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Brodeur leads Devils past Maple Leafs

by Mike G. Morreale
NEWARK, N.J. --  Don't tell goalie Martin Brodeur the New Jersey Devils have nothing to play for in the final two games of the season.
Remarkably, the last time Brodeur finished a season with a losing record, he was a budding young prospect within the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League starring for the St.-Hyacinthe Laser (22-24-4).
That was 18 seasons ago.
Since entering the NHL with the Devils in 1991-92, he's never finished below .500. And while he'll never admit to that being important, you have to think he'd want to keep that streak intact despite a pretty arduous 2010-11 campaign. The 38-year-old Brodeur moved one step closer to making that happen on Wednesday when he turned aside 22 shots to lead the Devils to a 4-2 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Prudential Center.
With the victory, Brodeur, who is 10-6-1 over his last 17 games, is 23-25-3 for the season with two games remaining -- Saturday against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden and Sunday against the Boston Bruins in Newark.
The Devils, despite being out of the playoff picture, could certainly play the role of spoiler against their Atlantic Division nemesis in three days. The Rangers sit eighth in the Eastern Conference, just two points ahead of ninth-seeded Carolina.
"It's hard to get up for games (out of the playoff picture), so it'll be nice to have something to play for a little bit," Brodeur said. "For our fans, especially. There the ones praying for that matchup on Saturday, but we'll see what's going to happen."
When asked if he would give Brodeur an opportunity to reach the .500 mark with starts in the last two games of the season, coach Jacques Lemaire smiled.
"We'll see. Probably," he said.
"I think that'd be nice for him to keep that streak going," Devils center Travis Zajac said. "He's not about his stats, wins or losses, but about competing, working hard and giving us a chance to win every night. He's been great over the second half of the season. He's really solidified himself as one of the top goalies in the League again."
In addition to Brodeur's heroics, Ilya Kovalchuk had a goal and one assist on the way to recording his 700th career point in his 700th career game (368 goals, 332 assists).
"It doesn't mean much really," Kovalchuk said of his milestone. "It's nice, but we didn't accomplish the goal put in front of us to start the season. I don't think any of the players on this team would be satisfied with his season. I know we have a lot to improve and we have two games left and a whole summer to make ourselves better for next year."
New Jersey's first victory in three games wasn't without a little excitement. The Maple Leafs rallied from a 3-0 deficit with a pair of third-period goals. They'd pare the margin to 3-2 when Tyler Bozak connected with his team two men short. Bozak took the puck following a defensive-zone draw and skated hard down his right wing before depositing a nifty backhander over Brodeur's outstretched right pad at 12:42.
Toronto coach Ron Wilson decided to pull Jean-Sebastien Giguere with 1:13 remaining to gain the extra attacker but Patrik Elias would seal the deal with his 20th of the season into an empty net with just 9.7 seconds remaining.
Brodeur's shutout bid was nixed 6:18 into the third when Phil Kessel drove home his 31st of the season on the power-play. Joffrey Lupul made it happen when he stole the puck along the right-wing half boards before spotting Kessel at the bottom of the left circle.
Would Brodeur want to start the next two contests?
"I don't think I'll be playing both … I doubt it," he said. "For me, the season is not about my stats, it's about me getting back the way I want to play and I've done it in the second half. That's what I was concentrating on more. All the other stats are fine and were looking better and better as year went on. I knew that if we didn't make the playoffs, it would be hard for me to be at that level with the wins."
The Devils opened a 3-0 cushion on a pair of goals 1:05 apart late in the second period by Mattias Tendenby and defenseman Henrik Tallinder. Tendenby's goal, off a rocket from the right circle at 14:29, came off a feed by Kovalchuk.
Tendenby's goal, which snapped a 16-game goalless drought by New Jersey defensemen, came at 15:34. Toronto coach Ron Wilson replaced goalie James Reimer (3 goals on 21 shots) with Giguere to open the third period. It marked Giguere's first appearance since March 17 -- a 4-0 home loss to Florida.
Reimer, who was making his ninth straight start, still needs one more win to reach 21 for the season and become one of just eight Leafs to win that many in a year since 1975-76. He'll have one more shot on Saturday when the Leafs visit Bell Centre in their season finale against the Montreal Canadiens.
Kovalchuk had given the Devils a 1-0 lead 13:47 into the first on a rising wrist shot from the left circle that beat James Reimer to the long side. With Dainius Zubrus out of the game after getting shouldered by Joey Crabb into the stanchion by the Leafs' bench -- resulting in a boarding penalty -- Lemaire had David Steckel working the ensuing power-play with forwards Kovalchuk, David Clarkson and Jacob Josefson. Steckel gained position in the slot and screened a helpless Reimer, who never saw the puck. The power-play goal was New Jersey's first in 16 opportunities.
Zubrus, who suffered an upper-body injury on the Crabb hit, did not return to the game.
The goal was the 30th of the season for Kovalchuk, who hit that mark for the eighth straight season. But despite that monumental task, Kovalchuk has celebrated just one playoff victory in nine NHL seasons.
"He's at least a 40-goal scorer, but he started the season slow," Lemaire said. "I thought he played better (Wednesday)."
Brodeur made sure the Devils would enter the first intermission with the lead when he stopped Tyler Bozak's snap shot on a post-to-post sliding save at 14:57. Brodeur, who notched his 23rd victory of the season, made 11 saves in the opening period.
"I think (Brodeur) got into better shape in the second half and I thought he was working really hard in practice so that's where it started," Lemaire said. "He got quicker in the net … you can see it. He's been really good lately. He's had at least two great (saves) each game."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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