Friday, May 4, 2012

I'm Going To Keep Loving These Overtimes If They Don't Give Me A Heart Attack

Recently I noted that in 1993 the Montreal Canadiens won ten overtime games en route to an unlikely Stanley Cup championship. Now, I would never be so brash to suggest that the Devils are headed to a Stanley Cup this season, nor would I presume that it will take an abundance of overtime games to get there, but after last night's wild -- and somewhat bizarre -- 4-3 overtime win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against Philadelphia, I'm starting to wonder. New Jersey has now gone to extra time in four of its last five games -- twice with its season on the line -- and wound up winning three of the four games. If you extrapolate that they've won six of 10 games, and would need to win 16 games to win the Stanley Cup, that would say that the Devils, should they go all the way, will play between 26 and 27 games to win it all -- just one shy of the maximum possible 28. If four of their 10 games have gone to overtime that would put the Devils, in 26 games, at an average of slightly more than 10 overtime games in total.

That's a lot. And I'm not sure my ventricles are strong enough to handle it.

Last night's game was of particular angst for me because I just so happened to be in sec. 129 to see all the action. This almost didn't happen. In fact, I was looking very much toward sitting on my couch and watching with some Chinese food. After all, the Devils have not yet lost a game I've watched while sitting on my couch at home. And naturally that has a very real impact on the end result -- just like my playoff beard, which is getting progressively itchier and distressingly grayer near the corners of my chin. But half way through the day I thought, hey, why not go down to the Rock for the game if I can get tickets for a reasonable price. This was proving tricky as get-ins on Stubhub were $100 at the cheapest for seats that were, uh, less than desirable, but since my friend Ruth had told me she would be in for $100 -- "It's a playoff game," she said -- I knew I had at least one person who would be crazy enough to go with me.

Here's the fun thing about Stubhub though. The website cuts sales off two hours before puck drop, and in the final minutes before sales cut off, prices drop precipitously from sellers hoping to get something -- anything -- for what will otherwise be dead weight. I always knew this, but until yesterday I didn't realize just how quickly -- and how dramatically -- the prices drop. The tickets I bought had been sitting at $120 each earlier in the day. By the time I bought them with three minutes to go before the cutoff they were $70. If I waited until one minute before the cutoff I could have sat in the bottom bowl for $50. My tickets were $141 face value, so to say the least, this is information worth packing away.

In a remarkable change of pace, I actually had to wait on a line to get into the Arena because it was actually sold out for once. I have never actually experienced this at a Devils game, and even though waiting on line is a pain in the ass, knowing I wasn't the only one excited about it was.... nice. There were of course, the requisite number of Flyers fans walking around, but they were actually far smaller in number than I expected given the ease of buying tickets on the secondary market and the relative short distance between Newark and Philadelphia.

As you all can imagine this made for a very friendly, polite and convivial atmosphere throughout the building.

The "Flyers suck" chants were rampant, the disdain was palpable and the tension of the game probably didn't help matters. And what a game it was really. It was, in many ways, bizarre in that players typically fan on shots throughout a game, but in this one in particular it seemed they were losing control of the puck left and right. Of course, that didn't stop the best players on the ice from completing some pretty plays. Patrik Elias tied the game in the first period with the trademark patience he displayed on his goal in Game 1 against Florida, by waiting until Philadelphia defenseman Matt Carle turned while clogging the shooting lane to open up a path to the far post of the net. Seconds later, Ilya Kovalchuk, who wasn't even a guarantee to play Thursday morning, gave New Jersey a lead on a beautiful snipe off the rush at the left faceoff circle.

The cream really does rise to the top.

Despite those exciting moments, the game was fraught with a great deal of anxiety, both due to the tense action on the ice and the fact that whomever won the series would take a pivotal 2-1 lead and significantly impact home-ice advantage in the series. Also, the guy sitting next to me was unbelievably annoying and seemed convinced that everything that contributed to the Devils having a disadvantage was a missed penalty call. This seemed to come to a head for him when the game reached overtime, a period that already gave me enough anxiety without his yelling or the two power plays the Devils had to kill off during the time. I had no patience of strength to get through a marathon last night. I sat through Game 5 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Semifinals, a game that saw New Jersey finish a series against Tampa Bay on a winner by the immortal Grant Marshall, but that game was as favorites with a comfortable 3-1 series lead and against a franchise that was less a direct rival than a distant nuisance. This was even more prescient of a fear considering most people in the crowd probably watched the night before as the Rangers won a bonafide epic in triple overtime over the Capitals on a goal by Marian Gaborik.

As this one got down to the closing minutes of its first overtime, I started to fear that we could be headed for another long one, and there, once again, was Kovalchuk making what I might argue was the biggest play in his Devils career, quite a feat when he didn't score the goal and wasn't even in the offensive zone at the time. Watching as much hockey as I do now I see the game in ways I didn't used to. Anyone who has watched as much as I have over the past few years would. NHL players have played so long and at such a high level that they can see plays develop before anyone else can, but the great ones can see plays developing three of four steps ahead of everyone else. They don't pass to players. They pass to moments and a patch of ice assuming the player they want will be there, and often times those players look foolish because they assume their teammates are good enough to read the play with them when they aren't. Kovalchuk is one of those players, and Thursday night as he wheeled the puck around the Flyers zone and didn't see an opening, he was forced to corral the rubber back near his own blue line, and it was at that moment that he saw the opening. The Flyers were changing, the neutral zone was clear enough to drive a truck through, and if he could put the puck in the right spot, he was going to have a forward on his own team leading an odd-man rush that could win the game. Alexei Ponikarovsky was in the right spot, and that was that.

Winning a playoff game in overtime is a punctuated explosion unlike any other, and that that moment the Prudential Center rocked like I had never seen it before. Amazingly, the experience didn't temper the flaring tensions between the fan bases. As I walked out to the concourse I was nearly sideswiped by a brawl that, I will readily admit, was actually the fault of the Devils fan. I had attempted to reach my arm in to separate the two before the full donnybrook broke out, but no dice.

Of course, that one moment, precipitated by the Devils fan didn't really taint the evening for me, nor did it really swing the public perception of Philadelphia's fan base. Later on as Ruth and I grabbed a drink in the train station while we waited for our ride back to New York to arrive, a group of disgruntled Flyers fans told a drunk woman in a Devils jersey that they wished she would die. Other reports came out about Flyers fans being tased by police outside the arena. On the other hand, the Devils fans, and I'm not making this up, were giving candy to homeless people.

The discord and the angry is regrettable, but it doesn't take away from what was a fantastic night at the Devils game -- one that, for the record, stretched my record of seeing the Devils in overtime playoff games in person to a perfect 3-0. The only thing that could bring the whole thing down would be if the Devils suddenly feel apart after playing two strong games and lose the series. That, of course, is still extremely possible.

Given my luck, it's almost certain even. For now, I'm going to do my best to enjoy this one. I may not get to enjoy another again. After all, if they go to overtime in Game 4 Sunday night, I'm pretty sure I'll end up in a hospital ward.

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