NEWARK, N.J. -- It was Martin Brodeur's 40th birthday, and wouldn't you know it, he had to spend it in Newark.
Brodeur played his first playoff game in Madison Square Garden when he was 19 years old, coming on in relief, and like a lot of teenagers arriving in the Big Apple for the first time, he was chewed up and spit back across the river.
But here he was, 20 years and nine days later, in his 192nd post-season appearance, with a chance to push the Philadelphia Flyers onto the edge of obscurity. No worries; in a 4-2 loss to New Jersey that gave the Devils a 3-1 series lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal, the Flyers helped do that themselves. This team was flying so high after the first round. It appears broken, just now.
Before the game Flyers winger Scott Hartnell had talked about how his team was being strangled by the Devils, and wasn't playing with the requisite emotion to escape their grasp. He told reporters, "We have to get that emotion back in our dressing room. We're not looking for fights or stupid things like that. We're just trying to get ourselves jacked up and have some fun out there."
It didn't look like much fun, frankly. The Flyers were out-skated, out-hustled and outclassed, in more ways than one. They granted Brodeur the gift of solitude in his dotage, compiling 12 shots through two periods, and 21 for the game. They left their own goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov, alone in a very different way, forcing the Russian to make a series of wonderful saves, until he could not make them all.
And shortly after Dainius Zubrus had given the Devils a 3-2 lead with 3:17 left in the second period -- a goal that was the product of mathematical inevitability as much as anything else -- Philadelphia's leader lost his head, and went after somebody else's. During a shift that included furious shouting at an official, Claude Giroux hustled back down the ice, chased down Zubrus, and lifted a late shoulder up into Zubrus's jaw along the boards.
He was only given two minutes for what was announced in the press box as "head contact," though it should have been five. Zubrus did return to the Devils' bench in the third period, and scored the empty-net goal that sealed the win.
In the clinching Game 6 against Pittsburgh in the first round Giroux played with a magnificent edge, boasting to teammates to "watch this first shift" before rocking Sidney Crosby with a clean hit and scoring the game's first goal. This time, he went over that edge.
And in the third, that desperation Philadelphia needed? That emotion? New Jersey shovelled whatever there was into the swamps. The tide never turned; the ice never tilted. Until the empty-netter, it was as one-sided a one-goal game as you can find.
Early on, the Flyers were lucky, as much as anything. Bryzgalov had to sprawl to make a save on a wraparound by Adam Henrique, and Hartnell knocked Henrique flying, then glowered over him. Emotion generation, one supposes.
The Devils were flying, but finally took a pair of interference penalties -- one a retaliation play, one under pressure -- and on the second power play Hartnell reached across teammate Wayne Simmonds and tipped in a Giroux shot to open the scoring at the 11:50 mark. Philadelphia made it 2-0 less than two minutes later, short-handed, when the Flyers broke out and Max Talbot waited, just enough, before sending a firm and perfect pass between two Devils defenders just as Giroux broke through them, but before he was all the way offside. Giroux beat Brodeur backhand, and it was 2-0 Flyers.
But the Devils were simply so much better. Petr Sykora chipped in a power-play goal 94 seconds later, and Marek Zidlicky tipped in a Bryce Salvador pass a few minutes after that -- oh, the pass Ilya Kovalchuk delivered to set that play in motion -- and we were off. New Jersey outshot Philadelphia 16-7 in the first, and 16-5 in the second, and 43-22 for the game.
If not for Bryzgalov's quality work, it would have resembled that 10-3 thrashing Philadelphia absorbed in the first round. He made one on Steve Bernier midway through the second with Bernier all alone on the goal-line and jamming at his glove; that one was like a magic trick. He then stopped Bernier again on the doorstep twice, and was repeatedly pitchforked in the groin for his troubles. And you wonder why goalies are crazy.
Brodeur, however, seems sane, even after all these years. Forty years old and he is one win from a conference final, and five wins from playing for a Stanley Cup.
Happy birthday, Marty.
-- Postmedia News