It's hard to know where to start this blog. I don't want to write a full-on eulogy on the one hand, since the Devils still have more hockey to play, still have a theoretical chance to win the Stanley Cup. At this point it's just theoretical though, now that the Devils are behind 3-0 in games after a 4-0 loss in LA last night put them in a hole only one team's ever gotten out of, and the '42 Maple Leafs did it in the days when the NHL playoffs were just two rounds and the league was six teams big. If tomorrow's game or Saturday's game does go the wrong way though, I won't feel much like writing then. Right now I have a somewhat similar feeling that I did towards the end of last year, when the Devils' miracle run to the playoffs came up short. Not angry, just sad that it looks like the fun's finally coming to an end. Watching last night's postgame with Steve Cangelosi, Ken Daneyko and Chico Resch in an empty goal bar at the Prudential Center really drove it home. On the one hand, I was glad they were around, so to speak, to help Devil fans all over commiserate about the loss. On the other hand, it served as a metaphor of a season on the brink of ending.
Before I really get into what I want to say, a quick word or three on last night's game, which was scoreless in the second period before a critical play that decided the game, when LA defenseman Alec Martinez was allowed to whack at the pad of Martin Brodeur repeatedly when he clearly was in control of the puck. Eventually the puck finally squirted behind him for an infuriating goal. Infuriating because of what it meant - falling behind in Game 3 already down two games in the series just made the hole that much deeper, and infuriating because it never should have happened. Especialy when ref Dan O'Hallaran had a quick trigger on his whistle when Johnathan Quick merely touched the puck twice earlier in the game. According to former goalies Chico, Kevin Weekes and Darren Pang (the latter two on the NHL Network) it was clearly the wrong call.
Would it have changed the game last night? Hard to tell, since it's not like we showed a lot of hope of getting a puck behind Quick even before then. Plus it seemed as if the refs knew they screwed up and started calling everything known to man for us immediately after the goal - though our popgun power play couldn't take advantage of several chances (including a five-on-three earlier in the game). Despite the fact the Devils came out with some jump and were the better team over the first thirty-five minutes of the game, it wasn't translating into goals call or no call. A beautiful tic-tac-toe play finished off by Anze Kopitar late in the second and two power play goals given up early in the third ended the game as a contest.
I had long since turned off the TV before then, because analyst Ed Olcyzk and color guy Pierre McGuire royally ticked me off last night, and I wasn't in the mood for it. Having attended the first two games, I'd read on various message boards how biased they were against the Devils, but I figured it was people just exaggerating. It wasn't, the fact that both of them actually thought the Martinez play was a good goal - and also accused Stephen Gionta of setting an illegal pick earlier in the game when he made incidental contact with Jarret Stoll really set me off. I know Doc Emrick used to be a Devils broadcaster, but come on. At least he puts his bias in a drawer other than letting it slip out a little bit on the Adam Henrique series-winning goal against the Rangers. I don't even bother watching the NBC pregame or intermission stuff because the only guy I can stand is Keith Jones.
Listening to Matt Loughlin and Sherry Ross for the latter half of the game, I died a slow death listening to goal after goal on the radio. Judging by the shot total and the united front coach Pete DeBoer and the team put up after the game, it doesn't sound like it was a matter of quitting at all. Rather, a horrendous special teams dooming the team after Quick made the offense collectively look up to the heavens and curse out the sky. Not to mention just the pure fact that right now, the Kings are the far better team. The fact that they're now up 3-0 in their fourth straight series tells you all you need to know. I've seen players get in a zone but right now they're an entire team in a zone.
Yes, we could have easily stolen Game 1 or won Game 2, but we didn't. LA's 15-2 in the playoffs, and have made this series exactly like their other three with top-notch goaltending and defense, coaching, and timely scoring from its top players. The latter is something we haven't gotten in a while, much to the chagrin of DeBoer who lost his cool on a rare occasion during the postgame last night when some reporter prodded him about not getting enough from his star players. Fact is, it's nearly impossible to win a series when your top players aren't producing, to the point where DeBoer was literally giving the fourth line (the only line offensively that has produced over the last couple of weeks) a regular shift. Among all our thirty-goal scorers, the only one that's even getting chances is David Clarkson, but he's far from anyone's first choice when it comes to having faith in someone to bury a well-placed shot.
