Which way will he go? Which way will he go?
Perhaps the most important decision for Panthers coach Kevin Dineen in this first NHL playoff series as bench jockey will be the Game 1 starter in goal, Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen. The direction of the series could be at stake.
Conventional wisdom: Theodore’s the No. 1 goalie (theoretically) with a longer playoff track record, and Dineen’s a pretty conventional hockey guy. So, he will go with Theodore. Besides, should Dineen go with Clemmensen, he could lose Theodore mentally right off the bat.
The counter: Clemmensen has won six of his past nine starts, allowing 16 goals in those starts with a .934 save percentage. One of the losses was a shootout loss to Detroit after allowing the skillful Red Wings only one goal in regulation and overtime. One of those six wins came against New Jersey (again, one goal allowed). Meanwhile, Theodore lost his past seven starts, four in shootouts, allowing 21 goals with a .897 save percentage. His last win was St. Patrick’s Day, the end of a four-game Theodore win streak.
Dineen coyly holsters his decision. What little uncertainty that could inject into the Devils’ preparation doesn’t keep Dineen from resembling a 7-year-old with hands behind his back demanding, “Guess which hand I’m holding it in!”
There’s no decision at the other end. Just as there’s a generation of hockey fans who don’t remember the Panthers in the playoffs, there are two generations who know of no other Devils No. 1 goalie. Martin Brodeur has been there through changes in owners, coaches, arenas, spouses (but not the jersey — the Devils changed that Brodeur’s rookie season) setting NHL career records for wins, shutouts and length of time as The Guy for a franchise.
Nearing 40, not as spry as when the Panthers last saw him (or anybody) in the playoffs, Brodeur still looks the same. The breadth of his massive chest and shoulders enhanced by the black stripe across his shoulders, if he can’t essay the role of Great Wall nightly as he once did, you don’t know it on first glance.
Having Brodeur, “makes you play a little freer out there,” said Panthers center John Madden, a teammate of Brodeur’s on two Stanley Cup winners. “You don’t have to play mistake-free hockey to win.”
Clemmensen knows. When drafted by New Jersey in the eighth round of the 1997 draft, Clemmensen saw a 25-year-old with one Stanley Cup and already established as one of the NHL’s best. Even factoring in the years it takes a goalie to develop, “I knew it wasn’t a situation where I was going to come in there and take his job.”
But Clemmensen and Theodore know this isn’t a résumé contest.
“On any given night, any goalie whether called up from the American [Hockey] League or an NHL superstar or your first year in the league, can put up a 50-60-save shutout and be outstanding. You take it one game at a time. Obviously, my career is not going to even come close to matching up to Marty Brodeur’s career. But on any given night, I can beat him. So, that’s how you take it — one game at a time.”
Theodore, in explaining the occasional phenomenon of a hot playoff goalie said, “Playoffs are a lot about momentum. Through an 82-game season, you do get a stretch of 10-15 games that you feel really good. But, it’s during the season, so you don’t get much attention for it. But in the playoffs, if a goalie gets hot for 10, 15 games, well, you need 16 games to win the Stanley Cup, so that stretch can bring you a long way. It’s about getting in that zone, getting the confidence when it’s needed and trying to ride the wave as long as you can.”