Friday night is Martin Brodeur night in North Jersey, and plans for just how to distinguish that from every other night since about 1990 are no doubt nearing some manic completion, but the more difficult challenge tumbles immediately to the Penguins: How to prevent tonight from being Brodeur's night as well.
For the first time in his long and fabulous career, the legendary New Jersey Devils goaltender will appear in the Penguins' old Uptown barn tonight as the winningest goalkeep of all time, as it is now two weeks since he wriggled past Patrick Roy to record victory No. 552.
Brodeur's curriculum vitae has eclipsed, or soon will, every goalie the game has known (Terry Sawchuck's edge in career shutouts, for example, could be shaved to one by the end of tonight's hostilities).
Everyone's best chance at beating Brodeur always has been the purely ephemeral hope of encountering him on an off night, and the fact that Marty's riding a little slalom of bad nights right now likely means he's about to become very difficult again very soon.
"For me, if you can get an opportunity against Marty, or any goalie of a top caliber, you have to really bear down and bury it," said Penguins top liner Bill Guerin, a former Brodeur teammate. "He's not going to give you a second chance."
Not in theory anyway.
It is at least intriguing, however, that the New York Rangers sent three pucks past Brodeur in the second period Monday night, and that the last five New Jersey opponents have pumped in 16, which is a goals against average of 3.20. I'm not pointing that out to lowlight my rudimentary math skills, but rather to emphasize that 3.20 would be one entire goal per game more than Brodeur's career goals against average, 2.20, which is only the best such figure in the history of what the NHL refers to as the modern era.
Right, since the advent of the Zamboni.
The Devils limp into their appointment tonight having lost five consecutive games, along with their presumptive status as Atlantic Division champions and the No. 2 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs that begin two weeks from tonight. No one has been assigning any culpability to the greatest goalie ever for any of this, of course. New Jersey coach Brent Sutter blames his club's failure to press the issue offensively, thus the related failure to generate quality scoring chances, all of which he has attributed to one of the great catchalls in the dog-eared hockey glossary -- a lack of urgency.
So, it suddenly appears that only the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins have been issued lack-of-urgency licenses for what remains of the regular hockey season, meaning that the Penguins' mission tonight is again merely crucial. For the Penguins' capable battery of snipers, that means it might do a lot of good if they can imagine that the man in the mask does not have "BRODEUR" stitched between the scapulae.
"He's different than other goalies," Guerin was saying after practice yesterday. "He's a special player, but you have to prepare for him like you'd prepare for any goalie. If you make him out in your mind to be something other than that, then why even bother to shoot?"
Since he left the Devils for NHL assignments from Edmonton to Dallas and on both coasts, Guerin has 14 career goals against Brodeur, more than anyone on the Penguins' roster except Sidney Crosby (15). Never mind that Guerin has been shooting at Brodeur now since about the time Crosby was in fifth grade. The more relevant stat tonight might be that Brodeur has more wins in the Penguins' building than in any road venue, so any discomfort for No. 30 will have to be manufactured by tactics rather than atmospherics.
The Penguins will have to plant Guerin in the crease and channel traffic from both directions if they hope to keep Brodeur in the 1-5-1 rut that has been attached to his record-breaking win March 17. That's how you beat him, again, in theory.
You don't strike up conversations about his four Vezina Trophies in the past five seasons, or about how he is the last of the great stand-up goaltenders, or about the odd irony that the Devils actually traded down nine places to take him with the 20th pick of the 1990 draft, 13 spots after Darryl Sydor.
That is what Friday night is for -- monuments and memories and immoderate attempts at immortalization.
Tonight is for another standard argument about two points. Greatness is on the guest list, but you go about your business, the more urgently the better, of course.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283. First Published April 1, 2009 4:00 AM