The National Hockey League began staging playoffs about 81 years ago. By then, it is safe to assume, hockey players had already put their tooth-poor skulls together and said, "You know, we should get some of our guys to go in front of their goalie and knock him around a bit, eh?"
Ask Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who has played in 27 postseason series, and won 20 of them. "Sure, one of the ways teams have success in the playoffs is going to the net. I've seen this before."
Brodeur was speaking calmly in the visitors' locker room at Madison Square Garden, a blue-on-blue striped tie knotted over a pale blue shirt, and a towel wrapped strategically around his waist. The subject of net-crashing had come up because no team is doing it more persistently or more effectively in this postseason than the Rangers are to Brodeur. The tally so far: three goalie interference calls, two nudges of the mask off Brodeur's face, one diving penalty goaded out of Brodeur and, not incidentally, a three games to one series lead for the Rangers.
"We're not trying to do anything illegal," said Rangers winger Jaromir Jagr after Game 4, a look of pure innocence on his face. "We're just trying to make a play."
Jagr was at the heart of one of this series' most memorable scenes when he and Brodeur met in the Devils' crease in the second period of Game 4. It was an apt place for these two certain Hall-of-Famers to meet. Jagr came through and raised his arm, Brodeur fell, his mask slipped off and play continued. That led to the sight of Brodeur lying vulnerable on the ice, his glove hand in front of his exposed face while he tried to save his noggin as much as the game.
In a career of happy playoff series, this has hardly been Brodeur's happiest. There was the lousy goal he let in on Ryan Callahan's sweep-around in Game 1; the dealing with Sean Avery's nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah act in Game 3; that diving call after a bump from Fred Sjostrom, and then the Game 4 winner from defenseman Marc Staal, a shot that went in, undeflected, from just inside the blue line.
Is all this front-of-the-net havoc, not to mention the derisive serenades of "Mar-tin, Mar-tin" that the Rangers faithful begins to unleash before each game's opening faceoff (more precisely, they began unleashing those chants in 1994, and have never really stopped) finally getting to Brodeur?
"Being interfered with, getting called for diving, it's got to be frustrating for him," said Devils forward Jamie Langenbrunner. "We have to figure out a way to protect him."
The Devils say that in light of all the meanness to Marty, they just might have to start getting frisky around Rangers goalie Henrik Lundquist -- a worthy thought, perhaps, but not a smart thing to say. Shows a little unease. Is it sworn vengeance that is a scoundrel's last resort?
The Rangers say they don't see a change in a man who may yet be their nemesis before this series is done.
"Nope, Marty stays the same," said center Scott Gomez, who played with Brodeur for seven seasons before this one. "I've seen it first hand and I see it now. That guy has alligator blood."
Brodeur is one shutout shy of tying Patrick Roy's playoff record of 23, and now, from the Devils' perspective, would be a very good time for him to get it. He'll have to do it while contending with some mayhem at the mouth of his lair. The Rangers are going to keep doing what they've been doing, what playoff teams have tried to do for more than 80 years, though not always quite so successfully.