The New Jersey Devils are on the brink of elimination from the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Finals. In Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings, the Devils played a very sloppy and poor game and were fortunate to go to overtime at all. The Devils lost 2-1. In Game 2 against the Kings, the Devils played much better game in regulation. However, they couldn't get more than one goal and so they went to overtime and got steamrolled for the most part. The Devils lost 2-1. In Game 3 at Los Angeles, the Devils needed a win to get back in the series and keep hope alive. Their effort faded, their power play seriously stunk, and the Kings rang up four goals on the Devils. The Devils' outlook is very bleak right now. The last time a team came back from 0-3 to win the Cup, it was Toronto doing the deed in 1942. The Devils would need a miracle of incredible proportions to get back in the series, much less win four straight against a clearly hot and clearly talented Kings team.
As I went on at length in a sleepless state near the end of the Game 3 recap, I recognize the many feelings the various Devils fans were having. The day after (and still tired), I have to say that the feelings with being a fan stand out more than anything analytical. I'm more interested in discussing that prior to tonight's game. What about analysis? There will be plenty of time for that after the series ends or continues. Besides, what more can I tell you than what we've been saying on this blog and what you've been seeing and demanding? They got to get shots on net, everyone's got to contribute in that regard from the big money players to the minimum wage guys, make plays to get shots, and hope for some bounces either to create great scoring chances or to have a shot get past the dominating Jonathan Quick. It would be cool if the power play wasn't atrocious (and no, I do not want to look at it again). It's not like there's a magic bullet against this Kings team; and a few lineup changes won't flip this series upside-down. That's not interesting to me at this point. The feelings that surfaced among the fans during and after Game 3 have been strong, and while all over the place, I do think there's nothing to lose by being at least a little bit hopeful for Game 4 in the face of potential sweep by Los Angeles.
Let's go all the way back to before the 2011-12 season began and look at what we predicted back then. All of the writers, both active then and now, predicted nothing further than a first round win. In fact, even I didn't go that far - I would have been pleased with making the playoffs. The Devils definitely made the postseason and they won in the first round, escaping from Sunrise with a double overtime win to move onto the second round. Yet, I wasn't fully comfortable with being satisfied as the next opponent were the Second Rate Rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. I know I predicted Philly to win that one; but I was so glad to be wrong then. And after how the Devils disposed of Philly, I definitely didn't want the Devils to fall to Our Hated Rivals in the Eastern Conference Finals. Sure, the Devils met my goal of making the playoffs and many, many others' goal by just winning the first round. No matter what happened against Philly or New York, we would have to say the season was a success. Anything else was gravy. Anything after the first round was playing with house money. But as a fan, I didn't want to fully accept that. I wanted to be optimistic in the Devils' chances; I wanted them to step over their rivals. With each successful result, I wanted more and more to see how far they could go. And here they are in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Devils have not succeeded so far in the Stanley Cup Finals - the most important series of them all. The Devils got to a place where the 28 other NHL teams hoped they'd reach and failed. Yet, the 29th team doesn't get the Cup anymore than the other 28 teams. The Devils are not only on the cusp of being the 29th team, but they could very possibly get swept in the process. That would be a first for the Devils franchise; all of their series losses have been in five games or more. A sweep by it's nature is disheartening enough; that "first" would sting even further. Over all, the Devils' lack of success has led to many strong feelings, almost all of which I completely understand and sympathize.
There are fans who are angry that this incredible opportunity at a fourth championship as simply sputtered. From the atrociously ineffective power play to the lack of production from the top players to defensive breakdowns to the fact that the Kings are up three wins to nil. There are fans who are disappointed and sad that this incredible run - the escape from Sunrise, the stomping of Philadelphia, and the vanquishing of the Rangers - won't be carried out to the glorious ending. There are fans who are quite frustrated with short-term issues, like the failure to score multiple goals or run a decent power play. They're just as concerned with the the long-term, as the team has only 13 players under contract with New Jersey for 2012-13 and only 5 for 2013-14. There will be drastic changes to this team by the time the puck drops in October. There are probably a few fans still in shock that the Los Angeles Kings could not only sweep the Devils tonight but do it with a perfect road record and an astonishing 15-2 record. There are fans who are asking what could have been, asking all manners of "What ifs" from "What if Adam Larsson was in the lineup" to "What if Ilya Kovalchuk's shot was a bit lower near the end of Game 2?" to "What if Anze Kopitar didn't deflect Kovalchuk's shot near the end of Game 2?" to "What if Adam Oates wasn't running this power play?" And there are fans who are just resigned to the highly likely fact that the Devils will not win the 2012 Stanley Cup and trying to find some perspective as a soft spot after the crash from a signature loss.
