The big save.
It's the difference between winning and losing. It's the difference between being a good goalie and being a great goalie. In the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning, it's the difference between Martin Brodeur and Nikolai Khabibulin.
The Devils carry a 2-0 series lead into Monday night's Game 3 in Tampa. But the series easily could be tied, 1-1. The Devils seemed ready to be beaten in the third period of Game 2 on Saturday. The Lightning's best playoff scorer had the backbreaking goal on his stick, but Brodeur wasn't ready to lose.
New Jersey trailed 2-1 with a little more than 12 minutes left in regulation. Pressing for the tying goal, the usually stingy Devils defensemen allowed speedy little winger Martin St. Louis to slip behind them. Less than a period earlier, St. Louis had given the Lightning the lead with a short-handed breakaway goal. Now, it seemed, the tiny terror was going to stick a pitchfork into the Devils.
Moving from left to right, the former University of Vermont star deked Brodeur and attempted to flip a backhand over the sprawled goaltender. St. Louis, who scored his earlier goal with a well-placed wrist shot, was hoping Brodeur would bite on the move. He didn't. Brodeur slid to his left and stacked his pads (with his glove on top) to deflect St. Louis' attempt.
Instead of it being lights out for the Devils, who haven't made a living overcoming two-goal, third-period deficits,Brodeur did exactly what he's done through most his professional career -- he made the big save.
In overtime, Khabibulin didn't have to make a big save, he just had to make a clean one on Jamie Langenbrunner. Approaching from the right wing, Langenbrunner fired a shot right into Khabibulin, who couldn't control the rebound. Sensing trouble, Khabibulin tried to paddle the puck into the corner, but he missed. Langenbrunner, who leads the Devils in playoff goals, corralled the loose puck, sidestepped Khabibulin and backhanded the puck into the unprotected cage.
Now, the Lightning find themselves in the same hole they found themselves in against Washington in the first round. With some smart moves -- and the help of several strange calls -- the Lightning overcame the deficit to win the next four games and their first playoff series in franchise history.
However, Khabibulin was the difference in that series. He was able to step up and make the big saves. He outplayed Olaf Kolzig in the final four games. It was the first playoff series win for Khabibulin, who had been on the wrong side of four playoff series during his time in Winnipeg/Phoenix.
Against the Devils, though, Khabibulin has been a playoff pedestrian. In Game 1, he allowed a third-period blue-line stinker by Langenbrunner. Though the puck deflected off the body of defenseman Pavel Kubina, Lightning coach John Tortorella still called it a "sh-- goal." The weak tally snapped a scoreless tie.
A few minutes later, Khabibulin had a chance to make up for the miscue against John Madden on an odd-man rush. A big save would have kept the game at 1-0. But Khabibulin couldn't shut the door, allowing Madden to beat him through the five-hole.
Again, game over.
Brodeur's Hall of Fame resume is littered with big saves in big games. Khabibulin, who is often ranked among the league's top goaltenders, hasn't been able to get to reach that level.
At the 2002 Winter Olympics, for example, Khabibulin wasn't able to lift an extremely talented Russian team into the gold-medal game. Brodeur, meanwhile, backstopped Team Canada to an Olympic championship.
And it was Brodeur who got a skate on a Brett Hull blast in the final minutes of the gold-medal game between Canada and the United States. A goal would have tied the game and perhaps changed the outcome.
But Brodeur made the big save. He made sure history would take the right turn for Canada. Now, with two Stanley Cups in the bank, he seems hungry to make a little more history with the Devils. That's bad news for the Lightning, who desperately need their stopper to step up. In this case, that might just be too big a step for him to take.