The 2012 Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Devils - Bruce Bennett
It's the end of 2012 and rather than focus on the lockout, I explain how I will remember the New Jersey Devils' run to the Stanley Cup Finals over the lack of hockey from this year.
It's customary at the end of year to have posts, articles, stories, and essays about the year we just experienced. I don't normally spend a lot of time on these kinds of posts since there would normally be a season on-going. Game previews, recaps, and analysis are all more important than looking back, in my view. However, there hasn't been any New Jersey Devils games since June. The NHL has locked out the players and nothing has been solved so far.
Yes, the Incredibly Stupid Lockout of 2012 is pretty much the standout story in the league right now. It's the only story. I'm pretty proud that the content here at In Lou We Trust has focused on hockey that has been played in the past or the hockey being played at other levels involving Devils instead of devoting post after post to this dreadfully dumb dilemma. Yet, I can't deny that the current lockout is what most fans and outside observers will remember from this year. We should be going to games, getting excited about games, getting mad about games, getting glad about games, and all potential points of discussion arguing about games. We are not. We are doing something else. And it's not our choice because we didn't decide that there are no Devils games or any NHL games. The reality of the last three and a half months has not and can not be ignored. The eventual effect of the lockout won't be ignored. The lockout has been and is current the dominant topic for the fans of all 30 NHL teams and so it is clearly the year's biggest ongoing story. Except for Kings fans, 2012 is all about that and even they know it's huge in that they haven't seen the banner their team earned risen to the rafters at the Staples Center.
I think Devils fans should also partake in that exception, even though the Devils were the team the Kings beat for the Stanley Cup. I may be the only one, but I choose to focus on this year's glorious playoff run when looking back at 2012. It certainly wasn't predicted. The Devils did have a good regular season, finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference standings with the fifth most points in the East. They got there with the help of some pleasant surprises, some of which continued into the postseason (Adam Henrique) and some did not (e.g. the penalty kill). My pre-season prediction was that the Devils should make the playoffs in 2011-12 and they did just that. Other fans and writers were more ambitious with their expectations and wanted at least one playoff victory. Everyone got that and more. I've reviewed the entire Devils' postseason in this post. I will point out how it gave the fans almost everything they would want in a playoff run, how truly memorable it was.
If you wanted success through adversity, then you got it Devils' first round match-up with the Florida Panthers. The Panthers' special teams and second line gave the Devils fits and were up 3-2 in the series. The Devils not only had to win two straight, but they had to go to overtime for each one. And the seventh game required double overtime and Henrique finding Jose Theodore's five-hole. The first series alone was loaded with such drama, excitement, and nervousness that only .
If you wanted rivalries and bragging rights, then you got it in the following two rounds. The Devils took on the Second Rate Rivals in the second round and dispatched them in five. I didn't think the Devils would beat the Flyers at first. In my defense, I also didn't think Claude Giroux would disappear at even strength, Jaromir Jagr would just disappear, their defense would be so vulnerable against a two-man forecheck, and that Ilya Bryzgalov would get the unofficial primary assist on the series-winning goal. That series was followed up with the Eastern Conference Finals against Our Most Hated Rivals. Despite the massive challenge provided by Henrik Lundqvist and Ryan Callahan's skates, the Devils rose above in six games. The final game coming in dramatic fashion as Adam Henrique sent the Rock and the fans all around the world into ecstatic cheers. Winning a playoff series is great. Beating your rivals and being able to talk smack to them about it is even better.
If you wanted personal stories, then there were several Devils who stepped up in more ways than one. Adam Henrique continued his strong season play as a rookie with more heroics in the postseason. Martin Brodeur had an ugly regular season save percentage, but he was the constant stopper through the post season. Ilya Kovalchuk famously played through injury and despite how much slower he looked and moved, he still managed to lead the entire postseason and the Devils in scoring. Travis Zajac was finally healthy after missing most of the 2011-12 season and put in good work as usual in the postseason. Bryce Salvador had one of the most surprisingly productive playoffs I can remember. The defensive defenseman managed to score four goals and earn ten assists, the second most points among all defensemen in the postseason and tied for tenth overall. We won't see him do that ever again outside of a video game. These are just a few of them that come to my mind. It shouldn't be a surprise that a team on a long playoff run had several players who did well. The memories don't get old though.
