'Moose' coming up big for Devils

NEWARK, N.J. -- Ten years ago, Johan Hedberg was befuddled.

Not because he couldn't stop the puck, but because he was a Pittsburgh Penguins rookie goaltender being booed by his hometown fans despite pitching his first playoff shutout against the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of the 2000-01 Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Or so he thought.

"It was the first game I had a shutout in the playoffs," said Hedberg, who made 34 saves that evening in the Penguins' 3-0 victory over the Capitals. "I couldn't figure out why they were booing me every time."

In a country where boos are as traditional as hot dogs and peanuts at professional sporting events, it's easy to understand why Hedberg got confused. But eventually, he realized what was on his goalie mask, and everything became clear.

"I got traded from the San Jose organization and I was playing for the Manitoba Moose at the time," said Hedberg, who led the Penguins on a surprising run to the Conference finals. "So when I came to Pittsburgh, I had no new equipment. My mask had a big cartoon moose on it. That's where the fans caught on."

As it turned out, those boos were really "MOOOOSE!!!" chants. And those chants continue to resonate a decade later, each night Hedberg -- or "Moose," as the fans like to call him -- plays for the New Jersey Devils, his sixth different NHL organization during his career.

"It kind of went away when I went to Vancouver and Dallas," said Hedberg, who prefers the nickname Jo-Jo, pronounced, "yo-yo." "And then I came to Atlanta [in 2009-10], and they picked it up again. It's been great. I feel support from it. It's been a fun thing."

Hedberg arrived in the Garden State after signing a one-year contract during the offseason. He knew he was going to back up Martin Brodeur, a future Hall of Famer who is normally a lock to play at least 70 games a season.

But this season has been anything but normal.

After getting off to their worst start since 1983-84, the Devils are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96, and Brodeur, who is currently out with an MCL sprain in his right knee, has been battling through the worst season of his illustrious 17-year career.

"I've been around long enough to know that it's a very long season," Hedberg said. "A lot of things happen during it. I might sit for the first 10 games, and there might be a stretch where I'm playing 10. So, I don't make any predictions before the season starts, because it usually never ends up that way anyway."

He's right. No one would've expected the 37-year-old Hedberg to be starting and emerging victorious in must-win games for the Devils in mid-February -- but he has.

Since replacing Brodeur after he suffered the injury on Feb. 6, Hedberg is 4-0 with a 1.46 goals-against average, stopping 106 of the 112 shots he's faced. A 3-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night gave Hedberg a 10-10-2 record on the season with a 2.63 GAA and a .905 save percentage.

"I've seen him at times before I got here, playing worse than this," interim coach Jacques Lemaire said. "Now that we need him, he shows up. He stands up and plays well. That's exactly what you need. If he would be where he was when he was struggling a bit, we'd have no chance."

Hedberg, though, remains humble about his recent streak of success in Brodeur's absence.

"When I was asked to play with Marty out, I wanted to give the team just as good a chance to win as Marty does," Hedberg said. "And the team's been playing really, really well in front of me, and that certainly helps out my game."

So does getting consistent starts, something Hedberg had last season with the Thrashers.

"Playing regularly gives a different feeling for me," Hedberg said. "You get more in the flow of things and at times, if I haven't played for a while, I'll come in and have a tendency to do too much sometimes. You play more regularly, that doesn't happen as much. So, that helps."

Left winger Ilya Kovalchuk, who played with Hedberg in Atlanta and is enjoying a resurgence of his own, called Hedberg "the hardest working player [he's] ever played with."

"His work ethic is great," Kovalchuk said. "He gives the guys that are trying to make it up here [like rookie Mike McKenna] someone to look up to."

After finishing 6-0-1 during a stretch in which they played seven games in 11 days, the Devils finally got brief period of rest, which allowed Hedberg to visit his family, which includes his wife and three daughters, in Atlanta.

"We felt like it was easier for everybody for me to come up here by myself," Hedberg said. "It's a one-year deal and we don't know what's gonna happen. They're all in their schools and they've moved so much over the years. They felt like they wanted to stay this year and we wanted to try to make it work as good as possible."

Hedberg doesn't know if the Devils will make the playoffs. He also doesn't know if he'll be back with the team next season, or taking his talents elsewhere.

But the journey "Moose" has taken in the league has been a memorable one.

"Each time I go into a new dressing room, I get 20 new friends," Hedberg said. "I've seen a lot of places, met a lot of people. I think it's helped me grow as a human being."

Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.