Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kings win Stanley Cup, end Devil season



Accepting that the Devils' season ended the way it did last night still hasn't gotten much easier the morning after almost six hours of sleep last night. What's hard to accept about last night isn't so much that the Devils lost. For whatever I'm about to say regarding last night, the Kings were the better team in the majority of this series and deserved to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Through long stretches of the series, we weren't even able to get shots on Johnathan Quick, much less goals and at times the Kings dominated the attack but only the valiant goaltending of Martin Brodeur was able to keep them at bay long enough for us to scratch out two wins and get back into the series. And I certainly have nothing bad to say about any individual on the Devils, after the way they spit blood to get to this point and went from last year's lottery to this year's Eastern Conference Champs.

All that said, the fact that the refs took it upon themselves to decide a Stanley Cup clinching game last night midway through the first period is asinine, I'm sorry. I understand why the Devils had to take a pass at saying what they really wanted to - just read coach Pete DeBoer's lips during the TV broadcast to know the truth - but after Dan O'Halloran called a five-minute major and ejected Steve Bernier I knew that could prove decisive with the way our PK's been scored on during the playoffs. Sure enough, the Kings pounded home three goals during the five-minute major, in effect ending the game against a team we couldn't score more than two on in any game with Quick (a deserving Conn Smythe winner) in net. Did Bernier commit a penalty, absolutely...I would have had no issue with a double-minor and ten-minute misconduct. Was it worthy of expulsion midway through the first period and a series-deciding five-minute major? Not to me. At least not in that situation. I'd have felt better about assessing a major if it was midway through the game and things were getting heated, but honestly it felt like we lost the opportunity to even compete for the Cup on-ice by having that go against us in the first period.

Maybe I'm wrong and it was a major - and even if it was, doesn't change the fact the refs also missed Stephen Gionta getting taken out (which would have ended the play before Bernier got involved) or Anton Volchenkov getting punched just before that - but it's still bothersome that the Devils wound up going out the way they did last night. This team deserved to go out on its shield, not have the opportunity taken away by a moment of stupidity and an overofficious ruling. I'm not even going to harp on the 47-6 difference in penalty minutes last night, honestly the Devils did lose their heads and came close to embarassing themselves after going behind 3-0, and eventually 4-0 early in the second period. At that moment I knew the game was beyond repair anyway, but I would rather not have seen the Devils go head-hunting at that point. Let's face it though, they're human beings and they were not only devastated over having a chance to compete for a title dissapear in the first fifteen minutes, but also I'm sure feeling horrible for Bernier - a gritty fourth-liner who revived his NHL career this season.

Looking at Bernier afterward, you could tell he was emotional during the game and he stood up to face all the questions. Given the fact he's a UFA after the season, what happened last night got an instant reaction from part of the fanbase that he can't come back, that it's somehow an unforgivable sin. I can understand Devil fans being hot at him, he did put himself in position to have that call made by running Rob Scuderi. That said, hockey's a forgiving culture. A lot more forgiving than the rest of sports, or society for that matter. It's part of what makes our sport so likable for true hockey fans. If the Oilers had jettisoned Steve Smith after his gaffe in the 1986 Campbell Conference Finals, there wouldn't have been the feel-good moment there was the next season, when Wayne Gretzky handed the Stanley Cup to Smith first.

Plus one of the things that made this Devil team so likeable is the fact they were all willing to lay themselves out for each other and their fans. After a series of teams that had become increasingly robotic and gutless on the way to easy playoff losses and the '10-11 first half disaster, the metamorphisis back to this point now was just about as meaningful as any title. Especially when the cost to these players individually becomes known in the next few weeks. Even early in the playoffs it looked like this team might be gassed, after a regular season in which the top three lines all had to play major minutes due to the then-ineptitude of the fourth line. Somehow, they perservered through a seven-game double-OT series against Florida, coming back from losing Game 1 against the Flyers to win four straight and coming back from being shut out two of the first three games against the Rangers to win a memorable Conference Finals in a Game 6 OT.

Yes, this team won't be all back next year...such is the nature of hockey. Even when it's possible to bring the same team back it might not be advisable given how much this run took out of everyone. Look at Boston, they brought back something like eighteen of twenty skaters other than Mark Recchi and Tomas Kaberle (a bit player in the playoffs), and still wound up having a bit of Stanley Cup hangover, losing seven of ten to open the season and eventually the first round of the playoffs - in a classic series, granted. Vancouver also lost in the first round after getting to the Finals last year. Some of those decisions are going to be out of our hands, but I don't really want to get into it now. Yes, everyone knows about Zach Parise's impending UFA status...but the fact is we have other FA's too, such as Martin Brodeur - though he's likely to return, playoff hero Bryce Salvador - who probably will get an offer too pricey for us next month, especially with the lack of spots for him next year with a returning Henrik Tallinder and maturing Adam Larsson - and our entire fourth line is UFA as well.

It will be very interesting to see what happens with the fourth line, which amazingly carried the Devils at times during the postseason. Ryan Carter, in particular will probably get some offers that might be too much to match, especially given what happens with the captain and other UFA's. Stephen Gionta was a relevation in this postseason, and Bernier for whatever you want to say about him now was part of a line that was a lifesaver for us the last two months. We have other FA's too, like Petr Sykora (the best Devil last night), Alexei Ponikarovsky and backup goalie Johan Hedberg, along with fill-in defenseman Peter Harrold who played capably in many postseason games. Obviously not everyone's coming back.

If this season proved one thing though, it's that GM Lou Lamoriello still has 'it'. After much criticism the past few seasons for trades and FA signings and defections that didn't work out combined with decreasing returns on the ice, he had the magic touch this year with seemingly every move he made working out. Starting with his hiring of coach Pete DeBoer, who was the right man at the right time. Obviously a lot of what happens this offseason will be out of Lou's control though, starting with how ownership gets resolved - or if it does - and what impact that has on Parise and other key FA's. People can harp on Zach till the cows come home, but one of the many reasons the Devils got as far as they did was their depth up front. And that depth is going to take a hit one way or another, there's no way around it.

I'd prefer not to look ahead though, especially since what's ahead is close enough anyway. We have fewer than two weeks till the draft and three weeks till UFA starts. Next preseason is in three months, barring more nonsense between commisioner Gary Bettman and player's rep Donald Fehr (the cause of much angst for baseball fans). I only wish I could show this group of players the appreciation they deserve, beyond blog posts. There isn't going to be a parade or ceremony, nor should there be...but they do deserve more than just a quiet return to Newark to clean out their lockers before an abbreviated summer off. This team did the franchise and its fanbase proud, every last one of them.

1 comment:

Derek Felix said...

I must say the heart and determination your team showed was great. Even I can admire that. They never gave up and continued to fight. I felt bad for Bernier, who showed so much answering afterwards. I guess it was kinda fitting in a sad way considering how these playoffs have been reffed. Brodeur also deserved better. I loved how his post-interview with Roenick. I'm glad he's returning. Hopefully a Devil along with Parise. It wouldn't be the same. Congrats on beating us again and an outstanding season.

The Puck Stops Here

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