By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - For nearly two decades it was a question never asked but when the National Hockey League season began, the debate raged. Had the time finally come for a changing of the guard in the New Jersey Devils net?

Even Martin Brodeur, the man who for 19 seasons and a record 1,172 games has jealously protected that small piece of ice as his personal property, was openly examining his future prospects.

But the only people wishing Brodeur an early retirement on Tuesday were the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans as the Devils notched their fourth straight game with a 4-3 overtime victory.

"That helps, the burden is not on one guy, it's on a lot of guys in this locker room."

Carried on Brodeur's broad shoulders and some unexpected offensive muscle, the Devils, 9-1-1 since the All-Star break, have not only hauled themselves back into the playoff picture but into the top four of the Eastern Conference standings. They

With just one loss in his last nine starts, Brodeur said it was hard to come up with a good reason not to keep playing.

"I'm having a blast right now," Brodeur told a wall of reporters. "I just want to continue this year, I'm having fun.

"We'll make a decision later on but definitely it is looking pretty good for me to come back next season."

During his brilliant career, Brodeur has re-written the netminding record book, with three Stanley Cups, four Vezina trophies for the league's best goalkeeper and two Olympic gold medals for Canada, but his competitive fires still rage.

With more wins (647) and shutouts (117) than any other NHL netminder, Brodeur's future almost certainly includes a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame but for the moment the 10-time All-Star has his sights firmly set on another Stanley Cup run.

The Devils have flashed some offensive punch in the second half of the season. Ilya Kovalchuk (25 goals), David Clarkson (23), Zach Parise (22), Patrick Elias (19) and rookie Adam Henrique (15) have all played parts.

But it is the play of Brodeur, as always, on which the Devils' Stanley Cup ambitions hinge.

"He has to be our best player," declared Devils coach Peter DeBoer. "We don't score a ton of goals so we rely on him every night.

"There is a lot of pressure there but he is the best in the business."

The Devils' first round pick in the 1990 NHL draft, Brodeur turns 40 in May but is an old dog always on the lookout for new tricks.

This season, he has experimented with changes in his equipment, making little tweaks hoping to find something that will gain him the smallest advantage.

"Over the years I've made changes, small ones, and this one is not that big but I think people notice because the shape of my pads are a little different," shrugged Brodeur. "I'm just kind of moving with the times a little bit and trying to get as much an advantage as I can within the rules.

"The styles of goalies are changing, it's not that I'm old that I'm going to stay the same. I'm going to try to improve as much as I can so we look at equipment for a little edge.

"It's better than nothing."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ian Ransom)