Saturday, May 26, 2012

Devils amazingly head to their fifth Stanley Cup Final

For years, Devils fans have had to be reminded about the greatness of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, a series the Devils lost in seven games with the Rangers winning in double OT of a seventh game at MSG on their way to a Stanley Cup. With the Devils and Rangers meeting in the ECF for the first time since then this year, the media drubbed the comparisons home to an insane level, especially when the Devils took a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 being in Jersey, just like '94 - on the exact same day of Game 6 1994. And just like '94, the Devils jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Game 6 last night only to see it dissapear. Game 6 2012 went to sudden-death OT last night and there were fifteen nervous minutes during the intermission in the stands. My legs almost felt too empty to stand up when the Devils came out for the start of sudden-death.

What happened just sixty-three seconds later was indescribable in so many ways.

After an initial point shot by Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Ponikarovsky corraled the rebound and put it on net. Seemingly an endless netmouth scramble followed with several Devils and Rangers converging around Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Kovalchuk, Ponikarovsky and Adam Henrique all had attempts on goal as the Ranger top defensive pair of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonaugh, as well as Brad Richards' line desperately tried to keep it out. During those several seconds (minutes it seemed to me), I was just praying the whistle didn't blow to stop play. Finally, the puck trickled loose in the crease past Richards who was on one knee, and from 120 I had a beautiful view of Henrique poking it home to begin mass celebration in Newark as the Devils won a dramatic 3-2 OT decision and the Prince of Wales trophy - at last burying the ghost of '94 once and for all - and closing out a resilient Ranger team four games to two.

Perhaps it just had to happen this way, this exact way. Staring down the ghost of 1994 in the most haunting way possible, with another blown two-goal lead in Game 6 at home this team had to either come through or relive history, there was just no other way. However, this Devil team has been burying ghost after ghost in these playoffs, starting in the first round when they stared down their recent first-round bugaboo (particularly a ghastly 2009 loss to Carolina late in Game 7) by beating a determined Panther team in double OT of Game 7 after blowing another late Game 7 lead - with interestingly, Calder candidate Henrique getting that series-clinching goal as well. Next, came the Flyers who punted the Devils out of the playoffs easily in 2010 at the Prudential Center. This year, we returned the favor by punting them out in five on their home ice.

Finally, they stared down the Rangers with not only the ghost of 1994 haunting the fans, but there was also 1992, 1997 and 2008 - other playoff series wins that gave the franchise and goalie Martin Brodeur perhaps an undeserved stigma. Even the one time we finally crushed them in the first round of 2006, the thrill was short-lived as the Devils lost in five games of the second round of the playoffs. Just two years later, the Rangers gained revenge for that series with Lundqvist taking a victory lap at the Rock after Game 5, cheered on by the half of the arena decked out in Ranger blue and white. Not only did the Devils respond this year, but the fans also responded, as the stands for these three home games was as filled with red and white as I've ever seen for Devil-Ranger games in Newark or the several I was at in East Rutherford.

Not only had the Rangers had playoff success against us for the most part, but for the last five years since 2008, Lundqvist has had Brodeur's number head-to-head with insane numbers against the Devils in the thirty plus games the teams have played since then. And this year, Lundqvist dominated everyone the way he has the Devils, at thirty years old he was at the height of his power, while Marty at forty looked alternately past his prime in between flashes of the old Marty. This was going to be a challenge, on and off the ice. Anyone bringing up Lundqvist's overall playoff win-lost record is a joke, this guy was at worst the second best goalie in hockey this year and it was close between him and Kings goalie Johnathan Quick, plus he carried the Rangers through the first two rounds and to a lead after three games of this series.

Enough about the past though, last night stood on its own merits as a classic game, even without everything else around it - the rivalry, the history and what was at stake. Certainly what was at stake ramped up the nervousness and intensity that much more though. Since the Devils' last Stanley Cup in 2003, they hadn't even been out of the second round of the playoffs but now they stood on the brink, one game away from their fifth Stanley Cup Finals. Everyone knew what a loss meant, a Game 7 back at MSG on Sunday night, where the Rangers had won their previous two series in Game 7. While I wouldn't have put it past the Devils to lose last night and win Game 7 after everything that's happened in this postseason, this was a game the Devils needed to win and not mess around with the Rangers' Rocky tendencies in a coinflip scenario.

I had an interesting trip into Newark last night, hopping on the train at the South Orange station at 6:15, I figured I'd have enough time to walk to the arena from Broad Street (about twenty minutes), then make it with plenty of time to spare for the pregame skate and to see my arena buddies before the game. However, a downed power line slowed up traffic and being on the Hoboken train didn't help, as the NY-traveling trains were seemingly given priority to pass us on the left track, as well as the trains going back from NY on what proved to be almost an hour delay. After some stops and starts reminiscent of the wait you get on an aircraft before takeoff, finally we arrived into Newark at 7:20. With sunlight still out, I was determined to get my walk in and it just so happened I had a nice younger couple sitting behind me who'd never been to the Prudential Center before, so I showed them the easy walk up Broad Street towards the arena and basically played tour guide on the way up. I probably wouldn't have even bothered to start talking to them if we didn't have so many delays, so I guess something productive came out of the backup at least.

