NEWARK, N.J. -- The end.
For pro athletes, it often sneaks up without warning.
Sometimes it's plainly, painfully visible to many but the athlete.
The will to win, to compete, remains vivid, but the body refuses to cooperate.
Often it's not pretty in a turn-your-head-away kind of way.
For the past couple of years, it seemed that moment might have arrived for New Jersey Devils netminder Martin Brodeur.
Since the lockout, the winningest goaltender of all time and the only team he has ever known have struggled to regain a championship form that at one point seemed to be their birthright.
Before this current, unexpected run to the Stanley Cup finals, the Devils had not managed to escape the second round in six post-lockout seasons. In the four previous years, they had been bounced in the first round three consecutive times, then last year missed the playoffs entirely. It was only the second time since Brodeur arrived in 1993 that the Devils didn't qualify for the postseason.
"We had some tough years," Brodeur acknowledged before the start of the finals. "Definitely these years were a little more difficult."
As this season began, Brodeur admitted he wanted to keep an open mind about his future. The underlying implication was that this might have been it for him, that another ragged season likely would be the tipping point vis-a-vis calling it a career.
Yet here are the Devils, the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, four wins from their first Cup title since 2003.
You watch Brodeur stack the pads in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, denying Drew Doughty a goal in the third period to keep the score tied at 1-1, and it's hard to imagine the end is close at all, even if Wednesday marked his 200th postseason game. Only Patrick Roy has played more (247) among netminders.
Although the Kings ultimately stole Game 1 on an overtime goal by Anze Kopitar, Brodeur was vintage in the 2-1 loss, keeping his team in it until the end. The stop on Doughty was the same kind of save he made in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, denying Brad Richards during a third-period New York Rangers power play.
It's also reminiscent of his performance in Game 7 of the opening round against Florida, a game that by rights the Devils almost certainly would have lost were it not for Brodeur.
What makes this story of late-career renaissance even more compelling is Brodeur's unabashed delight in how this has all unfolded.
Understanding that the circle on his career will soon be completed, he has committed to embracing it all.
"I really wanted to enjoy this as much as I could," Brodeur said. "All year I really embraced being an older guy on the team."
In some ways, the 40-year-old sounds like a proud father when he talks about his younger teammates.
"It's great to see them go," he said. "They work so hard. Every night they go out and they care. It's been a lot of fun."
Having taken it all in, having rediscovered his game, Brodeur sounds more and more like a man who will delay the clock ticking toward his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I'm feeling good about my game, I'm feeling good about the game of hockey. I didn't make my decision [about playing next season], but I'm definitely leaning towards it," he said before Game 1.
Barring a long labor stoppage like the one that scuttled the 2004-05 NHL season, Brodeur hopes to return, win or lose to the Kings.
"Winning or not, it won't change the way I felt about my season," he said.
If Brodeur admits some pleasant surprise at how well things have gone this season -- "I got it back this year," he said with a grin -- he is not alone.
Longtime NHL netminder Darren Pang, now a national broadcast analyst, is equally candid about Brodeur's unexpected bounce-back season.
"The older you get, your eyesight just isn't as good, that's just the facts of the matter," Pang told ESPN.com this week. "Your reflexes aren't as good. Your flexibilities just can't be as good."
These kinds of things don't happen by accident, and Brodeur has worked diligently to find ways to be better, to defy the impediments that time and age and thousands of shots represent.
"He actually made maybe his most significant change this year: He changed his shoulder pads and his arm protector," Pang said. "He had the old ones from 1997 he kept until this year in training camp ... so that's a big change because you're able to stay up a little bit more upright. You're a little more broad.
"So that was No. 1, and No. 2 was he added the three inches on his pads. Before he was always 34 inches and he went to 37, so I think those are two very significant changes to keep up with the game. Now he covers more net, but he's doing it the same way, he's still poke-checking, he's still two-pad-sliding, he's still giving the glove and taking it away.
"The one thing that I love about Marty is the fact that he's played the game his way the entire time, and no matter what the styles, what the changes, he has continued to play the game instinctively, athletically unpredictably."
Ken Daneyko played in front of Brodeur for 11 seasons and was part of three Cup winners. He's now a broadcast analyst and remains close friends with the veteran netminder. Even Daneyko admits to some surprise at how Brodeur has bounced back this season.
"I was in the dressing room, and we had a good, long chat because I'm still very close to him, obviously," Daneyko told ESPN.com. "He had his doubters and rightfully so, the way things have gone the last few years here. And he's probably surprising me, and I don't know why it should surprise me."
But from the beginning, Daneyko said, there has been something intangible about Brodeur, something that has inspired confidence.
"You know I went through a lot of those lean years where you wonder if you ever believe you can ever really contend," Daneyko said. "When we got Marty, and just the way he carried himself and his demeanor and his confidence, and I went to my wife and I said, 'We got a chance now.'"
Perhaps no one has had a better vantage point to track the ups and downs the past two years than backup netminder Johan Hedberg. The two are of the same vintage, Hedberg having turned 39 this spring, so he understands the challenges of staying not just sharp but elite-sharp at this stage of a career.
"I wouldn't say surprised, but I'm very struck by how humble he is and what an extremely down-to-earth guy he is," Hedberg told ESPN.com. "You've got probably the best goaltender that ever played the game, and he's still a guy that studies the game. He's very open about discussing things that he's curious about. He watches tape. He watches other guys.
"This year, what really surprised me was how he was able to change his equipment. Last year, when I came here, I saw his chest protector, and that was probably from 1947, and I know I have a tough time changing that, too, and he's taken some shots that hurt him, and he switched and did it the one day and played the next game. I was like, Wow, that was impressive."
Hedberg is not, however, surprised at the level of play his teammate showed.
"I wouldn't say surprised because Marty's a very special athlete," Hedberg said. "It doesn't matter, whatever sport he would have chosen to play, he would have been great at it. He could have been a quarterback in football. If he would have been a forward, he would have been playing the half-wall on the power play. He has great hockey sense, plus he's an intelligent guy. He handles himself very well. He works hard. You see him in practice, he does his drills with a purpose, and that's how he can be able to stay on this level, plus he has a very strong mental makeup."
Head coach Pete DeBoer has made no bones about the fact that he needed buy-in from his core players, including Brodeur, when he was hired last offseason.
Now, the coach hears his own voice when he listens to Brodeur talk about the Devils and where they are.
"You know, Marty and I, I think, think the game the same," DeBoer said Thursday. "When I hear him speak after a game, either to you guys or the comments he makes in the dressing room, they're usually, you know, dead-on to what I would be saying or to what I am thinking.
"We don't have a lot of conversations, but he thinks like a coach, and he has a great read on our team, a great analysis of how we played."