Friday, April 29, 2011
Why we watch hockey (my top ten hockey games in attendance)
This season's come to an odd end for the Battle teams, for even though the Rangers and Sabres made the playoffs, they suffered brutal playoff defeats (particularly the Sabres) while the Devils had a relatively serene second half of the season and finished on a high, having a 28-10-3 second half record to hang their hat on for next season as well as lucking into the #4 pick - although some would say it was a just reward for playing all out when we buried ourselves so far in the abyss we couldn't even see the hole. I know Derek and Brian are probably thinking why do they get caught up in it, and with some of our brutal playoff defeats the last few seasons I admit falling prey to this mindset too although I have far less to complain about than most fanbases on the whole in the last decade and a half.
Still, sometimes you need a reminder of the good side of sports. Invariably if you only measure success by championships, just about any fanbase will be dissapointed more often than not. As I've always said though, sports is the best reality TV out there. You can't script it - except maybe with wrestling, and just when you think you have it figured out, something unpredictable happens and you realize you have no flipping clue what's going to happen next. With that in mind, and in the middle of a quiet time around here I'm writing a piece I wanted to write on Fan Appreciation Day but instead figured on saving it for now - my list of the top ten Devils games I've ever attended.
This list will be tilted toward the modern-day to be sure, since I only went to a handful of games a season before becoming a full season ticket holder in 2005-06 (ironically the first season after the lockout), and I haven't been to fewer than twenty-seven games a year since then. My first hockey game attended in December 1996 was an odd Devils win where Mike Dunham actually started but was relieved after the first period trailing 2-0 against the Ducks, and the team came back to win 5-3. Of course, there'll be a sprinkling of the past throughout this list. What's tough is narrowing this list down to ten since there are so many games I could put. Even games that meant very little, such as normally mundane regular season games in December and January - well less mundane against rivals - are among the games I've had the most fun at.
Among the games left off this list are big playoff wins, numerous regular season triumphs over rivals like the Rangers, Flyers and Pens - as well the Prudential Center's first hockey game (a 4-1 loss to the Senators to be sure, but hey it was the beginning of a new era, being acquainted with the home I expect to be acquainted with until I'm old and gray at the very least). As such there's very little rhyme or reason to my list, with one exception. The top spot was easy, it was filling out the other nine that I got into trouble with. This post may be a little long, but what the hey, I have five hundred hours between Jet picks during the NFL Draft and I'm a bit laid up being ill anyway so what better time to have a piece like this?
Without any further ado, let's begin:
Honorable Mention) 2007-08 Regular Season - Devils 2, Rangers 1 (CAA), Devils 3, Rangers 2 (MSG, SO win)...at some point on this list I have to mention this back-to-back series of games as my Devil-Ranger regular season inclusion on this list. These games were a home-and-home two days apart, both came down to the wire and things were even more intense than usual, for these were the first Devil-Ranger games with Sean Avery wearing the blue and white. He made his presence immediately felt, although he wasn't as effective against us yet as he would be the following season. While I remember little about both games you sort of have to mention it when you see your team beat your biggest rival in both arenas two days apart.
10) Game 1 2005-06 Regular Season - Devils 4, Penguins 1. Even though it's not on my top ten in terms of excitement I have to mention this game just because it was my first hockey game live in eighteen months, after the lockout that wiped out 2004-05. Although I became a full season ticket holder for the first time that season I intentionally avoided going to the preseason games because I wanted my first game back after eighteen months to be one that counted, after all.
That game was also remarkable for the debuts of two super rookies - Zach Parise for us and the much-ballyhooed Sidney Crosby for the Penguins. Parise won round one with a goal and an assist, prompting chants of 'Zach is better!'. Down 4-0, Crosby and the Pens finally got on the scoreboard midway through the third period when he assisted on a power play goal that spoiled what would have been yet another Martin Brodeur shutout to tack onto the eventual all-time record.
9) 2008-09 Regular Season - Devils 4, Avalanche 0 (Brodeur's return). This is one of those normally unremarkable games against a non-rival team that turned into an event, for after fifty games on IR, Brodeur made his triumphant return to the net that February night. While Scott Clemmensen had handled things better than anyone could have asked for in his absence, clearly the crowd was amped to see the return of #30, cheering literally every move he made during the warmups.
Against a bad team and on an emotional high, we predictably rolled but what made this game so special was the shutout itself, under normal circumstances a tough feat but after missing four months particularly extraordinary. Me and a friend broke protocol Chico Resch-style by talking about the shutout after the first period, when he mentioned that he would be amused if this game ended 1-0 (which it was at the time) and I said I'd be amused by anything-0.
8) 2008-09 Regular Season - Devils 4, Penguins 3 (Doc Emrick night). I was debating whether to put this game or our wild 8-5 win over the Rangers here, I chose this game for a few reasons. First, we honored our legendary announcer before the game for making the Hall of Fame, and in his speech during the pre-game ceremony he said somewhat prophetically that he was looking forward to the show the two teams were going to put on. Although we struggled for a time that season after Brodeur's injury, Clemmensen was gaining confidence with every game and it was perhaps this tilt - which gave us our ninth straight win - that illustrated his growth and our increasing confidence in him.
