Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Brodeur's season only just starting

NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE The Devils' goaltender, with eight shutouts in 31 games, says he doesn't really enjoy the season until the Christmas holidays are over

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur generally regards the first three months of the National Hockey League season as something to plow through, like a snowdrift at the end of his driveway.

He has won the Stanley Cup three times in June, and he has said he does not get too excited about each season until Christmas. Then crowds grow and things change.

"Coming back after Christmas, it's a different season," Brodeur said. "The intensity of the hockey is always better."

The Devils were to play their first game after Christmas last night at home against the Islanders, who will be without center Alexei Yashin, out with a lacerated forearm.

It is hard to imagine Brodeur being any more intense, or effective, than he already has been this season. Brodeur, 31, has eight shutouts in the Devils' first 32 games. He has never had more than 10 shutouts in a regular season.

When asked this week if Brodeur was the best goaltender in the game, Devils defenseman Scott Stevens smiled and said: "I don't think anyone can argue about that. He makes the saves you need to get shutouts."

Brodeur is setting a pace that is invoking an NHL season record for shutouts that has stood for 75 years. George Hainsworth had 22 shutouts, in only 44 games, for the Montreal Canadiens in 1928-29.

It may be hard for current hockey fans to imagine, but there was less scoring in those days than there is now. Montreal scored only 71 goals in 44 games that season.

But Brodeur, who is on pace for 20 shutouts, is close to keeping up with Hainsworth and is far ahead of goaltenders in the NHL's modern era.

Since the 1942-43 season, only Tony Esposito, with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1969-70, has had 15 shutouts in a season. Dominik Hasek has never had more than 13 shutouts in a season.

"You're not going to get a shutout every game," Brodeur said. "Teams are going to play hard against you."

Even more striking is that Brodeur does not have a reputation as a fast starter. He has 72 shutouts in his NHL career, but he did not have more than four shutouts before Christmas in any of his previous 10 seasons.

And in the two seasons in which he had 10 shutouts, 1996-97 and 1997-98, Brodeur did not get his eighth shutout until the last month of the season.

This season is different. Brodeur's 1.61 goals-against average leads NHL goaltenders who have played more than 15 games.

After winning the Stanley Cup in June, the Devils (18-6-8-0) have suffered no malaise this season. They have been hampered by injuries, most notably a knee injury to the enterprising right wing Jamie Langenbrunner, and they say they are capable of playing better.

The Devils had 41 points through 32 games last season, three fewer than this season, and Brodeur had only three shutouts. He has four shutouts in his last nine games.

Once again, Brodeur has been durable. He has missed only one game. He gave up 68 goals in his first 31 games last season. He has given up 51 goals in 31 games this season. Five of his eight shutouts have been in road games. He has faced fewer than 20 shots in four shutouts.

His ability to make crucial saves has allowed the Devils to concentrate on playing asphyxiating defense. Although Brodeur has played more than any other goaltender except Marty Turco of Dallas, he is ranked only eighth among goalies in shots against.

"He gives us confidence as a team, but we try not to lean on him too much," Devils right wing Jay Pandolfo said.

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