Aside from the Kings' dominance, right now I think this Devils team is just running on empty. Star winger Ilya Kovalchuk and puck-moving defenseman Marek Zidlicky in particular look like they're playing hurt, with others like Patrik Elias looking lost for weeks and Zach Parise having minimal impact in too many games. As a team they showed signs of running on empty toward the end of the Ranger series truth be told, but fortunately for us after a long season, so was Henrik Lundqvist - who gave up several goals he doesn't normally concede during those last two games. Thank goodness we found a way to get out of Game 6, otherwise we wouldn't have had a very good chance to win Game 7 and the end of this season would feel a hundred times worse.
If this is how it has to end though, well I'll congratulate the Kings and their long-suffering fans, without a Stanley Cup in over four decades of hockey in Southern California. Not to mention a group of terrific players who will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. I can't help but wonder what Philadelphia fans are thinking right now, seeing exiled centers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter both on the verge of winning the Cup now? Quick would be as deserving a Conn Smythe winner as there ever was, and after trade rumors in late February, American-born captain Dustin Brown is on the verge of getting the last laugh.
I'm not quite ready to give up the ghost yet, after all this is the same group of Devil players that made a miracle run towards the playoffs against all odds last year, winning just about every game for two months and giving us a lot of unexpected fun in a season that had started out as the worst nightmare imaginable. This team only has to win every game for the next week instead of two months to pull off a historic finish. True, it's easier said than done against a talented, hungry team like the Kings. It's hard to ask any more of this team than what they've already given. Right now all I ask is this...find some way, any way back to Newark for Game 5, so that one of two things will happen. Either the Devils can win that game and shift a mountain of pressure onto the Kings for Game 6, or the Devils don't win and at least get to hear the fans' well-earned appreciation for an awesome season, one that surpassed any of my wildest dreams.
Whatever happens from here in, I'm just glad I have a team to be proud of, a team I can like again. Since the lockout, the last few years have been filled with meaningless 100-point seasons with playoff runs that ended far too soon plus the disaster that was the start of the 2010-11 season under John MacLean. It can't be forgotten that it was Jacques Lemaire who brought the pride back in Devils hockey during the second half of the season, and with each success this year I'm that much more thankful he was able to stabilize the team when it looked as if they were headed into a dark abyss. While Lemaire stabilized things last year, DeBoer has brought it to another level this year and shown he can be the guy who will lead the Devils into a post-lockout NHL finally after years of seemingly running in place and false starts.
Yes, I know 2003 wasn't 'that' long away, particuarly from a sports perspective. However, it's a long way away from a life perspective. Not to mention when you look at it in terms of seasons as opposed to years, I've gone through a lot as a sports fan the last number of seasons with multiple teams. I certainly don't expect Brian or even Derek to sympathize, Brian in particular has it far worse with his Buffalo teams although at least both have the Yankees, who are seemingly always going to be an upper-echelon team. With my teams, the Mets' heartbreaking NLCS loss in 2006 followed by historic chokes in 2007 and 2008 before going into an abyss they've only recently started to come out of is just part of my sports fan annoyance the last few years. There's also the Jets' promise of 2009 and 2010 blowing up with a dissapointing season in 2011. And the Devils' struggles merely getting out of the first round the last few years, after being bullied by the Rangers in 2008, choking in historic fashion in 2009 against Carolina, and outright quitting against the Flyers in 2010 as well as the start of the '10-11 season. If there's one thing to be proud of with this team, they won't quit. They've been behind in every series so far this postseason, they were on the bubble to even make the playoffs in early February, and they've handled adversity better than any team I've seen since 2003 (and that team only trailed in the playoffs once).
Maybe this season will end with just a little trophy and one new banner to see next season when I make my first trip to the Prudential Center in late September or early October. Or maybe improbably, it will end with a big trophy and two banners. Whatever happens, the 2011-12 season will be full of good memories. And astonishingly, the draft and UFA are less than a month away so before I know it I'll be concerned about how the team will look in 2012-13. Yes, there's still a dark cloud looming in terms of the ownership situation and what that means with re-signing captain Parise. While his production has been a dissapointment in the playoffs for the most part the last few years, he did chip in some big goals this time around, and more importantly has been the key figure in a transition from a team that just punched the clock and acted like robots without heart to one that's willing to go balls to the wall and have fun.
Here's to hoping that we have at least one more week of fun. This season has been too much fun to want it to ever end.