Tuesday, June 12, 2012

At Long Last, I Shaved Last Night

The first hockey game I went to this season was on October 13, 2011 when the Los Angeles Kings visited the New Jersey Devils. The most notable fact from that game was that Martin Brodeur, already considered mildly shaky entering his 20th season during which he'd turn 40, tweaked his shoulder in the first period, making some wonder if it was another sign that he had entered the relative fragility of middle age and might not be an NHL-caliber player much longer. With Johan Hedberg serving as the backup, the two teams played a fairly tight game until the Devils wound up picking up the extra point in a 2-1 shootout win, something my roommate at the time, Aleem, who went to the game with me, had been rooting for for the sheer entertainment value even though I pointed out to him that a shootout victory was less significant in the standings than one in regulation or overtime.

It was the Devils' third game of the 2011-12 regular season.

Never in my wildest dreams when this season began did I ever think the Devils would get close to winning the Stanley Cup, nor did I think the Kings against the Devils would be the matchup in both the first game I saw this season and the last. Really, all I hoped for was that the Devils would make the playoffs after what had been a dismal 2010-11 season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since before my 11th birthday. In fact, I distinctly recall having a debate with one of my coworkers about whether or not they'd even make the postseason. I felt they were a fairly safe pick to finish in the top eight, but he said there were 11 teams in the Eastern Conference he all thought were better.

It was a stunning surprise in many ways to see this team that seemed mediocre at best come within two wins of lifting the Stanley Cup nine months later, and this was a postseason run that delivered significant drama, thrills I will take with me for the rest of my life and two deeply satisfying postseason series in which New Jersey vanquished its biggest rivals in consecutive rounds and finally just may have put to bed the pain of 1994. To hope for a taste of the postseason and receive a run that very nearly ended in a championship should be something richly enjoyable.

And yet, last night as I walked to my bathroom to retrieve my scissors, razor and shaving gel I felt dead inside. That's just the way it goes.

In a few days I will appreciate this trip and watch Adam Henrique's overtime series-clincher against the Rangers over and over again with a smile on my face, but right now that prospect seems difficult. It hurts to get so close, knowing how rare the opportunities are, and to walk away defeated. That feeling is only heightened by the fact that after falling behind 3-0 in the series and being left for dead in what had been a remarkably frustrating, tight three games in which just about every break went the wrong way, the Devils suddenly showed signs of life by winning Games 4 and 5, and began to make you think the improbable was possible. No team had rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win the Stanley Cup Final since 1942 and only three teams had done it in any series at all. But after all, no team in the Final had rallied from that deficit to even force a Game 6 and the Devils had managed that. Sitting just one win on the road away from a winner-take-all Game 7 back in New Jersey, why couldn't they somehow pull it off?

Making the ultimate fall from grace even more dramatic is that the Devils acquitted themselves well for most of the first period before the crucial juncture of Game 6. They had spent much of the opening minutes in their own zone playing defensive against an aggressive L.A. forecheck hungry for its Cup clincher, but after weathering the opening storm, New Jersey was putting sustained pressure on Kings' goalie Jonathan Quick and making a bid for the crucial opening goal. Then it all went south when Steve Bernier boarded Rob Scuderi at 10:00 of the first period.

The resulting five-minute major led directly to a stunning three goals by the Kings, effectively ending the game and the season. While watching the season go up in flames was a painful moment to endure, the greater pain might have been that I had to sit and watch the next 45 minutes knowing the Devils were on a two-period-long death march, and perhaps more pertinently that the penalty never should have even happened. Seconds before Bernier's hit -- which I stress was assessed correctly -- the officials missed a boarding penalty that should have been called on L.A.'s Jarrett Stoll for checking Stephen Gionta illegally. Had the call been made, play would have stopped when Scuderi touched the puck and New Jersey would have been on a two-minute power play.

