The New Jersey Devils have had a successful 2011-12 regular season. Last season, they didn't make the playoffs at all. They've had a horrible head coach and horrible luck to have only nine wins by Christmas 2011. They got a proper head coach and better luck to finish outside of the bottom five; but they were well behind the eighth seed in the East. In 2011-12, the Devils got a new head coach, dealt with injuries, played with a more aggressive forecheck, and had their share of ups, downs, and shootout wins. They finished in fourth place in the Atlantic Division and sixth place in the East. After missing the postseason, the Devils definitively qualified with 102 points in 2011-12. They succeeded.
The Devils have had a successful 2012 playoff run through April and May. They've came from behind to defeat the Florida Panthers in seven games, winning each of the last two must-win games beyond regulation. They withstood a decisive loss in Game 1 to the Philadelphia Flyers and proceeded to swarm all over them in four games to eliminate them in five games. The Devils took on the New York Rangers, Our Hated Rivals, in the Eastern Conference Finals. They responded to getting shutout in two out of the first three games by winning three straight with three or more goals to knock out the Rangers in six games and go to the Stanley Cup Finals. I repeat, the Devils are going to the Stanley Cup Finals. If you ever feel down before Wednesday, that phrase will lift your spirits, at least a little bit.
I don't know about you, but I never expected to say that wonderful statement of reality.
I expected the Devils to make the playoffs. That was my goal for them heading into the 2011-12 season. I plainly said it here way back in September. I didn't even call for a first round win, intentionally being vague since who knew the opponent would be prior to the regular season even starting. Anytime you miss the playoffs, then you need to do what it takes to get back there in the next season. That may not seem so ambitious, but it's the first step that a team needs to take after missing it entirely. After game #82, I had feelings of satisfaction. They achieved this goal I mentally and publicly demanded.
Yet, those feelings went away the minute the puck dropped in Sunrise to start Game 1 of the playoffs. That's understandable - I'm a fan, you're a fan, and whenever the team we're fans of plays a game, we want them to win. We want them to play well. We want them to score goals, prevent them, and drive the play. Logically, I shouldn't have cared too terribly about the result because the Devils met my expectations of making the playoffs. However, being a fan eschews logic: as the series went on, more and more, I wanted wins by any means necessary. And the Devils did just that. It certainly wasn't easy, it definitely wasn't ideal, but they got out of the first round. The many Devils fans who demanded that the team should get to the second round had their demands met.
And of course satisfaction returned. The Devils didn't just make the playoffs, but they made it to the second round for the first time since 2007. What Devils fan would be unhappy with that? Not many. But what Devils fan would be really happy if they bailed out in the next round? Especially against the Second Rate Rivals - the Flyers? What Devils fan wants to lose to them? They looked good on paper; enough for me at least to think the Flyers would beat them in the series. Thankfully, I was wrong as the Devils crushed Philly in five games. The cycle of feelings repeated: apprehension as the games took place, ecstasy when the Devils won, and satisfaction the next day. Only this time, there was a new feeling germinating: confidence. The Devils didn't just drop Philly, but they dominated possession and withstood being down 1-0 in each game to come back and win four straight games.
Therefore, I felt good about the Devils' chances and it appeared that I wasn't the only one prior to the Eastern Conference Finals. That same mix of emotions headed into the series: pleased the Devils are this far but desire yearned for a big win over Our Hated Rivals. Yet, the confidence was more apparent. The Rangers' skaters weren't as solid as the Flyers. The Rangers muddled through their series, escaping each in Game 7. The Rangers weren't a strong possession team. Yes, they had an ace goaltender and some other things going for them. But I and many other Devils fans figured that they could rise above. That's why I and many other fans predicted a Devils win - and they did. Six games and the Devils earned big bragging rights and a big reward. The ghosts of the past were busted.
So the Devils made the playoffs to meet my goal and won their first round series to meet many other fans' goals. While we wouldn't say the season was a failure if they lost to either Philadelphia or New York, it would have been a big disappointment to fall to hated rivals. Neither happened and the Devils earned their way to the Stanley Cup Finals. And that feeling of satisfaction has given way to further confidence and ambition. Oh, it's still there. How else can saying "The Devils are going to the Stanley Cup Finals" make me me smile otherwise? However, the confidence has taken over. The Devils went through the trials and tribulations in a regular season to get into the postseason, survived overtime battles against Florida, and kept their cool against Philly, and cracked an elite goaltender against New York. No fan shouldn't feel positive about the team in a run like this one. And that leads to the great ambition that I certainly didn't think about way back in September 2011: winning the Stanley Cup.
The Los Angeles Kings will undoubtedly be a difficult opponent. They've been playing brilliant hockey from April onward. You don't smack down #1, #2, and #3 in the West in 14 games without talent or good breaks. They're strong in seemingly every facet of the game and they like to play like the Devils prefer to play: up-tempo, aggressive forechecking, and every skater responsible for defending. They have a defense that can act as a stout unit like Florida (or the Rangers' top four), a forward corps that can be big and productive like Philly, and a goaltender who's been better than the starter at MSG. Many will see the Kings as the favorites, and I can't say they're completely and utterly wrong.
Yet, my current feelings of confidence and ambition pull a Lee Corso and exclaim "Not so fast!" From Saturday onward, one thought permeates my mind: "So far, so good, so why not?" Let's look at the whole playoff run from a larger perspective. The Devils have dealt with teams that were better on paper in some or most areas and still won. They won games they deserved from the run of play. They won some games they were out-played in. They have built up some leads that were protected and others that were blown - which not deter the Devils. They've matched lines in some games, and in others they just rolled them or mixed them. They came from behind in games and in the first round to win. They took games into OT and won them. Players played through pain and mistakes and misfortunes and still found ways to produce, excel, and succeed. What can the Kings do that New Jersey hasn't been through before in this very postseason? My understanding and the emotions have the same answer: nothing.
As satisfying that they got this far, why not think the Devils have more than just a theoretical chance at going all the way? Why not entertain thoughts of the Devils getting the job done at home to kick off this series? Why not anticipate the possibility that the Devils can go into Los Angeles and take a game or two? Even when the puck drops on Wednesday night at the Prudential Center and the feelings of nervousness, anxiety, apprehension, and stress return like it has for me when the games begin, listen to the roars of the crowd and the hopeful exclamations of fans online. They're all essentially saying: let's do this - we know you can. Thanks to their 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs run, we can turn it into a question: Why not us? Why not New Jersey? Why not?