For a time, things looked bad as we fell behind 3-1 midway through the third period, but after a Brendan Shanahan goal pulled us closer, Jamie Langenbrunner tied it with less than forty seconds remaining, scoring with the net vacated. However, we weren't quite into overtime yet and Clemmensen had to make a terrific save on an Evgeni Malkin breakaway with barely a second on the clock. In overtime, Langenbrunner wound up winning the game and it was this contest more than anything else that made me feel most proud of what this team was accomplishing without its Hall of Fame goaltender.
7) Game 4 2006 First Round - Devils 4, Rangers 2 at MSG. While I said I was restricting this to Devil games (despite being at other fun hockey games like a couple of the team's minor league tilts and a Caps-Hawks showdown in Chicago a couple of seasons ago that turned out to be great theater), I never said I was restricting it to HOME games. This was the game that finally ended our playoff curse against the Rangers, although arguably with our performances in the first three it was only a matter of time before we closed out this series.
Fortunately I wound up sitting next to a Devils fan for this game, not to mention I had friends elsewhere in the arena. For all the talk about Ranger fans filling up our arenas (and justified) this was the one game where you could actually feel a Devil fan presence at MSG. Not nearly 50-50 to be sure, but clearly noticeable.
Even when the Devils fell behind after the first period - the only time we trailed all series - I was more annoyed than worried and sure enough, the Devils concluded their incredible roll of fifteen straight wins by scoring the next four goals in the final two periods before a consolation goal late gave Ranger fans something to stand and cheer for. Admittedly, I got goosebumps by the home crowd's reaction to being swept but clearly I was in a magnanimous mood after humiliating our biggest rivals by a tune of seventeen goals to three in a four-game sweep.
6) Game 6 2000 Second Round - Devils 3, Leafs 0. In the days where I was only going to a handful - or less - games a season, this was the first playoff win I ever saw live at the Meadowlands, and it was a memorable one. For this was the game where the Devils put on a virtuoso defensive performance seldom ever matched in a playoff game, permitting a meager six shots by the Maple Leafs. Sitting in my dad's boss's seats, we arrived barely on time and before we literally had time to get to our seat with food, the Devils scored a mere seventeen seconds in while we were still in the hall. As it turned out, that would be all the Devils needed although they added another quick goal in the second period, then an empty-netter late in the third to seal the game and the series, putting the Devils in the Conference Finals. I've only seen the Devils win two playoff series live and this was one of them.
5) 2005-06 Regular Season - Devils 3, Hurricanes 0 (Stevens night). Fittingly after nearly 25 years of hockey in New Jersey, Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens became the first former Devil to have his number retired, and that alone makes this game special. Not to mention his speech before the game, where Stevens moved the crowd by saying this was the only time he ever felt intimidated on the East Rutherford ice, for intimidation was the one word you would use if you described Stevens as a player. Finally, the game itself was a fitting tribute as the Devils conjured up the ghosts of the recent past and put together a dominant defensive performance against the team who would later win the Stanley Cup that season.
4) Game 5 2009 First Round - Devils 1, Hurricanes 0. Geez, a lot of these games seem to be shutouts. This one gets bumped up on the list partly for personal reasons and partly cause it was a unique game. For most of my life as a season ticket holder, I've wound up going to games solo but for this all-important playoff game I wound up being with two of my best friends that night in what turned out to be the best goaltending classic I've ever seen in fifteen years of watching hockey.
With the series tied at two after three stright nail-biters followed a convincing Game 1 win at home, this game was critical and goalies Brodeur and Cam Ward were both determined to be a forcefield in net. At first, the Devils dominated, outshooting the Canes 29-10 at one point but couldn't break through on Ward until finally midway through the second an Andy Greene shot was deflected home by David Clarkson on a power play, giving the Devils what turned out to be the game's only goal.
Now behind, the Canes threw at least five kitchen sinks and everything else at Brodeur, eventually pumping some 40+ shots at him, but after losing Game 4 with less than half a second remaining Marty was as angry and hungry as I've ever seen him. Not only was this this best two-man goaltending show I've ever seen, it was the best singular performance of Brodeur's career in my mind.
My emotional exhaustion after the Devils finally held on for a 1-0 win (despite both teams getting 40+ shots) has rarely, if ever been surpassed in my sports-viewing career. Even the ghastly events of Game 7 later on can't eliminate how I felt after this game. Especially since it was the biggest playoff win in the short history of the Rock.
3) Game 5 2003 Stanley Cup Finals - Devils 6, Ducks 3. Amazingly enough, I was more nervous during this game than I was during Game 7 (more on that later). Why? Well, the Devils had come into the game losing two straight in Anaheim, both crushing games in overtime. Momentum looked like it was squarely with the team of Disney, and Ducks CEO Michael Eisner went around before the match guaranteeing victory. If there was one moment in the Finals where things looked the bleakest, it was after ex-Devil Petr Sykora's goal right off a faceoff barely a minute into the game. However, this contest broke the mold of the first four games and became a regular shootout as playoff sensation Jean-Sebastian Giguere continued to have problems with the arena in East Rutherford.