With my friend who usually comes with me during the playoffs and several times during the regular season at a concert, I promised I'd text her updates at the end of every period or when the Devils scored. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I'll take great precautions to sell any extra tickets to Devils-Ranger games to Devil fans on message boards (usually HF), but once the Devils went up 3-2 I figured the arena would be chock-full of Devil fans anyway and if some Ranger fan wanted to spend a crapload of money to come by himself to either see us win the Eastern Conference, or at worst tie up the series, then c'est la vie. Once again though, the arena was filled with red and white as Devil fans were hungry to see us win this game against this team. And lo and behold, the seat next to me was bought up by a Devil fan...I cleared basically three times sth face value for the seat so I was a little embarassed at first when the guy started asking me if it was one of my season tickets - clearly he was perceptive - finally, I told him it was and he genuinely appreciated me selling the ticket. Nice guy, but clearly another one that didn't go to many games, and kept bringing up the good view of the Devils Dancers from my section...but you get those types during the playoffs.

At least my two current STH buddies were there on my right-hand side, as usual...though unbeknownst to me, one of them had to leave midway through the third because he had to go to work (as a police officer) so unfortunately only Rudy - the one next to me - got to see the incredible finish. As the start neared, I felt the goosebumps a lot more during this game than throughout the rest of the playoffs. Everything that the game meant dawned on me during the rocking pre-game intro. As usual, Arlette sang the anthem with the lower bowl moving a giant flag around the left side of the lower bowl, though she added a different twist with her and her daughter waving the rally towels when it was over. Finally, the puck dropped and the greatest reality TV out there - a big sports contest - was underway.

Things started out hairy early, with a Bryce Salvador high-sticking penalty giving the Rangers an early power play just three minutes in, but the PK'ers were on their game last night and killed that off, as well as two later penalties in the game. Midway through the period, our incredible fourth line came up with another big goal, after Steve Bernier caused a turnover and moved around ill-fated Michael Del Zotto, and finding Steven Gionta on the resulting two-on-one. Lundqvist stopped Gionta on the initial shot, but Ryan Carter was johnny on the spot trailing the play and knocked home the rebound for his fourth goal of the postseason (each seemingly bigger than the last) to get the wall of red rocking at 10:05 of the first period. After a Ruslan Fedotenko tripping penalty just a couple minutes later, the Devils' PP went to work and would capitalize after some beautiful passing, with David Clarkson whipping it to Danius Zubrus along the boards, and Zubrus proceeded to find a wide-open Ilya Kovalchuk, sneaking in through the backdoor at 13:56 to fire home his seventh goal of the postseason and increase the Devils' lead to two.

Despite a high-tempo first period where each team had fourteen shots on net (around what both teams managed in an entire game at MSG earlier in the regular season), the score remained at 2-0 after twenty minutes to the roar of the crowd. As exciting as the 2-0 lead was, I felt things had to calm down for us to maintain the lead but for the second straight game of the series, falling behind proved to be almost a good thing for the Rangers, who gave us problems with their forechecking in Game 5 and last night, once they finally came out of the shell they played the first four games of the series. The team in blue had the better of play in the second period, outshooting us 13-7, and Fedotenko broke the ice for them with a tap-in goal at 9:47 off a beautiful feed from McDonaugh that somehow eluded the sticks of Brodeur and both defensemen in the area. Seemingly after the soft goal Brodeur allowed to him in Game 4, Fedotenko picked up his game in the last two of the series, looking more like the playoff hero of seasons past than the invisible man he was through the postseason this year. Less than four minutes later, deja vu struck, as a Girardi point shot hit Ryan Callahan, who scored a goal off his leg for the second straight game, tying Game 6 at 13:41 of the 2nd period.

From there, the game just had the feeling of next goal wins. And through a tense rest of the second and third periods, it looked increasingly likely the Rangers would get that next goal. After the second intermission though, something nice happened. Walking around the concourse, I heard multiple Devil fans encouraging each other to hang in there. The atmosphere really has gotten more communal this postseason, between Devil fans making sure other Devil fans got in the building in the last two rounds to an increasingly positive atmosphere - even as this postseason has threatened to drive me to the loony bin. When I ran into my former seatmate in 208 around the concourse, I said in exacerbation, 'how many times can they blow a multi-goal lead and get away with it?'. He said simply, 'just get one goal' with a measure of grim determination and confidence.

