadelphia was left killing a penalty.
Beneath his mask, Brodeur had to be smiling. And this is a post-season where there has been much to smile about. While he is closer to an old Brodeur than the Brodeur of old, he still has his moments. He still has a goals-against average among the best in the post-season. He still can move the puck the way few move the puck. He can still do that in what might be, could be, possibly will be his last season of a remarkable career.
The Brodeur story will soon take on a sort of Nicklas Lidstrom edge to it as the Devils' season grows closer to the end and as July comes nearer. Will he or won’t he? Is this the end or is there another season, another playoff round left in him?
And yet, there are elements of Brodeur's game that resemble a goaltender nearing the end. He lets in more soft goals than ever before. The first goal Thursday night by Schenn was the kind of shot he will watch on replay and later detest, if he doesn’t detest it already. That was the goal he wanted back. He had no chance on Matt Carle’s booming slapshot in the second period to tie the game at two. But Brodeur’s status as goaltender allows him the benefit of the doubt and that happened on the called-off van Riemsdyk goal.
One thing about Brodeur, at his best and his worst, is that he can influence a game. He can make the officials stop and think. And he can still make some terrific saves, as his post-season statistics proudly indicate. He can still do what the bottom half of NHL goalies cannot. But for a few years now, he hasn’t been able to play at the level he himself wanted to deliver.
He’s more than fortunate right now. This is the most complete Devils team he has played on in a number of years, maturing nicely under the understated first-year coach, Peter DeBoer. The no-name defence is a tribute to DeBoer’s coaching and to Brodeur’s ability to still stop pucks. The forwards -- led by Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias -- are far deeper and stronger than almost anyone gives them credit for. This team is deeper up front than the New York Rangers or Washington Capitals, and through three games of this Eastern Conference playoff series, has more than held its own against the highly skilled Flyers.
In this series, Brodeur doesn’t have to win it; he has to not lose it. Two soft goals Thursday with one he got waved off left an uneven balance sheet. It’s happy 40th Sunday. It’s not just the age, it’s the game. The end for one of the greatest looks closer than ever before.