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Top Shelf: Devils welcome back goal-oriented Brodeur

After missing a month of action with a bad back, Martin Brodeur was ready to make his presence felt for the New Jersey Devils in whatever way possible.

Brodeur returned from a 13-game absence Thursday with an opportunity to end a Devils' losing streak and to gain ground on a key Eastern Conference opponent. However, since we are talking about one of the greatest goaltenders to ever play the game, it's fitting the 40-year-old's return was anything but routine.

For the third time in his storied NHL career, Brodeur was credited with a goal and it almost wound up standing as the game-winner for New Jersey in its 4-1 road win over the Carolina Hurricanes. The victory was an important one for the Devils, who moved two points ahead of the 'Canes for the seventh of the conference's eight playoff seeds.

Brodeur scored a power-play goal to stake the Devils to a 1-0 lead less than four minutes into the first period. He also wound up stopping 17-of-18 shots in the win and lost his shutout bid, and a shot at the game-winning goal, when Jeff Skinner scored with 8:33 left in regulation.

Unlike his first goal, which came when he shot the puck directly into an empty net during a 1997 playoff game against Montreal, Brodeur, who is regarded by many as the best stick-handling goalie ever, had little to do with his third career marker.

With the Hurricanes shorthanded less than four minutes in, Skinner raced in on a breakaway and was hooked by New Jersey defenseman Marek Zidlicky before getting off a shot that Brodeur guided into the left corner with his stick.

Carolina goaltender Dan Ellis then left the net on the delayed penalty call, but Jordan Staal's feed to the left point missed the mark and banked off the boards before sliding the length of the ice into the vacated net.

Although Brodeur's second career goal, which came against Philadelphia on Feb. 15, 2000, was very similar to the one he "scored" on Thursday, the legendary backstop didn't know he was going to be credited with another goal until teammate Ilya Kovalchuk clued him in.

"Kovy knew right away. I wasn't sure what happened," Brodeur said.

Kovalchuk jokingly explained after the game how he should've been credited with an assist on his netminder's tally.

"I should've gotten an assist because I turned the puck over, I let the guy beat me one-on-one and then Zid (Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky) tripped him, so their goalie left the net," Kovalchuk quipped.

The return of Brodeur had everybody in a laughing mood on Thursday, but there was nothing funny about New Jersey's play while the NHL's all-time wins leader was out with his wonky back. With veteran backup Johan Hedberg starting all 13 games in Brodeur's absence, the Devils went 3-8-2 and fell out of first place in both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.

Pittsburgh has since opened a double-digit lead over New Jersey for first place, but as the Devils showed last spring, they don't need a high seed to make noise in the playoffs.

Last year, New Jersey was the sixth seed in the East and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before bowing out to Los Angeles in six games. It was the Devils' first trip to the Finals since 2003, when Brodeur led Jersey to its third Stanley Cup title in eight years.

Brodeur came up huge for New Jersey in last year's postseason run and he decided to re-sign with the Devils for two more years at $4.5 million per annum. It's a contract designed to give Brodeur and the Devils a chance at winning a fourth Cup together and there's a distinct possibility that could actually come true, provided the netminder can stay healthy.

For years, critics have prematurely announced the end of Brodeur's dominance in net for no other reason then it seemed like somebody who's been as great as he has for this long has to slow down at some point. It's similar to what people assumed would happen to New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera at some point, but like Mo, Brodeur has silenced the critics time and time again.

The fact that Jersey was tied for first in the East before Brodeur went down to injury and nearly fell out of the playoff picture during his absence is a clear indication of how much the Devils need him for the stretch run.

Brodeur's latest goal may have been the product of pure luck, but there's been nothing fluky about the goaltender's success in New Jersey over the past two decades. The Devils have learned over those years exactly what No. 30 means to this franchise, but they're hoping a healthy Brodeur can refresh their memories with another championship run.