Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fan psychology and experiencing a SCF game

All throughout the weekend and early this week, the five-day layoff between the end of the Devils' Eastern Conference Final triumph and puck drop of last night's Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals didn't feel all that long, at least to me. With all the time I spent re-living the Ranger game (watching highlights and postgame I could see at the game), and then soaking in the hype of this series before Game 1 by reading and listening to stuff online as well as watching a lot of the NHL Network coverage, the five days actually flew by. I can't speak for everyone else, certainly not King fans who probably took a week's vacation in Malibu between series...but that was my mindset going into Game 1.

Conversely, after the Devils lost 2-1 in OT last night and me and my friend got lost around Newark for over a half hour, Game 2 can't come soon enough now. Of course, the NHL being what it is, both teams will now get nearly another three days off before Saturday night - giving us more time to sit and stew over a sloppy Game 1. Although the Kings were the better team, really Game 1 was sloppy from both ends, with each team managing single-digit shot totals in the first two periods (the Kings outshooting us 14-9 after forty minutes is ridiculous). Perhaps the fans paid the price for the NHL trying to max out on pre-series hype AND ensure two Saturday games. Considering the Devils' five days off and the Kings' eight before Game 1, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that neither team looked particularly sharp.

If one thing did annoy me about last night, it's the fact that the Kings' fourth line - previously next to useless in the playoffs - chipped in their first goal when Colin Fraser scored off a one-timer in the first period. Despite the Kings controlling play for much of the first two periods, the Devils had their chances - particularly David Clarkson, who missed two wide-open looks at the net. Finally, they broke through on Johnathan Quick off a fluke goal late in the second period, when an Anton Volchenkov shot bounced off a couple of Kings players and into the net for another (as Derek would put it) 'magic bullet' goal. Honestly, there wasn't much in the way of entertainment in this game though.

It wasn't for lack of trying, but at times both teams' forecheck nulified each other. On the rare occasions when it didn't, both teams got glorious chances in the third period but Martin Brodeur snuffed out a Drew Doughty mini-breakaway, then later in the period Mark Fayne missed a layup open net from mere feet away when a puck hopped over his stick. It looked as if Zach Parise did score at one point, but the goal was correctly ruled out due to a 'handball' by Zach, reminiscent of Scott Gomez's clear kick in Game 6 of 2001 that was a crticial momentum-changer in that series. Even in the OT, both teams tried to get going but chances were few and far between. One promising chance from Ilya Kovalchuk, he inexplicably fired wide when he could have easily either gotten it on net, or toned down the velocity on the shot to make it more deflectable, with a Devil stick lurking in front.

Amazingly, a bad line change led to an overtime breakaway against - for the Kings' best player in Anze Kopitar. And Kopitar would not miss this glorious chance, deking out Brodeur with a forehand to give Devil fans a cold towel after five days of anticipation and celebration. Now, after looking at anything and everything before Game 1 in terms of analysis and team interviews I'm not all that interested in listening to all the between-games hype, the telecast I taped or even looking over a boxscore to do a more in-depth recap of this game. I just want to focus on other things and count down the hours till Saturday night.

I do want to talk a little about the in-game experience though. Having been to three SCF games in 2003, I was anxious to see how it would look in Newark. Seeing the two giant Stanley Cup banners hanging by the jumbotron and the logo painted into the ice drove home the point that this is a big deal. Not to mention the fact section 226 in the upper level was turned into another press area to accomodate some of the approximately 1100+ credentialed reporters covering this series. I didn't realize this ever happened, clearly I wasn't that observant in 2003 since ostensibly seats do get taken out of public use all the time to accomodate the media. Furthermore, the NHL intermission crew set up shop down below near section 15, where the Devils Dancers usually are. And unbeknownst to me until after the game when I saw them outside, the NHL Network crew - including Barry Melrose (booed to the high heavens any time the jumbotron showed the NHL Network's insta-analysis during the game) and Kevin Weekes - were doing their own show outside the arena at Championship Plaza. Amazing how much changes from one series to the next in the postseason.

Before Game 2 I do intend to take in some more of the outside stuff, seeing as me and my friend had to arrive just before the intro video started last night due to a prior commitment. Another little change I noticed in the arena, at least compared to the last SCF was the official Stanley Cup program. In 2003, it was just an extension of the normal Devils' program, only marked up higher price-wise. This year however, it's a huge hardcover program chock-full of info and articles on both teams, only the same price as that program was though ($10). I definitely intend to get one of these babies before the series ends at least, whether this series ends well for the Devils or not. Whether you're an optomist or a pessimist, last night gave you more ammo for either category...but the bottom line is this, the Devils need to win on Saturday. Yes, they can certainly win two games in LA, but would they win two more games here? When the Kings would have a 10-0 road record in the playoffs by then and even more confidence in their road invincibility?

Eventually you would think the Kings finally have to stare down some real adversity before they can win a Stanley Cup. No matter how good a team you are, each team usually has one critical moment in every postseason...but maybe it won't play out that way. This could be just one of those years where nothing goes to form, it hasn't so far after all. What does worry me is last night makes three games in a row the Devils didn't play very well in, other than the first five minutes of Game 5 against the Rangers and the first period of Game 6. Maybe this team is just gassed, given the age and all the injuries throughout the lineup. That's another reason Game 2 is so important. We have the confidence of coming from one down to beat the Flyers and Rangers, but coming from two down against a good team like the Kings is hard, especially with potentially three games in California.

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