Well, here we are.
Eighty-two regular season games of hockey, and another six whiplash-inducing contests against the Devils' most hated rival, and it all leads to this.
It's game seven. Two words that will fill any fan with equal parts excitement and dread.
Game seven in any sport with a best-of-seven playoff format is an ordeal to contend with. In hockey, where fortunes can turn in an instant on a bit of good/bad luck or a tiny mistake, it’s the highest level of entertainment for neutral observers and something more like torture for the fans of the two teams involved. Steel yourself, Devils fans, because it’s our turn in the game seven barrel. We’ll either emerge from tonight with a memory we never want to forget or with a memory we will desperately want to forget immediately.
The Devils have known plenty of both pain and glory in game seven over the years. The Devils are 7-7 all-time in the decisive seventh game of a series. They've won a Cup in game seven (2003) and they've lost one there (2001). They've won conference finals (2000, 2003) in game seven and they've lost them (1988, 1994). The Devils are even 1-1 in game sevens decided in two overtimes, including the Devils most recent game seven in 2012, where rookie Adam Henrique played the hero, and then 1994, a repeat of which ESPN has been trying mightily to will into existence during their coverage of this series. Legends have been made and nightmares have been forged in relatively equal measure for the Devils in game seven.
When the Devils and Rangers were set on a collision course in the first round for pretty much the final three months of the season, this game is the eventuality that many predicted from this matchup. Despite being two starkly different teams in style and construction, most recognized how close these two teams were on paper. Through a topsy-turvy first six games where each team looked dead in the water at different points, we have arrived at our destination. Could it be any other way?
There is not a lot left to analyze in this series. Both teams have shown their best at times and their worst at others. Both teams have won at home and on the road. The Devils have controlled the puck with dominant 5v5 play for stretches and the Rangers have inflicted pain in waves through their lethal power play. The Rangers have leaned on their Vezina-winning goalie at times, as expected, but the emergence of Akira Schmid has also helped neutralize that advantage. Based on how this series has gone, everything seems to be on the table as a potential result.
The future for this Devils team looks bright, perhaps as bright as any team in the league at this point, but opportunities are not guaranteed. And even if future opportunities do come along, the one they have right now is a big one. This is a team that had a great season with a chance to send their biggest rival packing for the franchise’s first series win in 11 years. This is a chance to move on in an Eastern Conference bracket where the three-time defending conference champs as well as the team with the best record in NHL history were just sent home.
This is a chance to create a moment, something that will resonate with fans a generation from now.
One way or another, this game will be talked about for years. Can a Devil etch their name into franchise lore tonight? Scoring the decisive goal in game seven is something that never gets forgotten. Names like Patrik Elias, Jeff Freisen, Adam Henrique, Claude Lemieux, and even Mike Rupp have a permanent place in the franchise annals with deciding goals in a game seven. This new generation of Devils has no shortage of candidates to be that next guy. Nico, Jack, Dougie, Jesper, Timo, or any other Devil can add a career highlight that will live forever. The stakes are high and the chances of pain likewise, but only in a crucible like a game seven can moments like these emerge.
In the midst of all this stress, I find myself with a strange sense of calm. I don’t know which way this game will go, but I’m confident that the Devils will leave everything on the ice tonight. And if they do that, I think they’ve got a pretty good shot to pull through.
My feelings at this point matter little, though. The only thing left is for the puck drop so we can get on with it. My final plea for the Devils is this:
Seize this moment. Play the type of hockey that you are capable of and you can make this a truly unforgettable season. Devils hockey has not seen postseason glory for some time, but tonight you can make it so once again. This team, regardless of what comes after, can make itself immortal tonight.
For our part, the fans will pour every bit of our energy into willing you to that result. Whether it’s at the Rock or in front of televisions all over the state, the country, and the world, know that we appreciate the ride that this team has taken us on and that we desperately do not want it to end.
Once more unto the breach, my friends. See you on the other side. Go Devils.