I was in the latter group last night, I still sort-of am today, and I will admit I know the other feelings because I've been jumping amid all of them over the course of the last three games. However, as much I'd like to express my appreciation for the Devils' season and gush about what they did accomplish, I don't want to do it just yet. I don't want to assume it's all over just yet even though it likely will be soon. As Game 4 comes closer, I've become more hopeful, or at least less resigned. I'm not expecting or demanding a complete comeback, but I want this series to go on a little longer. I want to see the Devils to win at least one more game. I want to go to Newark on Saturday for Game 5, win or lose. I think it's fair to say that just about every Devils fan wants a win. I'm pretty confident everyone in the Devils organization from the interns all the way up to Jeff Vanderbeek wants a win.
That leads me to another subset of feelings I haven't touched on yet: hope. I will admit that I'm actually impressed that there are fans who still cling onto the faintest of hopes of a comeback. They know that it is extremely unlikely and the response is "It's not over yet." I like that. I'm not mocking or jeering that feeling; and I hope this doesn't come across as condescending. I really do like that sentiment. Ultimately, isn't that what being a fan is all about? It's not blind optimism (or blind negativity, like some think it to be), it's maintaining some hope in who we like even when the situation is at it's bleakest. Most of them are not denying the odds, the facts, the stats, or the logic; but fandom isn't about any of those things. We use them to temper expectations; but why we support a team comes down to the heart, to what we feel.
We all love the New Jersey Devils and so we want them to succeed. We get into arguments, discussions, rants, spiels, and so forth because we want what's best for the team. (And we'll continue to do so.) We spend time, money, and energy for merchandise, trips, tickets, and audio/visual devices to listen, watch, and witness the team play. All because for some reason, the New Jersey Devils have triggered a feeling inside that makes us care and makes us happy when they succeed. It doesn't always make sense, but it feels right and we want to feel it. A championship guarantees memories of glory and it sucks that the Kings faithful will get to feel that while we not only won't but it's unsure whether it'll happen anytime soon. It can take years, decades, or even lifetimes. It isn't guaranteed. From that last point, it's easy to see why a lot of Devils fans are feeling down. To get this far and not win it all does hurt to a degree.
But thanks to those fans who aren't so resigned, so angry, so upset, so disappointed, and so frustrated, it hit me on Tuesday night that it's better, as a fan, to embrace this feeling of hope heading into Game 4. One small victory may be for consolation, but it's better than none at all and it'll be far less of a drag than assuming the worst. At this point, we can admit what has been true since the Florida series: the Devils have been and are continuing to play with house money. We didn't want them to fall to their rivals, I didn't want it, and they didn't - they beat them. So there's no shame at all at getting this far and losing to a superior Kings team. And it's not like it's been a cakewalk for L.A. either given that Games 1 and 2 went to overtime and even the start of Game 3 wasn't so good for them. It's not at all realistic to think the Devils will win four straight, but I don't think it's farcical to think they can take one game.
So that's where my mind's at as you read this now. If the Devils lose, then the highly likely happened right away. What was likely occurred and it happened in four games. We feel bad for a bit, review the season that was, and then move on to the draft, free agency, a lot of analysis, and the next one (Aside: This is why you should keep reading ILWT after the series is over.) If not, then we can at least see the team we love play one more game and have a little more hope against the odds. While my hopeful predictions are very unlikely to come true, I do have to ask the same question I asked before the series: Why not? Here's one more: What do we have to lose with a little hope for tonight?