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The Hole in Goal

Thursday, March 20, 2008

There are many reasons Flyer fans resent the Devils’ organization, beginning with New Jersey knocking Philadelphia out in the 1995 Eastern Conference Final on their way to the Stanley Cup and continuing through the Flyers’ terrible record against the Devils ever since (Bill Meltzer goes into greater detail on that).  But the win-loss column is only a symptom of the real problem: Martin Brodeur.

Wikipedia provides a great summary:  “Martin Brodeur has played his entire career with the New Jersey Devils. In his 13-year tenure, he has led the team to three Stanley Cup championships and has taken them to the playoffs all but once. He holds more than thirty Devils franchise records.  Brodeur has been among the NHL’s most consistent goaltenders over the past decade, winning at least 35 games each of the last ten seasons as well as being the only goalie in NHL history with seven 40-win seasons.  He is a three-time Vezina Trophy winner, a four-time Jennings Trophy winner, a nine-time NHL All Star, and one of only two NHL goaltenders to have scored goals in the regular season and the playoffs. In the 2006-07 NHL season, Brodeur surpassed Sawchuk and Ed Belfour on the all-time wins list and Glenn Hall on the all-time shutouts list to rank 2nd in each of those categories. He also passed Bernie Parent’s record of 47 single-season wins with his 48th win on April 5, 2007 (against the Flyers at the Wachovia Center).

Brodeur, guarding the net at the wrong end of the New Jersey turnpike, is the modern equivalent of Bernie Parent.  Imagine a world where north Jersey cars are emblazoned with the phrase “Only the Lord saves more than Martin Brodeur.”  Not much of a stretch.  It even rhymes. 

Meanwhile, the blue paint of Broad Street is a revolving door.  Think about the number of second comings we’ve witnessed since Ron Hextall.  Brian Boucher looked amazing during the playoffs of his rookie season, but he couldn’t recreate the magic as a sophomore.  Roman Cechmanek started well, earning a Vezina nomination early in his tenure with the Flyers; repeated playoff failures culminating in a poor season in LA sent Cechmanek back to his native Czech Republic.  Robert Esche, acquired from Phoenix in a trade involving Brian Boucher, took over Cechmanek’s spot and backstopped the Flyers to the 2004 Eastern Conference Final.  That tour of duty ended in last season’s horrific meltdown. 

And thus we arrive at the current Flyer goaltenders.  A young Antero Niittymaki, fresh from his silver medal and Olympic MVP honors, served as No. 1 goalie during the 2006-2007 season.  Critics abound, but his poor performance directly relates to an injured hip flexor and the abominal play of last year’s team. 

Knowing that Niitymaki probably wasn’t capable of being a permanent solution to the hole in net, Paul Holmgren acquired Martin Biron from the Buffalo at the deadline and subsequently signed him to a two-year $7 million contract.  At the time press releases quoted the GM: “We are extremely pleased to get this done.  Marty has come in and played well, and we look for him to be a solid goaltender for us for the next two years.”

Biron began this season, like many a Flyer goaltender before him, with Vezina-worthy brilliance – and some nights we can still see that level shining through.  But as Biron’s play became increasingly inconsistent, John Stevens decided to alternate Biron with Niittymaki.  Even now, as we enter the last eight games of the season, there is no top dog in Philadelphia.  Yes, Brion will start against the Rangers.  But read Stevens’ postpractice quote from the team’s website:  “Marty has played well against the Rangers the last couple times.  If you look at Marty’s play overall, he’s only lost four games in regulation in his last 13.  I think Marty got the rest that he needed, and I think you’ll see him come in here and play extremely well.” 

It’s not exactly resounding praise.  It also sounds like Stevens is making decision based on who plays best against a team.  Obviously Niittymaki has the best team record – and possibly league record – against Atlanta.  And what about the Finn’s status?  Stevens:  “Niitty has come in and won us hockey games, and he’ll get back in the net before we’re done here.”

I can’t blame John Stevens for his indecision.  At this point, I don’t even know which player is the man for the job.  And I’m not experiencing anything close to the pressure exerted on Stevens. 

But I will say this – Martin Brodeur started off sluggishly and has been steadily growing in strength throughout the season.  It’s difficult not to envy that kind of solidarity in what has become the most important position in hockey.

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