Friday, May 25, 2012

Eighteen Years Of Anxiety Rushing Back To Me

In my life there are two Game 6s that have happened that have had a profound impact on how I see the sports world -- one good and one bad. Since this won't really be about the good one, I'll just dispense with the exposition quickly. It's Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. I was only one, I don't remember, but it paints the entire psyche of the baseball franchise I call my own and so I know the 10th inning of that game like the back of my hand.

Then there's the bad one. On May 25, 1994, I was an eight-year-old watching the third period of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on my parents' bed. At the time the Devils were on Sports Channel, a since-defunct regional sports network that was not including in the cable tier we purchased and thus came in scrambled and virtually unwatchable. Still, like a 14-year-old seeking his late-night Skinemax fix like Jason Biggs in the opening scene of American Pie, I would stare at the television during Devils games attempting to decipher what, exactly, was going on through the blurs on the screen.

For some strange reason, that night the game came in crystal clear once the third period started. I don't know if it was part of a free preview or a random glitch in the system, but there I was watching as the Devils held a 2-1 lead 20 minutes away from clinching their first ever berth in the Stanley Cup Final against the rival Rangers in what would have been a remarkable upset.

And then it happened. Mark Messier, who had famously guaranteed a victory at the morning skate that day, put the Rangers on his shoulders with a third-period hat trick that forced a seventh game New York eventually won in double overtime en route to its first Stanley Cup championship in 54 years. For a Devils fan, there has been a nagging feeling for the past 18 years that it should have been the Devils rather than the Rangers lifting the Cup that night, and Game 6 is the haunting reason as to why. That makes it all the eerier that for the first time since that series, the Devils and Rangers are facing off in the Eastern Conference Finals again, the Devils once again have a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 at home and Game 6 will be happening 18 years later exactly to the day of Messier's famous guarantee in 1994.

To a lifelong Devils fan it's enough to make my already potent anxiety go off the charts.

Quite a few things have changed in my life since 1994. I am no longer a child, but an adult with his own life, job, independence and, at the moment, a truly overwhelming playoff beard. The Devils, meanwhile, are a completely different franchise now than they were then, with three Stanley Cups and multiple Hall of Famers having worn the uniform during title runs. But the one thing that seems to be the same, aside from Martin Brodeur somehow remarkably still starting in goal, is that the Devils play second fiddle to the Rangers in their home market. That will probably never change, but New Jersey's team can still gain a measure of reassurance, satisfaction and maybe vengeance if it can overturn the memories of 18 years ago by finishing what that group couldn't with a win tonight.

That doesn't, however, explain why I'm still so anxious and see loops of Messier and Stephane Matteau in my head. Rationally speaking, the game 18 years ago should have absolutely no bearing on the one tonight. After all, only one player form that game, Brodeur, is still in the NHL let alone with the same team, the game's rules and styles are fundamentally different and this time we can watch it all in HD. But life has a funny way of drawing parallels when it comes to sports and there is the creepy fear in the back of my head that even with all the logic it would defy, I'm seeing a replay of what I saw on my parents' television 18 years ago.

It is fortunate that the players themselves are taking the right tack of noting the game was years ago. Devils coach Peter DeBoer pointed out that the game was so long ago he still had hair. Brodeur has been adamant about their being no relation or parallel, and Zach Parise, who was all of nine years old at the time, has blatantly said that the game was so long ago that he doesn't care. And why should he? Roughly half of New Jersey's current roster hadn't hit puberty when Game 6 happened and defenseman Adam Larsson hadn't even hit his second birthday. The Rangers, for their part, are also wary of leaning too heavily on a legend in which none of the players took part. Plain and simple, it does not matter. It does not matter that it's the exact same teams in the exact same set of circumstances on the exact same day in May 18 years later. After all, there is the saving grace that the Devils no longer play in the same building.

Still, it's hard to shake the anxiety if you're a fan. The Devils stand on the precipice tonight of overturning one of the greatest demons to haunt the franchise -- even if the franchise has three championships to its credit. But that is a tenuous possibility, because a loss would reinforce that maybe, just maybe, Mark Messier's guarantee 18 years ago is a demon that can never be overturned. We will find out tonight. Fans like me can't help but hope against hope that the Devils can overturn that demon.

After all, the only thing worse than a repeat of Game 6 would be a repeat of Game 7.

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