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Jersey alterations

It's hardly business as usual for Brodeur's Devils

Posted: Monday October 24, 2005 1:43PM; Updated: Tuesday October 25, 2005 1:00AM
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Opponents have been crowding the Devils' crease, putting Martin Brodeur on his heels.

Everyone knew coming into the new NHL that adjustment would be part of the equation. As change pertains to the perennial Eastern Conference power New Jersey Devils, it is subtle yet obvious.

On the surface, they look the same and play the same, yet this edition is a feebler facsimile of the teams that went to four Stanley Cups -- winning three -- in the last decade. Call it Devils-lite.

The familiar button-downed approach is still intact, with their media guide photos taken in jacket and tie. The team files off the bus on game day in a quiet, reserved and orderly fashion, with most players wearing serious expressions as they look down, avoiding any eye contact. This code of closed conduct has served the Devils well, keeping them consistent in their results on the ice and confidential in dealing with team business off it.

Behind the all-business approach is the architect of this franchise's success, Lou Lamoriello, himself aware that this early stage of the 2005-06 season is a "wait and see" period. Even with familiar faces like Larry Robinson behind the bench, Martin Brodeur in goal, Brian Rafalski rushing the puck from the back end, John Madden and Scott Gomez in the middle and Jay Pandolfo killing penalties, you get the sense that Lamoriello isn't sure where his team fits in the current scheme of things.

Yes, the Devils still play their patient, defense-leading-to-offense brand of hockey, but in their own zone, the current reality is a far cry from the mastery of the past. Part of it is personnel, with the Devils' blue line being Scott-free -- as in Niedermayer and Stevens -- for the first time since their run of success.

But most of it has to do with the interplay between Brodeur and his defensemen. He truly was a third defensemen back there with his puck-handling prowess. He defused forechecking. In the process, Brodeur making the first pass on the breakout saved his defensemen from absorbing innumerable body checks.

Now, instead of screening off or holding up a forechecking forward, the Devils' defense must retrieve the puck and take the hit in order to move the puck. The entire premise of their exit strategy is now null and void and the outcome is predictable.

The Devils are spending more time in their own zone, leading to more quality scoring chances against Brodeur than ever before. Most are in the form of rebounds -- which he is prone to give and his defense of the past was expert in thwarting under the old clutch and grab format -- and plays in and around the net, which is another area of average ability for Brodeur. Subsequently, Brodeur's goals-against average is way up and his save percentage is down.

Not that Brodeur won't round into form and adjust. He most likely will. Yet dominating will be difficult with the puck-handling restrictions instituted this season.

Brodeur's ability to read the play and pass the puck wasn't a novel individual skill to be marveled at in isolation. The Devils built that uniqueness into the fabric of their game to a greater extent than any other team, so it stands to reason that it will take them longer to adjust and modify.

In the meantime, Brodeur and the Devils are enduring things that have rarely happened to them. Things like the archrival New York Rangers blitzing them for three first-period goals. Sequences like surrendering a 3-1 third-period lead in the final 12 minutes of a 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers.

Brodeur was even pulled from a game for the first time after 90 complete starts, proving that it may still be business first for the Devils, but so far, it is hardly business as usual.