Things didn't look much better on the ice in the third though, as the Rangers again outshot us 8-5, and got the only power play chance of the period after a meh interference call on Carter. Our best penalty killer though, and the most poised of anyone on the ice last night was Brodeur. For the second time in the postseason, he came up huge when the team absolutely needed it the most (the other time being in Game 7 against Florida after the tide turned in the third period)...the mark of not only a great player, but a true leader as well. Among his thirty-three saves in regulation came a couple of tough chances in the third period, on a rebound shot by Marian Gaborik where he stacked the pads, then poke-checking a breakaway off the stick of Artem Anismov after Marek Zidlicky nearly sent me to the loony bin for good giving up the breakaway with some 'interesting' defending. Even in the OT, the Rangers had the first chance on the first shift but Brodeur poked away a dangerous pass to end a good scoring opportunity.

Then finally, came the wild Henrique winner and mass chaos afterward. I was screaming 'YES, YES, YES!!!' over and over again, and when I was trying to text my friend to give her the final result someone jumped out of nowhere and hugged me, causing me to drop my phone into the next row. It took me the next minute or so to retrieve it from the four empty seats in front of me (usually they've been occupied by opposition fans throughout the last two rounds, so it was even more of a relief to see them empty tonight) while the mayhem was going on. Finally I was able to get it back, and finish the text as well as get pictures of the handshake line and the celebration. Zach Parise handled the presentation perfectly imo, while he didn't touch the Prince of Wales trophy - at one point, after asking Brodeur if he should, Marty said no - he did gather up the rest of the team for a lovely picture with it.

After sticking with Rudy and the rest of section 120 during the postgame celebration I was walking out...then it occured to me that I should wander by 208 (which I hadn't been able to bring myself to go to all season) and see if Zach - my former seatmate who I'd seen in the second intermission - and the few other people I knew in that section were still there. Much to my delight, they were, and I hugged him too, as well as slapping fans with a couple of the other guys I knew and sat with for years before circumstances beyond anyone's control caused me to move this year. I left quickly, wanting to make the last light rail out and see my other train buddies as well. Despite all the emotion at the arena, the only moment where I really came close to 'losing it' was the first time I heard Doc Emrick's call of the Henrique goal after I got home. It sounded so perfect, especially given that in the first season since he reluctantly left us to just do network games, we finally got deep enough in the playoffs again to hear him call multiple Devil games. Even the third and fourth time hearing 'THEY SCORE! HENRIQUE! IT'S OVER!!!' gives me chills. He was professional the whole series, but you could tell his allegiance slipped through just a little bit in his voice on that goal, and as a Devil fan it was a perfect touch.

With almost five days between now and the Stanley Cup Finals at this point I'm not even in the mood to think about the Kings. Yet I have no doubt coach Pete DeBoer will be able to refocus his team on the final task remaining, especially with so much time between games. I haven't had a chance to listen to the postgame stuff yet, but I did hear a little of DeBoer's press conference and once again he hit the right note, mentioning guys like Danius Zubrus who've played in the league fifteen years and only had one crack at the Finals as a young pup in Philly before finally getting back now. While it would be sweet for Marty to have a Cinderella finish to the end of his career, the fact is most of this roster hasn't been a part of anything like this. Among players on the ice only Marty, Carter, Patrik Elias and Anton Volchenkov have even taken part in the Finals before with the first three being the only prior Cup winners (Carter with the Ducks a couple years back).

There will be plenty of time to preview that series, thankfully the focus can be just about hockey and winning now instead of having the deathly fear of losing that I had in the first three rounds - round one because of our recent playoff history in the first round, and the last two rounds up going up against our biggest rivals. As Derek put it yesterday, no matter how well your team did all season and how much heart they show, it still puts a damper on everything when you lose to a rival. I'm sure Derek's feeling that now, even though he has nothing to be ashamed of with his club. They played like Rocky all year, up until the final seconds of the final game. Fortunately for us, the ending of the movie was like the initial Rocky movie when he loses on points and both him and Apollo wind up in a clinch with Apollo shouting 'I don't want no rematch'. That was how we were going to have to beat the Rangers, by outlasting them in a war of attrition and on points, not by knocking them out.

After all of the ups and downs, and the tenseness of this postseason, it still feels surreal to think of the Devils being in the Stanley Cup Finals. Before the season, we were predicted to finish 10th or 11th in the conference, as Steve Cangelosi accurately pointed out last night. At the All-Star break more than halfway through the season, the Devils were still on the playoff bubble before finally getting some seperation from the pack in February. Even when getting to the postseason, the Devils were under the radar as a sixth seed who finished fourth in their own division. If you'd told me the Devils would be at this point after the ghastly events of Game 3 against Florida, I'd have had you committed. Yet, here we are...our fifth and most unlikely trip to the Finals ever, in a series where the lowest seed ever is guaranteed to win a Cup - with the previous low being the '95 Devils, who won as a fifth seed. The last time we were in the Finals, I wasn't even a season ticket holder, I was just getting single game seats any way I could during the last two rounds of the playoffs. 2003 really isn't a long time ago from a sports perspective but it's a long time from a life perspective.

Playoff hockey in June, gotta love it!

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