NEWARK, N.J. -- Technically, it was a meaningless game. Earlier in the week, the New Jersey Devils were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. And the Boston Bruins, who seemingly left half their squad at home, had already clinched the Presidents’ Trophy.
But Sunday’s 3-2 win for the Devils was not meaningless, not for the team, not for the fans and not for goaltender Martin Brodeur, who left the Prudential Center ice with the crowd on its feet in what was very likely his last game as a New Jersey Devil.
The Devils’ fan base hasn’t had much to cheer about lately. Two straight seasons without a playoff appearance. The departure of two star players in consecutive summers. An absolutely maddening 0-for-13 shootout record this season.
But the crowd had plenty to cheer about Sunday in recognizing the iconic netminder and his unparalleled contributions to the Devils' organization over the past 21 years.
The fans began with a raucous whoop when Brodeur was announced as the day’s starter. Then, another rowdy outburst when Brodeur stuffed Boston’s Reilly Smith in the first period. They shouted and screamed their approval after his terrific glove save on Alexander Khokhlachev during the third period. And with four minutes remaining in the game, they erupted into spontaneous chants, alternating between “Marty, Marty!” and “Marty’s better!” and finally, “Thank you, Marty.”
Not even a power-play goal surrendered with 16 seconds remaining could spoil the fun. The crowd was back on its feet when the final buzzer sounded. And the love and appreciation and admiration were palpable for the beloved goaltender, who took a final twirl at center ice after his teammates’ urging.
“It was pretty hard,” Brodeur said, admitting he became emotional at the outpouring of support. “These people are my family.”
Those fans were there for him throughout his illustrious career, one that brought three Stanley Cup championships to New Jersey and an amassed 688 wins. Sunday, they were able to thank him for all that he did and all the memories they share.
It was a celebration that was fitting, and well-deserved.
“He’s the best goaltender to ever play the game, hands down,” said teammate Travis Zajac. “People will remember him by his Stanley Cups ... He’ll always be a Devil.”
That means even if Brodeur signs elsewhere this summer, a possibility that seems even more likely after listening to him address his future following Sunday’s 16-save effort in the season finale. Brodeur said he’d be open to returning to New Jersey, though it sounded like he was looking forward to seeking opportunities elsewhere.
Brodeur faced a hard intersection this season, one in which his remarkable history with the team no longer guaranteed a spot in its future. Nostalgia was not enough to solidify his spot as a starter, and so he was relegated to a backup role.
It would be a difficult position for any player to accept, but one so much more painful for a player of his caliber. Brodeur didn’t become the type of player he is -- an irrefutable first-ballot Hall of Famer -- without an insatiable competitive fire.
So, maybe it’s not the worst thing if Brodeur does move on. With his diminished playing time this season, Brodeur has already teetered perilously close to becoming disgruntled. Another year in which he feels marginalized could sour the relationship entirely, forcing a bitter divorce.
Better to leave now rather than risk tarnishing his legacy, and relationship, with the team that became his home.
The Devils defined his career. And he helped define the Devils.
If his last time as a Devil was Sunday, when he was allowed to cherish and savor the shower of appreciation he received from the fans, that will have been a proper exit.
His place in the club’s history is set. And it doesn’t have to change.
“Just excellence,” coach Pete DeBoer said of Brodeur’s career with New Jersey. “Decades of excellence.”