By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — He’s a journeyman playing like a superstar.
Hockey fans tend to forget Johan Hedberg is 37 years old. But if you’ve watched him play during the Devils’ unbelievable season-saving streak you wouldn’t for one second say he’s a goaltender at the tail end of an otherwise unremarkable career.
You’d say, why hasn’t this guy stuck with anyone?
His resume seems to suggest he’s right where he should be — a career backup who’s played for five different clubs, most likely brought on board each time to provide a breather for the real deal, in this case arguably the greatest goaltender to ever put on equipment in Martin Brodeur.
Drafted in the ninth round, 218th overall, way back in 1994, it took Hedberg six years to get to the NHL. And when he arrived he was only a true starter one season — 2001-02 in Pittsburgh, getting between the pipes in 64 games.
Since that time, again, his statistics have screamed backup — basically a losing record and plenty of seasons of a sub-.900 save percentage.
But last season, while splitting time in Atlanta, something appeared to take form, the stars sort of aligned for the native of Leksand, Sweden. Hedberg found a second wind, which in reality was really a first wind considering he’d spent so many games over the previous six seasons watching with his helmet off on the bench. He finished 2009-10 with 21 wins and a .915 save percentage for a Thrashers club that was considered a possible playoff team up until the moment they waved the white flag by trading Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils.
For their part, the Devils must have liked something about Hedberg because they signed him to back-up Brodeur this past offseason not knowing they’d need him to play pivotal numbers of games during a season that started out as a call to arms to eliminate the bitter taste of a first-round playoff exit the previous spring. The Devils, as we all know, responded by starting off horribly and got progressively worse before rookie head coach John MacLean was canned after just 33 games and worse, just nine wins.
Enter Jacques Lemaire, who at first quipped his way through press conference after press conference, swearing along the way that he wouldn’t return to the bench next season. That notion seems to have changed a bit. Lemaire is now more non-committal than absolutely against the idea.
Hedberg has certainly helped give the nine-time Stanley Cup winner this moment of pause.
Sure, Kovalchuk is now playing like the $100 million man he is and many of the Devils’ veterans and younger players have answered the call, but with Brodeur having suffered through a season’s worth of different injuries, it has been Hedberg who has stepped up in a monstrous sort of way.
His statistics are rather mind-boggling considering his past, but more on that later. The Devils are in the midst of an ungodly 16-1-2 run that has pulled them within nine points of the eighth spot in the wide-open Eastern Conference playoff race, with 22 games to play. They still have to hurdle five teams to get into the playoffs, but considering how the Devils are playing right now what looked like the longest of long shots back in November now looks very much like a forgone conclusion.
The Devils appear to be on a collision course with their 14th straight playoff season and, despite sitting four games below .500, are poised to achieve their record 19th straight season with a winning record, a mark they currently share with the Detroit Red Wings among the four major North American professional sports.
Hedberg has been smack dab in the middle of all of it, going 8-0-1 with an unbelievable 1.32 goals-against average and equally stunning .947 save percentage over the Devils’ last 10 games.
Now, Hedberg hasn’t done it alone and unfortunately for him the Devil haters will eventually come out and look back on his run and place a giant asterisk next to his name. Brodeur has always been unfairly treated in the same manner. The haters will say, yes, Brodeur may have every NHL record known to man but he’s a system goalie. They’ll say the Devils, through use of their despised trap and penchant for limiting opponents’ shots on goal, are so sound in their own end it really doesn’t matter who their goaltender is.
To counter that, one has to look at the Devils’ season as a whole. Only recently have they really looked like their vintage selves. When I say that I mean when the Devils are allowing less than 20 shots on goal per game they are playing like the true Devils, the franchise that has won three Stanley Cups and is a general nuisance to go up against each and every night.
During the month of February the Devils have allowed less than 20 shots in just three of nine games. Hedberg, on the other hand, has been among the three stars of the game five times. So, yes, the Devils are rounding into form defensively, but Hedberg is not just sitting back there sipping water and occasionally stopping a few pucks sent in from the red line.
The more important issue going forward is the fact that Brodeur is basically healthy again. However, when he has played this season he’s been largely hit or miss. Injuries aside, anyone with an .898 save percentage in the NHL isn’t exactly doing his job. But all that said, Lemaire now has a choice to make — go with the guy who has done it forever and obviously knows what it takes to win at the highest level and in the playoffs or stick with the hot hand, the man who has basically helped save the season, is currently playing the best hockey of his life and has earned the trust of every last skater wearing red and white.
It would be far-fetched to think Lemaire would sit Brodeur. But Devils fans everywhere would be wrong to dismiss Hedberg and what he’s accomplished simply because Marty is supposedly Marty.
Brodeur hasn’t been Brodeur all season and there’s no guarantee he will be again when it matters most.
Hedberg, on the other hand, is playing like a man who knows there probably isn’t a tomorrow. He’s at least earned the right to be counted on again in a big spot.
After all, the guy has gone above and beyond himself for weeks, with no signs he’ll ever be content playing second fiddle again.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini
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