If you wanted good coaching, then Peter DeBoer gave it to you. OK, it wasn't perfect, but he did a great job with the team in my opinion. He kept the team's emotions in check when the Panthers gave them trouble. DeBoer put on a clinic against Peter Laviolette and John Tortorella. The former had nothing but trouble with the 2-1-2 as his team fell apart despite scoring first in Game 2 through 5 of their series. The latter had nothing much to say when Lundqvist wasn't perfect and his depth got exposed. The only thing DeBoer couldn't do was solve a deep Kings team that had a goaltender playing great and skaters not collectively shooting at a low rate as they did all season. For those who wanted to see a Devils head coach last longer than two years, DeBoer proved he can be the one.
If you wanted a reason to believe in the team succeeding, the Devils provided them in each series. The team was very good at even strength up until the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup Finals themselves. As rocky as the Florida series was, the team had a chance to get the desired results and they eventually did. Despite how bad Game 1 was against the Flyers, the Devils dragged it into overtime and followed up that loss with superior efforts in the next four games. While the Devils got deservedly shutout against the Rangers in Game 1, the team fought back and the only two losses in that series were when Lundqvist did shut them out. Despite poor starts and a few poor games in the first three series, the Devils managed to win to get back in the series and ultimately take it. Even in the Stanley Cup Finals, the first two games had to be decided in overtime and the Devils fought back from a 3-0 series deficit to force a Game 6 for the first time since the 1940s. That's rather good considering the Kings tore through two really good teams in Vancouver and St. Louis and a spoiler in Phoenix.
The only downside to the Devils' 2012 playoff run was that they didn't win the Cup. Even that's not so upsetting. I wasn't happy about it then and I still wonder to this day "what could have been" if the Devils won one or both overtime games in the beginning of the series. Still, I can't say it was a total let down. The Devils did far too much to get there to discount it because they didn't hoist the Cup. Just as importantly, the Kings were the best team in the postseason. They rolled three lines deep, their defense was spot on, Jon Quick was amazing, and everything was clicking. Los Angeles did what the Panthers, Flyers, and Rangers couldn't do in their series: dominate possession against New Jersey. Since the Devils lost the first three games, the Kings' victory was a matter of "when, not if" and it proved to come in that Game 6 - though the Devils forced some small, faint hope to be possible for that game. As much as I'm concerned about how good the team will be going forward, I'm not troubled or saddened that they didn't win it all in 2012. There's no reason for the Devils or their fans to feel any shame.
They didn't get to where they wanted, but the journey was worth it. On a personal level, it remains momentous. I got to witness the agonies and glories of playoff hockey in person. I got to feel the energy at the Rock on a level I didn't previously felt. The highs were just energizing, such as when the Devils scored or a win is impending or just secured. The lows were harrowing, such as when the Devils lost or the other team took the lead. The tension of both coming together before every home game as this brilliant introduction was playing on the video screens over center ice. All of these feelings, events, success, and even the failures of the 2012 Devils' playoff run remain in the forefront in my memory of this whole year.
And I choose to keep that there ahead of the fact there's a lockout, ahead of the fact that negotiations have been all kinds of silly, and ahead of the fact that I'm trying to parse out what either side is fighting for other than pride and control instead of, you know, doing the thing that they can do that we all want and care about. I'm choosing actual hockey by my favorite team over the lack of it caused by the league and assisted by the players. That's what I will remember the most when I look back on this year in terms of Devils hockey. Right now for this customary post as well as in the future. I hope you do the same as well. If not, that's fine. If you disagree, that's fine as well. Feel free to tell me about what you remember most from 2012 from a Devils perspective in the comments; thank you for reading.