Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Devils and Kings will play a professional hockey game tonight

I am remiss for not talking to you sooner. For those of you who know me, it has been an exhausting whirlwind of a few days to be a Devils fan and to deal with hockey-related news for a living. I'm sure you can all imagine just how busy and crazy this time of year can be for fan or writer. After all, tonight is Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. And that's a pretty big deal.

Just pretty big, though.

It made my life a little hectic as yesterday I was at Prudential Center running around like a chicken with its head cut off in hopes of interviewing a few key characters -- see if you can spot me in the picture to the right -- but on the whole this is an entirely bizarre and unexpected Stanley Cup Final run for New Jersey. It's not that the team hasn't earned it. Certainly the Devils thoroughly outplayed Philadelphia in the second round and outplayed the Rangers for most of the third, but despite how well New Jersey played down the stretch and how deep its lineup appeared to be, a Stanley Cup Final almost never seemed to really be in the cards.

I suppose the same could be said for the Kings, but for me I'm not sure I ever really believed the Devils would get this far, and certainly not when it was the Rangers who stood in their way. After all, as a cold rationalist I had more or less assumed the Devils matched up well with New York, had been playing better lately and certainly would be more well-rested after the Rangers went to their second-consecutive seven-game series in the second round.

But it was also the New York Rangers. Not only was this the big bad brother the Devils always stood int he shadow of despite far more success, but it was a team that from the day I was eight haunted my hockey dreams because of Mark Messier. As I wrote here last week, that the series headed to a Game 6 in New Jersey with the Devils holding a 3-2 lead exactly 18 years to the day of Messier's famous guarantee was not exactly something that inspired me with comfort or confidence.

And then, because the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice, this happened.

I remember an odd moment in 2007 when a friend of mine who rooted for the Boston Red Sox got in touch with me with complete exuberance because the Sox had just won their first division title since 1995. I was mystified as to why this was so exciting for her when the Sox had already beaten the Yankees in the ALCS three years earlier and won the World Series to snap the drought of all championship droughts about a week later. Her response seemed silly to me.

"But we beat the Yankees!"

I'm not sure the parallel makes sense. After all, the Sox seemed to have laid those demons to rest with their historic comeback in the ALCS. But do understand the notion of being the constantly discarded younger sibling, always haunted and always cast aside when it comes to a sports rivalry. And in the moment that Henrique pushed the puck in the net off a scramble, lifting the Devils to an unlikely berth in the Stanley Cup Final and at long last, in the minds of Devils fans old enough to remember it, killing the demons of 1994 that seemed all the more real when New York had rallied from two goals down to tie Game 6 just as they had 18 years earlier.

There are just a handful of sports moments that lodge themselves in my brain for having my own cathartic reaction as a result. Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS was one of the first. Super Bowl XLII is almost certainly the greatest, but now Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals has found its place in that group. As a result of the excitement, it's taken a few days for this to ease off me enough so I could write about it here with some perspective.

It doesn't hurt when you also have to give your team's opponent a blueprint for how to beat them in the Final.

Regardless, this is a special time to root for this team and I'm awfully excited about it even if I have to keep a professional face and the Kings just might be the best hockey team in the world right now. At the very least, I know this: there will be a ton of memories from this postseason run. I will remember Henrique's winner in Game 6 just as I remember his double-overtime goal in Game 7 of the first round against Florida. I will remember Travis Zajac's overtime goal in Game 6 against the Panthers that saved the season. I will remember Alexei Ponikarovsky's overtime-winner that I witnessed in person and the general domination of Philadelphia. And I will also remember having to repeat my question to Zach Parise at media day when a scuffle broke out between two reporters next to me in the scrum resulting in Parise getting hit with a microphone.

Wait what?

Yes, media day for a number of leagues is often quirky, but it's unusual that a fight can break out in the midst of it all. Then again, I guess this entire postseason for the Devils has been all kinds of unexpected. As Game 1 gets underway tonight, I'm not one to complain.

And if the Devils wind up bringing home the Stanley Cup again, I won't complain about that either.

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