It is impossible to say that New Jersey would have scored on the advantage or even won the game at all. The Cup may still very well have been lifted by L.A. last night regardless, but it is impossible to imagine the game wouldn't have been changed at all with the Kings not getting five minutes of unending power play time. Still, as an intelligent fan, I have to resist the temptation to place the blame for this loss on the officials or Steve Bernier. In college I wrote a paper regarding the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the 1972 Munich Games. During the Israeli hostage crisis in Munich someone asked German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who is most well known for her propaganda, Triumph of the Will, if the embarrassment of stain that would inevitably be left on Germany by the tragedy was a karmic punishment for the evils of Nazism and she responded that it would be too easy "blaming God for the sins of men."

The gravity of these two situations are in no way similar, clearly, but the idea is applicable. It would be too easy to blame the Devils' loss in this series on the mistakes of a referee when there are clearly numerous factors at play that sparked the chain reaction leading to New Jersey's defeat. The Devils endured mistake after bad break after mistake during the first three games, including the first two which were both lost at home in overtime. There were several instances where an unkind bounce of the puck or a clang off the iron precariously altered the outcome and in many cases the Devils could have done the things needed to be done to win. They didn't always do those things, but the biggest reason the Kings are Stanley Cup champions might just be that winning a Cup is roughly 75% talent, skill and coaching and 25% luck.

The Kings absolutely deserve to have won the Stanley Cup. But they got just about all the luck to go with it.

I am not bitter. I am just accepting of how these things have turned out. Had the Devils wound up winners it would have been entirely the same proportion of skill to luck that got them there. That's how the breaks go. In many ways Game 6 was a microcosm of the series as a whole, in which the Devils played well for stretches, had unfortunate breaks and suffered a final score that was misleading in just how close the game -- and series -- truly was. Two Kings goals came after the Devils pulled Martin Brodeur with four minutes left in a desperate bid to tie the game, and three of them came on that devastating five-minute power play in the first period. Those moments aside the game was a taut, tense exposition, much like the five other games of the series, one of which was also broken open by a controversial goal and four others that were decided by just one goal when empty netters are excluded, two of which ended in overtime.

Unfortunately, that's just how life goes sometimes. Even though I hate seeing my teams lose in a championship round, I do love the majesty of sports and there is no moment of trophy presentation that can even come close to the majesty of the Stanley Cup. I watched, admiring both the impressive achievement and dealing with my own related heartbreak. It is difficult to watch your team shake hands in the Final without smiles on their faces, though it does create moments that are truly wonderful, like when Brodeur and Quick finally met in the line and spoke words to each other that none of the viewers could hear but spoke volumes nonetheless.

Once I witnessed my team skate off the ice it was time to finally clean up my face. My beard had been largely untouched since the Devils' first playoff game on April 13, and at the time I began growing it I wasn't even sure I would keep it, but far be it from me to alter the karma.

As I found last night when I stood in my bathroom chomping away at my facial hair with a pair of scissors over the sink, when your genes give you the ability to grow facial hair thickly, it is a process to remove it all. At this point, I'm thankful that my scissors weren't worn down to the nub by what might as well have been the brillo pad sitting on my cheeks and chin. Trimming the whole thing down to a level at which simply using a razor was reasonable was a long, arduous, difficult, somewhat painful and, above all, messy task. It took 45 minutes to finally remove it all and leave myself clean shaven for the first time in two months. In some ways it was sad, in other ways cathartic and it's always going to be one of those curious moments in my life that for whatever irrational reason will always stick with me -- if for no other reason than because I took photographs.

The funny thing is though, that once you have a beard for this long, even if you don't want to have it anymore or it causes nothing but discomfort, it becomes a part of you. The playoff beard is a serviceable metaphor for your favorite sports team in that weird way. Your team may cause nothing but heartbreak and anxiety, but without it you wouldn't feel whole, and when their season ends, that feeling is only magnified. Such was the case this morning when I woke up and looked in the mirror. My face looked odd as I stared at it and knew my beard was missing.

Strangely enough, it felt like something else was missing, too.

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