Friday, June 15, 2012

Seven (Of Many) Reasons Why This Season Rocked

Well here it is. The post-Stanley Cup Finals loss post. I find myself so overwhelmed by my love for this sport and for my team and its accomplishments that I shy away from even attempting to write about this season for fear of failing to convey the magnitude and meaning of it all. Suffice to say I am immensely proud of the New Jersey Devils for getting just two wins away from a Cup and incredibly happy for the Los Angeles Kings for winning their franchise's first. I am thrilled with the state of hockey today. Below are just a few things this season and playoffs proved:

1. Ilya Kovalchuk is no longer a $100 million "experiment." 

All of the critics who have dogged and misunderstood him his entire career have been silenced. Kovy led his team and the league in scoring these playoffs (until Game 6 when Anze Kopitar overtook him) with eight goals and eleven assists in 23 games, and did it all while suffering from a herniated disk in his lower back which forced him to miss a game in the Philly series. He came back a new man and for the next few games lit up the Bryz. That is heart. I am looking forward to watching that kind of effort for the next 13 years. Kovalchuk is defying the stereotypical selfish Russian superstar label that the North American media has stuck on his back and the backs of his countrymen for far too long. He's an elite hockey player, a perfect teammate, and a wonderful person.

2. Zach Parise is a leader of men.

Let's not talk about his future with the team right now, except to say that I think Lou gets it done and Zach re-ups. Regardless of where he ends up however, to say that I'm grateful for his presence on this team is a huge understatement. I can't name one hockey player who I think skates harder on every single shift he plays than ZP. Watch his hustle and you'll be hard pressed as well. He gives everything he's got for his teammates and his will to win is infectious, on and off the ice. It's no surprise 29 other NHL teams would love to make him their franchise player. He represents everything I love about Devils hockey. I hope I can continue to wear my #9 red sweater for years to come.

3. Martin Brodeur proves age is just a number.

Every team needs its rock. For the players on the bench, Marty was that unwavering pillar of stone all playoffs. He was vintage. He was clutch. But most of all, he was calm. And his cool demeanor permeated the entire locker room in even the most high-pressure situations (and gave hope and strength to stressed, strung-out fans screaming at their televisions and praying to false idols). All this from a man who was supposed to have yielded obediently to Father Time and bowed out of the game a year ago. Instead, he'll likely return for another year. Why? Because he's "having fun." I love it.

4. Adam Henrique is Mr. Clutch.

This kid played with the poise of a steely veteran while delivering some timely, memorable goals. Double OT, Game 7 in Florida, beats Theodore five-hole to exterminate the pesky rats. Overtime, Game 6 in Jersey, stuffs home a loose puck past Lunqvist to slit the throat of Rangers Nation's Cup dreams and stab 1994 in the gut. Third period, Game 4 in Los Angeles, with his team's season on the line yet again, collects a smooth pass from David Clarkson off his right skate and rifles one of the few pucks to beat Jonathan Quick clean these playoffs. All while rocking a particularly devilish goatee which eventually became a dirty porno stache for the finals. I hope we have this kid centering our first line for years to come. If Adam Henrique is not awarded the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year (he'd be the first Devil to win it since Scott Gomez in 2000. Let's hope, no matter what, Henrique doesn't follow his example), I will cease to believe in justice.

5. David Clarkson is a 30 goal scorer.

Doesn't matter if it never happens again. It happened.

6. Peter DeBoer is a first-class coach.

Along with this impeccable assistant staff (Larry Robinson, Adam Oates) this man squeezes the best out of his players night in and night out. A relative unknown compared to the likes of his playoff counterparts in Laviolette, Tortorella, and Sutter, he was nevertheless able to outcoach and outmaneuver them, knowing exactly when and how to jumble the lines and utilize his team's depth to get the match-ups he needed. DeBoer continued the time-honored Devils tradition of defensive hockey but knew he had the depth and skill to be more aggressive on the forecheck than I've seen this team be in years (a style of hockey that led to DeBoer's famous "swarm it up!" catchphrase that found its way onto rally towels handed out at Prudential Center). Make no mistake: without DeBoer this team would not have made it to the Finals. Like Marty, his calm and cool demeanor has been adopted by the entire team, and their discipline in playing whistle to whistle even against hated rivals like the Flyers and Rangers is noteworthy. The Devils have had a lot of coaches over the past few years and it would be very nice to have some consistency behind the bench for years.

7. The organization needed this and the team delivered.

Losing money, in debt to many creditors, in need of new investors, still struggling to sell enough tickets, in a public feud with a high-profile mayor, a disastrous (albeit inspired at the end) season last year yada yada yada. The list of reasons why Devils fans should worry about their beloved franchise are many. But in the midst of all of the off-ice distractions that could've sunk this season, this team put its collective head down and just went to work. A year after missing the playoffs, this year's roster re-established the winning attitude that Lou Lamoriello has instilled into this franchise for decades. Devils hockey is a proud tradition, and this team lived up to that pedigree at a crucial moment in the franchise's life. This year was an opportunity which the Devils made the most of.

I have followed and loved this team since that infamous May in 1994 when I was so upset over a double OT Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals I couldn't even fall sleep at night. Since then I have witnessed three Stanley Cup championships and only two years without the playoffs. I have watched the greatest goaltender in the world become just that. I have watched great players come and go and come back again. I've witnessed a double OT Cup-winning goal. I've loved the A Line, the Crash Line, the EGG Line, ZZ Pops, etc. I've seen this team win, lose, come close, fall behind, rally, fall behind again, and win. I've known glory and I've known heartbreak. As a fan who has been spoiled with success I've feared the coming age of mediocrity only to see the team stave it off year after year. This season provided all of those highs and lows and I will never forget it. I'm looking forward to proudly raising another banner to the rafters of The Rock in October.

Go Devils!

Step into the rain:

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