-- In almost any other season, it would not be news when the New Jersey Devils
' back-up goalie did not earn a start.
But this is not any other season for the Devils, and Johan Hedberg
is not any other goalie.
As the Devils surged from the bottom of the League standings in the first half to unbeatable juggernaut in the second -- they're just 10 points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference entering Friday's game here against the Thrashers -- Hedberg helped lead that renaissance. His record is 13-11-2 with a .913 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average while Martin Brodeur
, one of the all-time greats, is 17-20-2 with a .902 save percentage and 2.55 GAA.
Devils coach Jacques Lemaire
recently had set up his goalie rotation where if one goalie lost, the other would get the next start. Brodeur lost in his most recent start, so it was presumed Friday that Hedberg would earn the start against the Thrashers. From Feb. 8 to Feb. 22, Hedberg won seven straight starts, allowing only seven goals, posting two shutouts and never yielding more than two goals in a game.
Not to mention that Hedberg played for Atlanta -- where he is beloved by fans and teammates, twice winning the franchise's Players' Player Award -- for four seasons prior to coming to New Jersey. Hedberg's family continues to live in the Atlanta suburbs this season.
So when Lemaire announced after the Devils' morning skate that he would break with the recent convention and Brodeur would be in net, it took some by surprise.
If it surprised Hedberg, it would be impossible to tell from the reaction of the 37-year-old Swede.
"No, I'm not," he said when asked if he was surprised. "Marty's been playing great." Then after a pause, "It's just the world I'm living in."
Hedberg put the situation in the perspective of those who have come before him.
"If you would have told me earlier in the year that that (one goalie would start until he lost) would be the case with me and Marty, I wouldn't have believed you any way," he said. "I'm very happy I've gotten the chance to play and contribute to the team and things are going well for the team and Marty's track record you can't really question, so I'm going to do whatever I can to help the team out with this decision and whenever I get called upon, I'll be ready."
On Thursday Hedberg visited his home and joked that the dog was most excited to see him. He has three children, including one in a public high school in Gwinnett County, home of the Thrashers' practice facility. He said his wife and children have made about five or six trips up to New Jersey to see him this season.
Nonetheless, he said Friday's game had no more importance to him than any other and his expression did not betray otherwise.
"I think every game is," he said. "It's special for me to come back here. I have a lot of friends, my family's still here. When we go on the ice, it's a game like any other. My first game I came back here it was special, now we got a lot of media coverage here" -- he joked as teammate Anssi Salmela
, who played with Hedberg in Atlanta last season, pretended to hold a microphone up -- "it's nothing disappointing or unusual. I have nothing to be disappointed about."
Last season with Atlanta, Hedberg earned the No. 1 job midway through the season when Ondrej Pavelec
faltered. He also did it at times while playing with Kari Lehtonen
, earning two playoff starts in the Thrashers' lone appearance in the 2007 postseason.
But the difference between stealing the net from a young goalie learning the League for the first time and taking starts away from a three-time Stanley Cup champion is monumental. Hedberg, however, said he "doesn't get wrapped up in stuff like that."
"I've been in this situation before where I've been the backup on teams and I've been counted on to play," he said. "When I walk into a season, I don't make any expectations. People ask me what I expect -- I don't expect anything. Something can happen during the year that will turn everything around any way. It's a marathon.
"There's so many things that happen. You might be sitting on the bench for 15 games and then play the next 20. It was fun to get an opportunity to play and fun to get in the groove of playing."
Devils left wing Ilya Kovalchuk
, who was Hedberg's teammate in Atlanta for four seasons, said he did not need to tell teammates in New Jersey that Hedberg could be relied upon. He said all you have to do is watch him one day in practice and you understand everything you need to know.
"He's unbelievable -- as always," Kovalchuk said. "He's the hardest-working guy on the ice. He leads by example, and, you know, we got a lot of young guys and they look up to him. He was playing unbelievable, but it's nice when both goalies are playing well."