Brodeur comes up big for Devils in Game 4

NEWARK, NJ — Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur has seen and done it all in his 21 years in the NHL.

The future Hall of Famer has played in more games and made more saves than any netminder in league history, and the three-time Stanley Cup champion has more wins than any goalie to ever play the game.

So when New Jersey needed the cagy veteran to come up with a standout performance in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against Florida after one of the worst playoff games of his career — a disastrous showing that was both Brodeur’s shortest outing (22:18) and lowest save percentage (0.75, 9-of-12) in 184 career playoff appearances — there was little concern that he wouldn’t deliver.

“It wasn’t really a decision,” Devils coach Pete DeBoer said of the choice to start Brodeur in Game 4 after pulling him on Tuesday. “I knew when we took him out last game that I would start him again. He’s been our go-to guy the entire second half of the year, and he’s played exceptional for us.”

But even the Devils, perhaps, didn’t expect the kind of performance they ended up getting from their undisputed leader between the pipes.

Brodeur reclaimed command of the crease Thursday, stopping 26 Panthers shots in a 4-0 shutout to knot the series at 2-2. It was the 24th career playoff shutout for Brodeur — already the NHL’s all-time leader in regular-season shutouts — moving him past Patrick Roy and into first on the NHL’s all-time playoff shutout list, as well.

“I’m fortunate to have a lot of these records now, but it is what it is,” Brodeur said after the game, downplaying the importance of what he had just accomplished. “I just want to win. We’re part of a great thing here with guys caring about each other, and I just want to play well for them.”

And it’s that humble nature and level headedness — even despite the addition of another monumental record to his resume — that has contributed so greatly to Brodeur’s prolonged success in the league.

“He’s not a guy that’s motivated by personal stats,” DeBoer said. “Those are things I’m sure he’s going to enjoy when he’s retired, but this guy enjoys the battle and being in there in the heat of it with the game on the line. That’s what he enjoys right now, and that’s what he plays for.”

The start of Game 4 couldn’t have been more different from Game 3 for both teams. The Panthers and Devils, who combined for five first-period goals on Tuesday, each held their ground early on Thursday. After 20 minutes of play, the score was tied at 0-0, and for a large portion of the period, neither team even got a good enough look at the net to take a decent shot.

There was only one shot on goal between the teams over the final 7:37 of the period, and Brodeur and Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen each finished the frame with 10 saves. Brodeur stopped seven more shots in the second period, but again, his teammates made his job relatively easy, allowing just one shot on goal in the final 9:52.

Clemmensen made two huge stops on a power play following a Panthers high sticking penalty early in the second, but Florida was never able to clear the puck out of the Devils’ offensive zone. And with 30 seconds left on the man-advantage, New Jersey captain Zach Parise scored on a deflection in front of the net, giving the Devils a 1-0 lead — all the cushion Brodeur would need — with 13:52 left in the period.

The Devils took a 2-0 lead 2:02 into the final period on a top-shelf laser by Steve Bernier, who snuck the puck over Clemmensen’s left shoulder, making amends for a critical incidental contact call that disallowed what would have been a game-tying goal in Game 3. Then a one-timer from David Clarkson to Travis Zajac pushed the lead to 3-0 just 1:33 later.

Brodeur stopped a Marcel Goc slapshot with 11:54 to go in the game, which elicited a “Mar-ty’s Bet-ter” chant out of the crowd — a slight at the former Devil Clemmenson — then 26 seconds later, Ilya Kovalchuk delivered the dagger, giving New Jersey a 4-0 advantage.

In addition to their goaltender, New Jersey’s NHL-best penalty kill unit, which struggled so mightily in the first three games of the series — allowing six Panthers goals on 10 opportunities — was also back to normal Thursday and stymied the Panthers on each of their six chances with a man-advantage.

“It’s really important when you get your goaltender to make saves early and you just see the way he was moving early,” Parise said. “We feed off of it. And on the penalty kill, he made some big saves there too. When your penalty kill is a little fragile you need your goalie to make big saves, and he did that tonight and we never really looked back.”

When you’ve played as many games as Brodeur has, you become as adept at handling the agony defeat as you do at keeping a level head after wins — and as the NHL’s all-time leader in losses, too, Marty would know.

He’s been doing this so long that he’s, amazingly, both the NHL’s active leader in fewest goals allowed per game and most goals allowed overall, so it was unlikely that a few pucks slipping past him in Game 3 would have a significant long-term impact.

“It’s disappointing to blow a three-goal lead, but you have to take everything in stride,” Brodeur said. “I’m not Superman here. You get affected by certain things that happen to you. So I just wanted to make sure I focused and played well.”

Now the series heads back to Florida, where the teams will face off again on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET in a crucial Game 5. New Jersey unquestionably has the momentum heading in, and you’d have to imagine Brodeur’s Game 4 rally following an embarrassing Game 3 loss is a sign of good things to come for his team.

“What separates him from ordinary goalies isn’t just his talent, it’s his mental makeup,” DeBoer said. “That’s what has allowed him to play as long as he has at the level he has. He’s just mentally tougher and he’s able to handle those highs and lows without it affecting his game.”

“He’s the best goalie of all time,” Kovalchuk said of Brodeur’s Game 4 shutout. “He just played the game he always plays.”

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner