Nonbelievers in Martin Brodeur have pointed to New Jersey’s defensive-minded system as a big reason for his historic level of success. Others mention the elite defensemen who have played in front of him or low shot totals during his 14-year career.
Days like yesterday would seem to prove otherwise.
Brodeur was at his Hall of Fame-quality best for the Devils, turning aside 37 shots in a 2-1 victory against the Washington Capitals in front of a sellout matinee crowd at Verizon Center.
“He’s probably the best goalie in the league. If not, then top two,” defenseman Tom Poti said. “It doesn’t matter who is front of him — if he sees the puck he’s going to make the save.”
The Caps peppered Brodeur from in close and from far away, with wrist shots and slap shots. They put traffic in front of the net — a consistent problem in recent losses — and whacked away at rebounds. Save for an extraordinary effort by one of the most skilled players in the league, the Caps could not solve the Devils’ netminder.
Three of Washington’s best chances didn’t involve an official shot. In overtime, Alex Ovechkin feathered a nifty pass to defenseman Mike Green, who skated in alone with designs on netting his fourth walk-off winner of the season, but Brodeur was able to poke-check the puck away just as Green made his move.
Twice the Caps rung shots off the iron behind Brodeur — Matt Bradley and Eric Fehr each missed goals by centimeters — but in the end hitting a post proved to be fruitful for New Jersey. Patrick Elias’ shot hit the right post in overtime and bounced back to John Madden, who slid a backhanded attempt underneath Caps goalie Brent Johnson’s left leg for the game-winner with 50 seconds remaining.
“That goal in overtime is just something that is happening to us right now,” said Johnson, who made 29 saves. “The break — off the goal post, and it went right to the guy’s stick before I turned around and noticed where the puck was.”
Washington dominated play for the opening 40 minutes, outshooting New Jersey 28-10, but the Caps had nothing to show for it — another reoccurring theme in losses this season. Late in the second period Fehr and Poti were sent to the penalty box 1:05 apart for high-sticking infractions.
Thirty-nine seconds into the final period and one second before Fehr could return to the ice, Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner ripped a slap shot from the right point off a diving Quintin Laing and past Johnson for a 5-on-3 score.
Pressed to secure the equalizer, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau moved Alexander Semin to the top line to skate with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. On their first shift together, it proved to be a sage decision.
Semin received a hard cross-ice pass from Ovechkin and charged toward Brodeur while shielding New Jersey forward Sergei Brylin. He crossed in front of the cage from right to left and flicked a backhanded shot past a lunging Brodeur at 2:46 of the third.
It was Semin’s 19th goal of the season and ran the 23-year-old Russian’s goal-scoring streak to five games.
New Jersey, which is now alone atop the Eastern Conference for the first time since April 8, 2001, spent the better portion of the third period on the offensive, easily eclipsing its shot total from the first 40 minutes by taking 18 shots in the period. After Langenbrunner’s goal, Johnson proved up to the task.
“He stood on his head for us tonight,” Green said. “I thought it was a really good game, but it didn’t have the outcome we needed or wanted.”
The glass half-full take is that the point from the overtime loss moves the Caps within five of division-leading Carolina with two games in hand and extends the team’s streak without back-to-back regulation losses to 42.
But Washington has lost three straight games and five of six (1-2-3), and collecting half of the points available in the remaining 19 games likely would not be enough to catch the Hurricanes.
“We need to get two and not just one,” Poti said. “I thought we played great tonight, but we just couldn’t solve Marty.”
Note — Fehr was in the lineup for center David Steckel (illness), and Sami Lepisto played for the second straight day in place of defenseman Jeff Schultz (knee strain).
Yesterday at Verizon Center
“We definitely stole one. The way Marty [Brodeur] played was unbelievable. It is one of those games where we are lucky to get two points, but we’ll take it.”
— Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner
BY THE NUMBERS
50 Points for Nicklas Backstrom, who became the sixth rookie in team history to reach that plateau.
33:59 Ice time for defenseman Mike Green last week against the Islanders, the most by a Caps player since Sergei Gonchar logged 34:17 against Florida on Dec. 17, 2003.
— Corey Masisak