With the score tied at three midway through the second, Jay Pandolfo's foot scored the deciding goal, when a puck deflected in off his skate and after the officials first ruled it a no-goal they wound up changing the call moments later, giving the Devils the last goal they'd need. Just to make things a little easier, they scored two more in the third for a 6-3 final and at that point I felt deep down we were winning the Cup, no matter what happened in Game 6 - which turned out to be a no-contest loss to the Ducks in Anaheim.
2) 2008-09 Regular Season - Devils 3, Blackhawks 2 (Brodeur's record-breaking win and Patrik Elias's team record in points). Why does this game get to second on my list? Because not only was it one of the most electric crowds I've ever seen from start to finish, but the entire game felt like a celebration for one of the two times in my life - the second one is below. Especially after Brodeur got the record-tying win in his hometown of Montreal, it felt like it was destined to happen that night and everyone knew it.
Facing a team that would go on to win the Stanley Cup, the Devils jumped out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period, and the third goal would see yet another record...Elias passing John MacLean's team record of 702 points in his career with an assist on a Brian Gionta tally. Even having to hang on late after giving up a late third-period goal to cut the lead to 3-2 didn't dull the enthusiasm, indeed it only made the crowd more amped for the finish, when Brodeur made one final save seconds before the buzzer to seal his triumph and Elias punctuated his night - St. Patty's night (you really couldn't make this up) - by coming out for the second star in a green hat with a four-leaf clover on top.
Somewhat fortuitously, I wasn't in my regular section 208 for this game, for I'd decided weeks before to get discount tickets in 120, right behind Brodeur's net. That turned out to be a terrific decision, both in terms of having the desired view of Brodeur during the end of the game (and after it when he cut the net out, a la college basketball), not to mention making a huge profit off the extra tickets when this game became what it did.
1) Game 7 2003 Stanley Cup Finals - Devils 3, Ducks 0. There are three things you have to realize about this game before you fully get its meaning for me, even away from the obvious which is the only championship I've ever seen one of my teams win live. Number one, the 2002-03 team (led by the late Pat Burns) was by far my favorite sports team of all time. Even more than the other two Cup winners, this team showed by far more heart and character than any I've ever been fortunate enough to root for and this game was the culmination of a season-long belief in this team where few others had it, since we didn't have the talent of Devils teams in the past.
Secondly, realizing this game might be a once-in-a lifetime event I bit the bullet after Game 5 and paid scalper price at two and a half times face, for a lower-bowl seat no less. Hey, if I was gonna see the team win the Cup I might as well have the best view possible and I did, looking right at Marty Brodeur for the first and third period from around the goal line several rows back.
And finally, as it turned out I was sick as a dog going into this game worse than I am right now - getting the early symptoms of a flu I struggled with for a couple weeks after that. My mother took one look at me and said you're not going, and for one of the few times in my life I put my foot down and said this was a once-in-a lifetime game, of course I'm going. So I took an antibiotic and gutted it out.
Whatever nervousness I felt in my flu-like stupor, it dissipated just after the pregame warmups when the scratches were announced and long-time Devil Ken Daneyko wasn't among them. Showing a personal touch some didn't think he had, Burns understood the moment, that the big fella even if he wasn't the player he once was would give the crowd inspiration and in my heart I personally felt that everything was going to be okay after that. Although the game remained scoreless during the first period, I wasn't particularly concerned and of all people, little-used Mike Rupp scored early in the second period to give the Devils the lead and send the house rocking. Rupp would come up with three points on the night, a heady total for a guy who didn't even play for most of the playoffs, assisting on both of playoff hero Jeff Friesen's Game 7 goals, late in the second and third periods.
Finally with the game in hand came one more thrilling moment, having Daneyko out on the ice for the last shift to ice the 3-0 shutout, giving the Devils and the gritty defenseman both storybook endings to a magical season and a terrific career. I whooped it up as much as I possibly could, during the game and in the post-game ceremony afterward, my mood being helped by the hot redhead from Boston - but a Devils fan - next to me who arguably had fun enough for the both of us. My only regret about that night is that I've never seen footage of me and her after the game that was taken by an NHL video camera, or had a picture of us taken (these were the days when I still used store box cameras). I'm sure it's likely I got her sick at some point afterward but oh well lol. Like one of my other friends said before the game, don't be afraid to have fun.
As with all the games on this list, but even more so that night I did.
Quick postscript: A few weeks after that 2003 win, almost by accident (through a Devils fan friend that worked with me) I found out about an appearance Daneyko was making with the Cup at a local radio station around fifteen minutes away. So not only was I there for the championship but through luck I wound up getting my picture taken with Daneyko and the Holy Grail - see above.