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THE CONTINUING prospect of playing without goalie Martin Brodeur, the bedrock of the Devils' franchise for 15 years, "certainly puts a knot in your stomach," in the words of coach Brent Sutter. Right. And transitioning from a seemingly invincible four-time Vezina Trophy winner—Brodeur had missed just seven games to injury in his career before going down with a torn left biceps tendon on Nov. 1—to a tandem of journeymen goalies can wreak havoc not only on a coach's digestive system but also on a team's playoff chances.
Through Sunday the Devils were 5-5-0 without Brodeur (they'd been 6-2-2 before then) and, with salary-cap issues limiting their trade options, seemed prepared to skate ahead with backups Scott Clemmensen and Kevin Weekes. Brodeur isn't due back until March. "It was a little weird early on, trying to get used to playing without [Brodeur]," defenseman Paul Martin says of a player who has averaged more starts (73) than any goalie over the past 10 seasons. "You have to change your game a bit as a team."
Brodeur's superb puck-handling skills and his willingnessnay, eagerness—to roam from the net essentially gave New Jersey an extra defenseman. (The 2005 rule that bars goalies from handling the puck in the corners is often referred to as the Brodeur Rule.) "With Marty you know that when the puck's being dumped into our zone, he's probably going to get it and send it out around the boards," forward Zach Parise says. "With Weekes and Clemmensen, they're probably going to leave it for our defensemen."
That gives opponents a crack at regaining the puck deep in the Devils' zone, and the change in style helps account for the 11% rise in shots—to 29.5 a game—they had faced in Brodeur's absence. Teams are also aggressively seeking to test the new co-starters. "They're shooting from everywhere," Martin says, "chipping in and coming hard."
The 33-year-old Weekes hasn't been a No. 1 since 2003--04 with Carolina. Clemmensen, 31, who had started 19 NHL games in his five seasons of bouncing between the minors and the NHL (with a poor .872 save percentage), was expected to spend this season at New Jersey's affiliate in Lowell, Mass. But after backstopping home wins over Washington and Florida last week, Clemmensen has become an upstart favorite in New Jersey. In place of the "Mar-ty, Mar-ty" chants that have rocked the Devils' arena for so many years, fans are unleashing rhythmic cries of "Scot-ty Clemmensen."
Both Weekes (prone to allowing dangerous rebounds) and Clemmensen (susceptible to soft goals) have weaknesses, but none is so great as simply not being the man they're replacing. Brodeur, seven wins shy of Patrick Roy's career record of 551, masked flaws like the Devils' punchless power play and a middling defense corps. Can New Jersey stay playoff-worthy until Brodeur gets back? Sutler's an optimist—and a realist. "We've been a very good team with a great goalie," he says. "We can still be a very good team." That may not be enough.
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