With the Stanley Cup Finals underway, and with either J.S. Giguere or Ray Emery set to become immortalized as a Stanley Cup winner within the next two weeks, I thought to take a look back at one of Martin Brodeur's seasons in an attempt to demonstrate how misleading the "Stanley Cup winner" label can sometimes be.
What is one of the most-used arguments for Martin Brodeur's greatness? "He's won three Stanley Cups". This is often stated as if he singlehandedly led his team to victory. But how come you never hear about the Stanley Cup that Brodeur lost? The playoff year where one of the best teams in recent memory couldn't bring home the Cup mainly because of the poor play of their goaltender? Shouldn't that count for something?
In 2000-01, the New Jersey Devils, fresh off a Stanley Cup win in 2000, finished first in the Eastern Conference with 111 points. They led the league in goals scored (295), and tied for 5th in goals against (195). They had the best goal differential in the NHL, and their goals for/against suggested that they were actually major underachievers that year. Only two teams in the last 25 years had a better goal ratio than the 2001 Devils in a full season: the 1996 Red Wings, and the 1989 Flames, and that includes the mid-80's Edmonton Oilers dynasty.
The team was stacked, with two 40-goal snipers (Patrik Elias and Alex Mogilny), Petr Sykora (81 points), Scott Gomez (63 points), and Jason Arnott (55 points in 54 games). The checking line was outstanding at both ends, as Selke Trophy winner John Madden and Randy McKay both scored 23 goals and along with Bobby Holik shut down the opposition's best. The defence corps was led by the Scotts, Stevens and Niedermayer, and supported by Brian Rafalski, who had a breakout year with 52 points, and veteran Ken Daneyko. In goal was Martin Brodeur.
In the first playoff round, New Jersey eliminated 8th seeded Carolina in 6 games. The Devils dominated the 'Canes throughout, but Arturs Irbe had a couple of excellent games to delay the inevitable, despite facing 33.5 shots per game. Brodeur barely broke a sweat, facing just 19 shots per game and allowing just 8 goals.
The Devils moved on to play the #7 seeded Toronto Maple Leafs, who had done Devils a big favour by upsetting the second-seeded Ottawa Senators. One of the biggest reasons was goalie Curtis Joseph, who continued his excellent play against the Devils. New Jersey strongly outplayed Toronto in the first three games, but barely managed to take a 2-1 series lead on the strength of two overtime victories. Toronto then won games 4 and 5 to push New Jersey to the brink of elimination as Joseph continued to outplay Brodeur. In game 6, Brodeur finally played a good game, stopping 24 of 26, and New Jersey won 4-2. In the decisive game 7, the Devils put together a dominant performance, holding Toronto to just 16 shots in a 5-1 rout.
During the series, Brodeur faced just 20.5 shots per game, and had a dismal .878 save percentage against the 13th ranked offence in the league. Curtis Joseph outplayed Brodeur in 5 of the games, facing 28.6 shots per game and stopping pucks at an .898 clip. Despite the huge edge in shots and play, New Jersey outscored Toronto just 21-18.
The Conference Final opponent was the 6th seeded Penguins, a 96 point team during the regular season. With offensive stars including Mario Lemieux and scoring leader Jaromir Jagr, the Pens had finished second to New Jersey in goals scored. The problem was that the defence was weak, and the goaltending was so bad that Pittsburgh turned to untested rookie Johan Hedberg throughout their surprising playoff run.
That run would end against New Jersey. Pittsburgh's high-scoring offence ran into the brick wall of New Jersey's defence. In game one, the Penguins managed just 15 shots on Martin Brodeur in a 3-1 loss. In game 2, they got 23, but beat Brodeur 4 times in a 4-2 win. In games three and four, Brodeur posted back-to-back shutouts, making 20 and 21 saves respectively. Pittsburgh finally scored a couple of goals in game 5, but New Jersey closed out the series with a 4-2 win. Over the series, New Jersey outscored Pittsburgh 17-7 and outshot them 139-99. Brodeur had his best series of the playoffs with a .929 save percentage and 2 shutouts, although he was again rarely tested with just 20 shots against per game.
