Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Greatest

If ever there were a time to avoid writing an article of any sort about Denver sports now is surely that time. At least that is what I have told myself during most of this hockey season. It is difficult to write articles when there has been so little good to write about; to discover bright spots during a season so bleak.

Last in the West. How terrible that phrase sounds.

In a season that up until last week seemed to only feature conversations about how long it would take the Avalanche to return to relevance, I cannot blame anyone for finding a reason to avoid watching the boys in burgundy. Because really, in a day and age when terrible sports does nothing to ease the sting of “these troubled economic times”, who wants to deal with another letdown?

Unless of course you can find motivation in the support of a cause. In case you didn’t notice because you were too busy plotting a personal economic exit strategy involving living free in national parks, Martin Brodeur has been crowned “The Greatest Goalie Ever.”


The pundits in the East have pointed at Brodeur’s new (and growing) all time wins total. They have trumpeted his impending milestone for the most shutouts. I have even read theories about how Marty may have won more 2-1 games than any other goalie, and like the sheep we are, nearly everyone has been nodding their heads in approval.

Truly, what is not to like about Martin Brodeur? He is a calm, unassuming player, and a fundamentally perfect goaltender. Few goalies of this age instill more respect in the opposing team.

Yet the man who would be king must still bow to those who refined the position for him. Bow to men who paved the way for his success: Benedict, Bower, Vezina, Esposito, Smith, Parent, Hall, Plante, Sawchuk, Dryden, Tretiak, Fuhr, and Roy.

For Avalanche fans who must lean on better times and memories, it is difficult to accept Brodeur as the greatest. Simply, we know better. We have seen it ourselves.

Rarely in sports do we as fans gain the opportunity to see greatness compete against greatness. But up until Patrick Roy’s retirement in 2003, Avalanche fans were treated to just that. It was in Roy that fans witnessed firsthand the triumph of greatness over excellence.

Specifically this triumph can be summed up in the form of a single game. Namely, game six of the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals.

In the zenith of what was a long and arduous playoffs, two great teams staffed with legends were mired in the equivalent of trench warfare. The neutral zone trap had cinched off nearly all offense. In fact one of the teams, the Devils of New Jersey, had not only ushered in The Trap, they had practically invented the abomination that was destroying the game. And at its center was Martin Brodeur.

The four-time Vezina Trophy winner can hardly be blamed for being the beneficiary of a revolutionary defensive system for most of his career. In his own right Brodeur is, was, and shall be a first ballot Hall of Fame goaltender. But as the lynchpin of a system that could turn average goalies into good goalies, and good goalies into superstars, Brodeur has surely reaped the benefits.

Coming off their second Stanley Cup championship in five years, the Devils had gained the upper hand in a back and forth series and wrestled away home ice advantage from the Avalanche heading into game six of the Cup finals in 2001. Having rolled the Avalanche 4-1 in a pivotal game five at the Pepsi Center, game six was to be a mere formality. Avalanche were staggered and perched on a cliff needing only to be coaxed over the edge.

Enter greatness. Enter Patrick Roy.

Of any critique that has been leveled against Roy the most accurate is that his supreme arrogance was also his Achilles heel. On one hand his belief that he was the best pushed him to incredible heights, as evidenced by his 10 straight overtime victories in pulling a bad Montreal team to the Cup in 1993. On the other hand there is the image of Roy raising an empty glove against Steve Yzerman during game six of the 2002 Western Conference finals. Then, the hallmark of game five of the 2001 Finals was a Roy flub in which he misplayed the puck behind his net, leading to a momentum changing New Jersey goal; an embarrassment that would surely cost them a championship.

So easily we forget our history, and at the time we were no different. Time and again during his career Roy upheld the label as not only one of the greats, but as the greatest “money” goalie of all time for a reason. When victory mattered most Patrick Roy had no peer. To this day his playoff achievements are unparalleled, as he owns records for most career playoff games played by a goaltender (247), minutes played (15,209), most career playoff wins (151), and most career playoff shutouts (23). Again, when it mattered most Roy excelled.

On that June evening in 2001 with the Stanley Cup at stake no team, no goalie, much less the great Martin Brodeur was going to defeat Patrick Roy.

From the start the Devils were furious in their onslaught, peppering Roy at every opportunity as they had in earlier games. In the first period alone the Avalanche and Roy fought off three shorthanded situations and twelve quality chances, with nearly every one seeming to come from within ten feet of the net.

Sakic, Forsberg, Bourque, Blake, Foote, Drury, the presence of these legends did not ultimately seem to matter. Roy would not be shaken in his focus, and gradually his influence grew and empowered his teammates.

Twelve shots against in the first.
Seven shots against in the second.
Five shots against in the third.

By the end of the third the Devils had turned the game into a street fight, not out of necessity, but out of frustration. In the end the score could not hope to illustrate how Roy had controlled not only the Devils, but also Martin Brodeur, who seemed to devolve and stray from his fundamentals as the game wore on. At times he flopped and dove in desperate attempts to regain an edge that only hours before was his.

Four to zero. A shutout. The Devils were broken. In the greatest matchup between the greatest of goaltenders Roy was the resounding champion. Game seven in Colorado was now the formality, and ultimate victory was simple and sure.

In life there are times in which we are made to doubt what we know to be true despite all evidence to the contrary. These are times when certainty can be destroyed by a simple shift in thinking.

The art of goaltending does not revolve around simply stopping the hockey puck. The art is in stripping the opposing team of its confidence. In this way Patrick Roy achieved something that was greater than his position. Roy mastered the art of controlling the mental chemistry of his opponent.

In this area no other goalie in the history of the game seems to measure up. Certainly Brodeur’s numbers will be greater than all others, and when he is finished he may own all the important records. But in the end these numbers ultimately do not matter.

On that one day in 2001, in that one series, Patrick Roy proved why above all else he is the greatest goaltender to ever play the game.


Jibblescribbits said...

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