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Friday, April 2, 2004
Updated: April 17, 1:37 PM ET
Brodeur must salvage Devils' series

By Rob Parent
Special to ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- If only because history allows it and the immediate future of the New Jersey Devils demands it, he must again become the weapon, this matured if somewhat mystified Martin Brodeur.

He must again become the on-ice aggressor instead of the postgame analyst, applying the advantage he represents in this series against the Philadelphia Flyers, rather than defining his team's drawbacks with such stark honesty.

Brodeur had done just that on March 13, after the Devils had just lost to the Flyers for the third consecutive game and second time in five days, saying, "we have a little catching up to do" when it comes to their old rivals from down the Turnpike.

As for the Flyers, their pre-playoff public posture was one of not being fooled. Sure they had won the season series with the Devils, but these were still the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Of course, the biggest champion of them all was still sidelined with post-concussion syndrome. So now with a first-round Devils demise underscoring Game 5 on Saturday, Scott Stevens is still MIA, and Brodeur's once indestructible confidence seems to be as well.

"He's still one of the guys we have to keep going after," Flyers forward Simon Gagne said of Brodeur just before a 3-0 Flyers victory in Game 4 Wednesday pushed the Devils to the brink of elimination. "We don't want to give him his confidence back. He's the kind of guy who, if he wins one game for his team, he might be tough to beat after that."

That's just Gagne's opinion, but it's an educated one. He's one of the four active Flyers who were on the team in 2000, when Philadelphia experienced another Miracle of the Meadowlands, a hockey version that was far from glorious.

Brodeur had played poorly as his team fell down 3-1 with their Eastern Conference finals series moving back to Philadelphia for Game 5. But the Flyers would relax a bit and Brodeur promptly righted himself, with his teammates feeding off his lead.

They caught the Flyers flat-footed in Game 5. Then the Flyers stood around watching Brodeur stone just-returned concussion victim Eric Lindros in Game 6. And finally after Stevens knocked Lindros from the lineup again with a crushing check early in Game 7, Brodeur became the weapon, shutting down any and every Flyers foray into the Devils' trapping zone.

Fast forward four years. Brodeur, slightly thicker of body and currently muddier of mind -- but no less honest -- admits he's had a mostly dismal series through the first four games.

Some kid in goal for the Flyers -- Robert Esche playing the part Brian Boucher was cast in so nicely four years ago -- has the gall to be completely outplaying Brodeur, even though it's that kid's first taste of postseason success.

Oh, and the irrepressable Stevens? Still part of the story, but only because of his absence due to ... chronic concussion symptoms.

Cue the irony screenwriter! Hate dramatic remakes, but don't you think this series of similarities is at least worthy of a lengthy promo?

"If they come back in this series and beat us, it's because they're better than us. If we beat them, it's because we're better than them," said suddenly serious Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock. "We're not running and worrying. We're here now and we're going to play like hell. If we're not good enough, then we're not good enough. And if we are, we are. But we're not going to sit there and bring up some old, dead story that doesn't belong here."

If it doesn't belong here, that's only because Brodeur hasn't reached back for inspiration from it. You don't win three Stanley Cups without having some sort of miracle worker in net, a part Brodeur always seemed born for. But after the Devils opened this series with consecutive 3-2 losses, all Brodeur could muster was a present plea -- just score me three goals, he said.

"I said that to you guys," Brodeur said after the Devils scored four in a Game 3 win, "but I didn't tell that to the players."

What's he saying to himself now after playing his part in a shutout defeat in Game 4 by giving up a bad rebound on the first Flyers goal? Is he still analyzing the Flyers' depth advantage up front? Is he reassessing his opinion of the young and hot Esche, as everyone else is doing? Is he pining for Stevens, the way everyone in the Devils locker room has to be feeling?

Or has Brodeur finally gotten real, hit the history books and realized he can still be the difference maker? He must adopt the possibility that the gods of playoffs past had rendered him mediocre through the first four games of this series against the Flyers, just as he played for the first four games of his last playoff series against them in 2000.

"You build a reputation," Brodeur said, "and people always look at that. I'll always be compared (to other goalies) just because of what I've accomplished so far."

Now Brodeur's time has come again. For the sake of his team, it's time for him to work another mini-miracle, both on Broad Street and in the Meadowlands.

He has to think, as those too-few New Jersey fans say they do, that a glorious last stand Saturday at Wachovia Center could spark the start of another unbelievable chapter in his own legend and in this rivalry's hysterical, historical text.

"We're going to go against all odds here," Brodeur said. "Everybody thinks we're dead in the water. I'm sure they really want to close this out in their building. If we spoil their party it will put some doubt in their minds."

Perhaps so. But will it make Marty a believer in miracles again?

Rob Parent of the Delaware County (Pa.) Times is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.