By Zach Schonbrun Special to The Herald
NEWARK, N.J. — For seven years, Scott Clemmensen was the understudy here to one of hockey’s greatest stars, watching from the bench as the Devils goalie Martin Brodeur kept inking more lines onto his Hall of Fame resume.
Clemmensen waited a long time for his solo in the spotlight.
He didn’t disappoint when, on the afternoon of game 6, Coach Kevin Dineen tapped his shoulder to start Tuesday.
In the overtime loss, Clemmensen made 39 saves and withstood a desperate offensive onslaught by the Devils, who outshot Florida 42-16 in the game.
Before New Jersey’s Travis Zajak scored the winning goal at 5:39 in overtime, the backup goalie Clemmensen was looking like the surprise star of the night.
“I just wanted to give us a chance to win, that’s all,” Clemmensen said. “We expected it to be a tight game and we were in a position to win. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
He showed he could perform in game 3 when he replaced Theodore down by three goals in the first and promptly shut down the Devils for a 4-3 win. That earned him a start in game 4, but he allowed four goals on 27 shots in that loss.
After sitting as Theodore beat the Devils in game 5, Clemmensen got the late nod Tuesday when Theodore was scratched due to injury.
Clemmensen began the game looking sharp, turning away the Devils’ first 12 shots before a turnaround by Steve Bernier scooted past him at 16:37 in the first. Clemmensen was visibly irritated at himself for allowing that relatively soft goal.
“I got caught in kind of an awkward spot with my feet,” Clemmensen said. “The puck hit my stick pretty good, I thought I had it actually. It just kind of broke through.”
The Devils then took a 2-0 lead in the second on a power-play goal by Ilya Kovalchuck, a beautifully orchestrated backdoor play that Clemmensen could do little to prevent. But he clamped down after that. After nearly allowing a goal to slip out of his glove — he recovered just before the puck crossed the goal line — Clemmensen regained his focus.
He reserved possibly his best save for midway through the third period, stymieing Alexei Ponikarovsky chance in front of the net with his right leg with 11 minutes to go.
All night the Devils peppered the net, outshooting Florida by an almost incomprehensible margin. They also had six power-play opportunities (including a momentary 5-on-3) while the Panthers never once had a man advantage.
“Offensive zone possession was the difference,” Dineen said. “Their time with the puck was greater than ours. They put a lot of pucks at Clem.”
The 34-year-old Clemmensen spent seven years with the Devils (during two different stints) but never started a playoff game, waiting behind the indefatigable Brodeur. New Jersey made the playoffs every year Clemmensen was there, but he filled in for Brodeur in them just once, in 2006, for the final seven minutes of a 6-0 loss to Carolina.
On Tuesday, until overtime, Clemmensen outperformed the player he could never seem to replace.
“I’m very happy with the way he played,” Dineen said. “I can nitpick a couple goals there but I also saw some pretty solid saves there as well.”