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.”
The best summation of playoff goaltending I’ve heard came from then-Panthers general manager Bryan Murray before the Panthers’ 1996 playoff run. It’s great if your goalie can steal games for you, Murray said. But what’s required, even in games you win by blowout, is the timely save.
That’s what John Vanbiesbrouck provided for the Panthers that year against Boston in the first round, Games 4 and 5 of the second round against Philadelphia; and Games 1, 3 and 6 of the Eastern Conference final against Pittsburgh, before he stole Game 7. Contrary to popular belief, the Panthers carried the play most of those games. But it’s a game of emotion and momentum, and Vanbiesbrouck kept that train rolling.
Brodeur did the same thing for New Jersey in its first-round sweep of the Panthers in 2000. In Game 1, the Devils jumped out to a 3-0 lead before Panthers coach Terry Murray benched Pavel Bure’s line (Bure, the Panthers’ best player, was their worst player against New Jersey that season). The Panthers got it down to 3-2 after one period. Genuine dread flooded the Meadowlands arena. Everyone could feel a repeat of Jersey’s upset playoff losses of 1997 to 1999, each of which began by losing one of the first two games at home.
Early in the second, Brodeur stacked the pads to stone Bure at the right post. A goal there to tie and who knows? Instead, the Devils took back control of the game. The train kept a-rollin’.
Asked about his recent play, Theodore talked about how he was happy with where the team was. Clemmensen circled the topic for a bit (“You always want to be playing your best this time of year”) before curling down the drain with, “I’m pleased with where my game is.”
Which is why he should be the Game 1 starter.