The Devils still need three points to secure an Eastern Conference playoff berth -- a feat that now seems more a matter of “when” than “if,” -- but once they get in?
They’ll need veteran goaltender Martin Brodeur to play like he did Tuesday.
Brodeur’s pristine 37-save effort was preserved by Travis Zajac’s shootout game-winner as the Devils topped the Blackhawks 2-1 in Newark. The 39-year-old future Hall of Famer was, by far, the Devils’ best player on the ice.
He was stingy in the first period, when the Devils dominated play and took a 1-0 lead on Petr Sykora’s power-play goal, and even more staunch when the Devils faltered in the last forty minutes, managing only 8 shots in regulation on Chicago’s Corey Crawford in the second and third periods combined.
“He was light’s out,” said Zajac, who went top-shelf, glove-side on Crawford in the fifth round of the shootout. “He’s one of the reasons it stayed 1-1. A lot of credit to him. He knows how to win these big games.”
After giving up only one goal in regulation – defenseman Brent Seabrook scored in the third on a shot through traffic he couldn’t see – Brodeur surrendered only one in the skills competition before Zajac sealed the Devils’ 12th shootout win of the season.
It was a much-needed victory for the Devils, who entered Tuesday’s match having dropped four of their last five, but perhaps more so for Brodeur.
Winless in his last four starts, Brodeur rebounded from Sunday's tough loss to Sidney Crosby and the high-octane Pittsburgh Penguins to record his 27th win of the season.
Following a costly giveaway to Penguins Hart Trophy front-runner Evgeni Malkin Sunday, Brodeur wasn’t happy with what he called “iffy” puck-handling against the Blackhawks – he made a quick save after turning the puck over to Marcus Kruger in the third – but otherwise he felt sharp.
“I felt right on top of my game,” he said. “I was controlling my rebounds, seeing the puck really well, besides that [Seabrook goal], so everything was good.
The Devils will need better than good from Brodeur to advance in the post-season. Currently in sixth place, they may draw what is considered to be the most favorable first-round match-up (against 3rd-place Florida), but they remain a team trying to strike a happy medium between offensive potency and sound defensive play .
And with the Devils tinkering with lines, trying to yield the most of their top-six forwards while maintaining some balance, they will need Brodeur to be stout on the back end.
Coach Pete DeBoer did not rule out the possibility of starting backup Johan Hedberg again before the playoffs begin, but getting Brodeur into a groove is paramount.
Tuesday might have been a good first step.
“He was the difference-maker,” DeBoer said. “It’s no secret you need great goaltending in this time of year and in the playoffs.”