Remember last month, when Martin Brodeur
underwent surgery to repair the distal biceps in his left elbow and was informed he'd be shelved three to four months?
Remember when backup goaltenders Kevin Weekes
and Scott Clemmensen
were jokingly referred to as the Maytag Repairmen?
Remember when the rumor mill got churning, rustling up names like Nikolai Khabibulin
, Patrick Lalime
and Olaf Kolzig
Remember when snickers of the Devils' demise were heard in the corners of nearly every NHL dressing room?
As they say in North Jersey, "Fuggetaboutit!"
Thanks to a surprisingly steady Clemmensen and an uncharacteristic infusion of offense, the Devils are keeping their heads well above water without the man whom many believe to be the best goaltender in the history of the game. In fact, they entered play this week six games above .500, or two games better than when Brodeur was between the pipes.
But the Devils' road to respectability has been uphill all the way. Immediately after Brodeur went down, the Devils lost five of their next six games to level out at 7-7-2. Weekes, who had not played at all in the nine games before Brodeur's injury, took the loss in three of his first four starts, prompting coach Brent Sutter
to turn to Clemmensen.
A 31-year-old native of Des Moines, Iowa, Clemmensen had spent the first month of the season in with the AHL's Lowell Devils and was having a non-descript season with a 4-3-1 mark, a 3.46 goals-against average and a pedestrian save percentage of .895.
So what happens to the goalie who played in just 28 games over six previous NHL seasons? He follows two straight losses with wins in five of his next six starts, propelling the Devils six games above .500 and thus becomes the Devils' No. 1 guy. Right, coach?
"I don't look at it like that," Brent Sutter
said. "Weeksie's going to get called upon again. We still have a pair, a tandem. We feel both are capable of playing well. You make decisions, and people are going to read into things we don't read into."
Clemmensen said he's not getting caught up in the starter-backup debate, even though he's allowed three or fewer goals in all but one start since his recall.
"I'm going to be ready to play every game," he said. "I'm not surprised. I think I played well enough the last few weeks … to warrant it."
Weekes is taking a diplomatic approach to Clemmensen's emergence despite the fact he's started just one of the Devils' past eight games.
"We're here for each other and whoever plays the other one will cheer for," said Weekes, now with his seventh NHL team. "Everybody can play at this level and he's getting confidence from playing. He's moving the puck well, going down at the right time and playing very well."
Clemmensen's emergence is not the only factor in the Devils' string of success. With Brian Rolston
(high ankle sprain) and Bobby Holik
(broken finger) out of the lineup since mid-October and John
Madden sidelined four games with a bruised ankle, Sutter has relied heavily on Brian Gionta
, Patrik Elias
, Zach Parise
and Travis Zajac
to carry the scoring load.
Led by Gionta's five-game goal streak, the Devils scored three or more goals in six of seven games heading into the weekend. Three times they scored five or more goals, casting aside their
reputation as a defense-first team.
"Obviously, we're sad to see Marty go down, but it's a team sport," Weekes said. "We're coming together as a team. We've had a lot of guys out and in their absences we've trusted each other and played more of a team game. Sometimes we can oversimplify and that stifles your creativity offensively. Look at our lineup; we have quite a few guys who can score."
At 37, Holik was hoping to have a much greater impact on the Devils this season. But in his time watching from the press box, he has seen a gradual evolution of a team once renowned for its suffocating neutral-zone play. A little bit riskier under Sutter than they were under Lou Lamoriello, Claude Julien
and Larry Robinson
, these are not your father's Devils, and there is little chance they will go back.
"We always had a line or two that shut down other teams' lines," Holik said. "But because of the new rules in today's game, it's more difficult. You cannot simply go out there and say we're going to shut down (Sidney) Crosby or (Alex) Ovechkin. There is no physical intimidation. There's no making life miserable out there the way we used to.
"It's a major adjustment and we're still going through it. We're not there yet. If you want to be successful it's all about puck control. The more you control the puck, the more you control the game and the other team will be that much more likely to take penalties against you."
In Holik's opinion, that's why you see fewer and fewer teams playing dump-and-chase hockey. It simply isn't effective anymore.
"If you get rid of the puck and forecheck, it tires you out," he said. "You work hard enough to get it, you might as well hold onto it as long as you can. That's why line matchups are slowly disappearing."
"Marty should get a lot of credit and I'm not taking anything away from Marty. But it's a team sport. Believe me, we're not out of the woods yet. It's a loooong year and we all look forward to the day Marty comes back and he's 100 percent, no doubt about it. But it takes 20 guys to play and we're doing what it takes to stay in the hunt." -- Bobby Holik
The Devils are learning this, just as they are learning that life without Marty is not the end of the world.
"When people said, 'There go the Devils,' that was somewhat of an ignorant statement because as good as Marty is, he still has to have a team to play in front of him," Holik said.
"Marty should get a lot of credit and I'm not taking anything away from Marty. But it's a team sport. Believe me, we're not out of the woods yet. It's a loooong year and we all look forward to the day Marty comes back and he's 100 percent, no doubt about it. But it takes 20 guys to play and we're doing what it takes to stay in the hunt."