For anyone who has ever played or been a diehard fan of a sport, you likely know what the Moment feels like. That unforgettable instant of victory when time stops and euphoria takes over. It's everything you play or watch the games for. It's that final defensive stand; it's the goal you thought might never come; it's the victory you waited months, years, or decades for. It is unadulterated triumph. The rest of the world slides away in an instant, replaced with nothing but the now when you're in the Moment.
The Moment exists all sports, though the paths traveled to get there vary. Baseball opts for the slow burn, cranking up the pressure and the agony as the game goes on until somebody finally blinks. Basketball features haymakers, as teams trade leads until someone lands the knockout punch. Football teams claw for territory until someone breaks through that final barrier with everything on the line.
Hockey might be most tailor made for the Moment, though. The game, while beautiful, is chaos more often than not. Teams go back and forth, and each little play that is made becomes part of a blur that is the game. Near misses, mistakes, and great efforts all sink into the ether if the payoff doesn't arrive. It's a waiting game of the highest anxiety. But when the Moment finally does arrive, every second is burned into your mind. The sights, the sounds, the crowd, the players: they all become frozen in that snapshot of history.
For the Devils, the first real memorable success was breaking into the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1988. A modest achievement, to be sure, but one that felt big, regardless. Since moving to New Jersey in 1982, the team had largely been a doormat for the rest of the league. Being in the league's basement and serving as somewhat of a punching bag for the league's elite probably made a lot of people in New Jersey wonder what the point of watching was. But in an instant, it becomes very clear why you keep coming back. When the Moment happens, the feeling is undeniable.
The type of joy that instant brings is built upon a foundation of frustration. It clashes against the many opposing moments that make you wonder "Is this really worth it?" Sports fandom is a funny thing, in that, for the most part, every fanbase but one will end the year in disappointment or, worse, heartbreak. The law of averages says you are entitled to approximately 1 championship every 30 years, which means to climb that mountain, you will likely be paying a hefty toll in dejection. Paying that price, though, sometimes makes reaching that summit extra sweet.
The Devils have certainly been no strangers to success over the past two decades, though. With three Stanley Cups and five Finals appearances, the team has been one of the best in the league over the last 20 years. But with the team stumbling over the last couple seasons, Devils fans are being reintroduced to the cold playoff-free existence that many other franchises have been enduring year-in and year-out in that time period. The Moment will never come if you're out of contention before the regular season closes.
Seeing playoff hockey featuring your team - particularly overtime playoff hockey - is something that is difficult to capture with words. It is simultaneously everything great and everything terrible about being a fan rolled into one ordeal. But despite it being something akin to torture while you watch, you just keep right on doing it anyway, because watching the games when they matter most is the only way to feel every ounce of that euphoria. Yes, catching the highlights afterward, or going back and reliving all these moments on YouTube or in your head can give you a vicarious thrill. Even something you don't recall being a part of (I was in diapers for the '88 playoff clincher) can give you goosebumps while watching, but the only way to feel the full effect of the Moment is to be there, living it. That's why we keep chasing that next one.
The Moment tends to be zero-sum by its very nature. For every feeling of ecstasy, there is typically an equal and opposite feeling of agony to go along with it. No fanbase is immune to it. Even a successful franchise like New Jersey has their scars. This zero-sum nature is what makes rivalries what they are. In a series versus a hated rival, the stakes are that much higher because the joy your opponent feels is almost as toxic as the pain of the loss. The high stakes in that matchup are something that makes the Moment so much more sweet (or bitter) when it comes. It's always nice to have bragging rights.
Regardless of opponent, though, you just want to be around when the games matter most. The 2014-15 Devils are a team that has a shot to make the playoffs - perhaps even a good shot - but they are a team with plenty of flaws. It's hard to deny that there are better teams out there, and even most of them will fall before reaching the promised land. So, come tomorrow, the Devils and their fans will embark on another journey, one that will, more likely than not, end in bitter defeat. But maybe, just maybe, sometime next spring, we'll all be part of a new Moment.
Get excited, everyone. Hockey is back.