That led to a much-hyped goalie showdown in the Stanley Cup Finals: Martin Brodeur vs. Patrick Roy. Colorado was the President's Trophy Winner with 118 points, but they did it in a weaker division, had a worse goal differential than New Jersey, and were missing their best playmaker in Peter Forsberg who was injured for the Finals. Against the weakened Avalanche, the Devils were the better team.
In game one, however, the Devils came out flat, and Colorado jumped all over them, lighting up Brodeur for 5 goals in a 5-0 win. Game two was a tighter defensive affair, with both teams putting just 20 shots on net. With a 2-1 win, New Jersey grabbed a split of the games in Colorado.
The Avalanche took home ice advantage right back again with a 3-1 win in game 3, Brodeur giving up 3 goals on 21 shots. Facing a must-win situation, the Devils dominated game 4, outshooting Colorado 35-12. Brodeur let in 2 goals, despite being rarely tested, while Roy nearly stole the game, holding off the Devils until he made a costly puckhandling error to give up the tying goal, and the Devils found a late winner to tie the series. In game 5 in Colorado, New Jersey again outplayed the Avalanche, putting 4 goals past Roy. Brodeur stopped 22 of 23 shots in his best game of the series. The Devils were a win away from the Stanley Cup.
In game 6, Patrick Roy came ready to play. The Devils had early pressure, with three of the first four power plays and a 12-5 edge in shots through one period of play. But Roy stopped everything. Colorado scored 4 goals on Brodeur on only 18 shots, and Roy and the Avs blanked the Devils to send the series back to Colorado for game 7.
The season therefore came down to one game. The media focus was on Ray Bourque, attempting to win his first ever Stanley Cup, but the key players would be Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy. In this high-stakes showdown, Brodeur blinked first, giving up a first period goal to Alex Tanguay, and in the second period was beaten again by Tanguay and then by Joe Sakic. New Jersey kept attacking, outshot Colorado yet again and managed to get one goal back, but that was all Patrick Roy would allow and the Avalanche took the Cup with a 3-1 win (Youtube).
The Stanley Cup Finals came down to goaltending. Over the 7 games, New Jersey outshot Colorado 178-146 and carried most of the play. Patrick Roy gave up only 11 goals in 7 games for a glittering .938 save percentage. Brodeur's numbers were mediocre: .870 save percentage and 2.71 GAA. The difference was even more glaring in the crucial games 6 and 7, where Brodeur let in 7 goals on 40 shots while Roy stopped 49 of 50. This is not just the stats either - from watching the games it was clear that New Jersey was the better team, but Colorado won because they got much better play from the goaltender position.
Brodeur was not merely outplayed in one playoff series by one of the greatest goalies of all time, he was actually one of the worst goaltenders in the 2001 playoffs. He ranked 15th out of 18 goalies in save percentage, and dead last among all goalies who made it past the first round. Brodeur's poor stats were despite New Jersey having a creampuff run to the Finals against the bottom three seeds in the East. He finished 3rd in GAA and tied for 1st in shutouts, but this was simply because he finished first in fewest shots per game with far and away the lowest total at 20.2 shots per 60 minutes. The next lowest was 23.7. On a game-by-game save percentage basis, Brodeur was outplayed by the opposing goaltender in 13 of his 25 games, including 10 out of 14 times against Roy and Joseph combined.
For comparison's sake, in 2004 Patrick Lalime was chased out of Ottawa after posting a .906 save percentage and a 1.95 GAA in 7 games against Toronto. Famed choker Marty Turco's career playoff record is a .909 save percentage and 2.21 GAA. Roman Cechmanek, last playoff season in the NHL: .909 save percentage, 2.15 GAA. In Curtis Joseph's single worst playoff year with the Oilers, Leafs or Wings he posted a .907 save percentage. In 2001, Brodeur went to game 7 of the Finals with an .897 save percentage, .017 worse than the average of all of the other playoff goalies combined, facing the weakest conference opponents he could possibly face and then a Finals opponent missing one of the best players in the league.
Despite the erratic performance by Martin Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils almost won the Stanley Cup. Dominant at both ends of the ice, the Devils were probably one of the best teams of the last two decades. But they did not win it all, and the main reason was goaltending. Brodeur may have been a bigger factor in his team's loss in 2001 than he ever was a positive factor in his team winning in 1995, 2000, or 2003. By my accounting, therefore, Brodeur should get credit for no more than 2 Stanley Cup wins. He still owes New Jersey one from 2001.