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1990’s Goaltending: Brodeur vs Hextall

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The future of the Devils-Flyers rivalry might depend in large part on how Carter Hart and Mackenzie Blackwood play, as Mike discussed yesterday. The last time there was a legitimate goaltending competition between the two rivals, however, we were looking at Hextall and Brodeur.

Philadelphia Flyers v Montreal Canadiens Wales Conference Finals

Yesterday, Mike discussed how moving forward, the goaltending matchup between Mackenzie Blackwood and Carter Hart could define the New Jersey Devils - Philadelphia Flyers rivalry for many years to come. I agree, how those two play and develop for these organizations will determine a lot about the future directions these two teams take.

Yet, it was not the only time goaltending was a major factor in this rivalry. Throughout the 1990s, both teams had their stars in the crease, goalies that, with only a short interruption in Philadelphia, played for their respective teams for many years. While of course the Devils had Martin Brodeur, the winningest goaltender ever, the Flyers were mostly locked in with Ron Hextall.

Hextall would go on to retire after the 1998-99 season, and while the Devils would retain the services of their hall of fame goaltender for another dozen years, the Flyers would have trouble finding a goalie to really take Hextall’s place and become a franchise goaltender. Looking at the team’s rosters from 2000 through this year, here are just some of the names they tried to make work: Brian Boucher, Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche, Antero Niittymaki, Martin Biron, Ray Emery, Sergei Bobrovsky (it’s great that they didn’t hold onto him), cosmonaut Ilya Bryzgalov, Steve Mason, Michal Neuvirth, Brian Elliott, and now finally Carter Hart.

The Devils, of course, had much more stability at the position, maintaining a smooth transition from Brodeur to Cory Schneider to now Mackenzie Blackwood.

However, during the 1990s, the goaltending duel between the two organizations was very much evident, with both Brodeur and Hextall being the staples of their respective teams in the crease. Now, this would come with a slight reprieve in Philly, as Hextall would spend the ‘92-93 season in Quebec, and then the following year out on Long Island before returning to the Flyers for the remaining five years of his career.

As a Devils fan during that time, it was evident to all that there were very few players you hated more in the NHL than Ron Hextall. The man is a staple on most any list of the NHL’s dirtiest players. Here is one from MSN, another from the Sportster, both here and here from Bleacher Report on the meanest players (synonyms), here at the Hockey News where he receives honorable mention and the writer specifically has to say that Hextall could have been on the list, and here from the Hockey Writers where he is named #2 on the list of weirdest goaltenders in NHL history, namely for the massive number of penalty minutes he took. I could keep going, but I think the point is made. In the ‘90s, especially rooting for a rival team, Devils fans did not like Hextall, and it was a reputation that was well earned.

Just for fun, here is some confirmation:

All-in-all, Hextall would accumulate 584 penalty minutes over the course of his career, which is far and away the most ever by a goaltender. He is the only NHL goalie to earn at least 100 PIMs in a season, something he did more than once.

Brodeur, on the other hand, was at nowhere near the same level of brutality. According to Hockey Reference, in 20 seasons with New Jersey, Brodeur earned himself 122 penalty minutes, a number Hextall came close to hitting in just one season there during the late ‘80s. Brodeur, on the other hand, would be known for his stick handling abilities, leading to the creation of the new rule where goalies cannot enter the corners to play the puck. If Brodeur were never in the league, that rule would not be in existence, plain and simple.

Of course, we all know that Brodeur was the better goaltender, and the Devils the better team. This is not a rivalry story where it is debatable which side was better. The Devils would win the Cup in 1995, while Hextall would not even win a game in the Cup Finals after Brodeur was drafted. The team would make it to the Finals in 1997, but were swept by a superior Detroit squad backed by Mike Vernon.

The major clash between Brodeur and Hextall during their time in the NHL together came in the 1995 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the Devils and Flyers met in the Conference Finals. It was a series the Devils would go on to win 4 games to 2, with New Jersey obtaining 3 of their 4 wins in Philadelphia. Believe it or not, it was actually Brodeur during that series who would earn more PIMs, with the Devils netminder getting 4 to Hextall’s 2. Brodeur, behind a stout Devils defense, would allow only 14 goals in the series to Hextall’s 20, a major factor in the Devils’ win. Hextall would end up with the slightly better save percentage, .884 to Marty’s .880, but with Philly’s much weaker defense, the Devils were able to throw many more shots Hextall’s way, and that proved to be the difference.

The next time the Devils and Flyers would meet in the playoffs, Hextall would be newly retired, and Brian Boucher would be in net, something that did not work out too well for Philly, as Gerard wrote about the other day.

Overall, from when Brodeur broke into the league until Hextall retired (so from the 1991-92 season through the 1998-99 season), Marty had a record of 201-105-57, while Hextall had a record of 182-125-44. Both goalies were well above .500, and both teams were solid with their netminders, especially in the mid-later ‘90s, but there is no doubt who had the leg up on the other, despite Hextall’s fierce reputation. The man was dirty, he was hated, but after it was all said and done, there is no doubt that Flyers fans had to hate Marty a lot more than Devils fans hated Hextall. Winning can do that.