NEWARK, N.J. – Eleven years removed from the playoff run that put him on the map, and the antlers are still pretty sharp on "The Moose."
Sure, it’s been a long time since 38-year-old New Jersey Devils goaltender Johan Hedberg captivated the hockey world with his stellar play in Pittsburgh, but he sure seems capable of doing it one more time if given the opportunity. This year, his second in Newark, both his goals against average (2.22) and save percentage (.917) were better than future the also-solid marks that future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur put up as the starter.
And although he had already made one Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance for the Devils this year, for as long as his career goes, he’ll most likely best be known for his magical postseason in Pittsburgh during the 2000-01 season.
The personable Swede started out that year as a member of the San Jose Sharks organization. But, stuck behind both Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff on the depth chart, he couldn’t crack the NHL roster and was stuck with the IHL’s Manitoba Moose for the majority of the season.
The Penguins, however, were not as fortunate between the pipes, and were alternating between journeymen Garth Snow and fellow ECHL alum Jean-Sebastien Aubin.
Eventually, the Penguins traded for Hedberg, and sent the then-27-year-old directly to the NHL. The Moose mask remained, however, and that’s how the nickname stuck as well, as fans would chant "Moose" after every big save he made. And he made a lot of them.
"It was a dream come true," Hedberg told ECHL.com of being thrust into the spotlight.
"I just wanted to get one chance, and I tried to make the most of that opportunity. I was lucky enough to get a chance to play. Pittsburgh gave me a chance, and it was by far the best time in my hockey career."
Hedberg played in just nine games in the regular season, posting a 2.64 goals against average and .905 save percentage. But he won seven out of those nine starts, and earned the number one spot heading into the playoffs, where the Penguins entered as a six seed. By the time it was all over, Hedberg led them all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, where Pittsburgh fell to his current team, New Jersey, in five games.
"Well, I think we beat them," said Petr Sykora, when asked about his recollections of that series, through a smile.
"I’ve been playing against Heddy for so many years. I know he’s a little smaller, but always been a really quick goalie. He never gives up, he always takes great angles. He looks like he’s 22 years old.
He keeps himself in great shape and he works hard in practices, and on top of it, he’s a great guy."
It was, for by all accounts a great guy, a great opportunity. It just went by a little too quickly.
"For me, everything happened in a short time," Hedberg said. "I got a chance to play in the NHL, and the playoffs started after it was 13 games I think we had. My fondest memory, I think, was Game 7 against Buffalo. We won in overtime, and it was a great feeling. It’s the best time of the year. You just play, the game’s over and you come back and regroup. It’s like a chess match in the end."
Hedberg played in 18 playoff games with the Penguins during that magical 2001 run, but has appeared in just three since; two with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2007 and the majority of the final two periods in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against Florida after Brodeur had been pulled. Hedberg backed up Kari Lehtonen with Atlanta and is now behind Brodeur with New Jersey, and that provides some challenges when getting thrown into a game.
"You just try to stay sharp, you never know what’s going to happen," Hedberg said. "I don’t know if you get thrown into a game, it’s not like you can draw off experience from before. It’s more of an adrenaline kick that you get at that moment. But I think having been through it before — not all the way, but almost — it takes a long time to get there, and you’ve got to make sure you stay on top of things with your conditioning."
According to Sykora, Hedberg has been a model teammate for the past two seasons, both on and off the ice.
"It’s amazing how well he has played for us," Sykora told ECHL.com. "It’s so tough, I can’t even imagine having to sit for like three weeks and then go into the game and play. He’s been so good in practices. He comes in each and every day and he’s good for the guys. We’ve got a lot of Swedish young guys, and he’s taking care of them. He does a lot not only on the ice, but off the ice too. The way he’s played this year, it’s just fantastic."
And so too have been the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season. 11 years removed from the Penguins and run and 14 since he last suited up in the ECHL, and this time of year still gets Hedberg’s competitive juices flowing.
"Usually, regular games, people are excited of course, but it’s at the next level in the playoffs. And for the guys in the room, you can see the look on the guys faces. They’re determined and willing to do whatever it takes to get a win. It’s not that they don’t do that during the year, but it’s an extra notch up in excitement."