Do you remember them? Do you remember Marian Hossa, shy, blonde and assertive puck-hogger? Do you remember Radek Bonk, who could grow a decent playoff beard in a day? Do you remember Magnus Arvedson, who had an unfortunate run-in with an open bench door? Do you remember Patrick Lalime, before his collapse, when the Martian on his mask was still cute? Do you remember Martin Havlat, that cocky little puck-dangler?
Do you remember Jacques Martin, Roger Neilson? Jason Spezza as a rookie?
The young and eager Senators, full of bravado and an airtight system, had moved onto the Eastern Conference Finals playing only 11 games in the first two rounds. The New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers littered their past, and the Senators braced themselves for Brodeur's steely abilities.
In game 1, the Senators are running on a pure high. Martin Havlat makes an amazing pass to an unlikely Shaun Van Allen to score an overtime goal; it's a beautiful, tic-tac-toe play. 3-2 Senators, in OT. The VHS line, they are named. Maybe we can hang around in this, despite New Jersey's gloried past and clout. After all, we are not playing the New Jersey Devils of 1995 or 2000 -- we are here and we are now.
In game 2, the deficiences of the Ottawa Senators are clear. In a brutal move, our captain tries to stop a bouncing puck with his skates. It fails. He is the last man back, and the Devils rush up the ice to furiously capitalize on a breakaway. It is ugly and morale killing.
(Did this happen during game 2? Was it a power-play or just a weak, pinching play? Did they even score?)
Game 2 ends 4-1 New Jersey.
When game 3 turns around, I wonder if we are mature enough to handle this. Brodeur still looks smug from his last Cup victory, little more than 3 years ago, and the Devils are an absolute machine. They don't need many factors to survive -- they are hardy, like a desert plant, getting on by capitalizing on their few scoring chances. A hardy monk. They don't need much -- no flash, not much creativity. Everyone is replaceable. Except Brodeur. Brodeur, who methodically shuts out the Senators 1-0. It is ugly. It is the sort of score you can't imagine the game ending in, yet it is terribly possible and real.
In game 4, the New Jersey Devils remain the New Jersey Devils. In the insipid words of Tom Renney: they are what they are. And us? Nothing's working. Despite dominating for about half of the game, the Devils outwait us. Alfredsson draws several retaliatory penalties; the rest of the team follows suit, frustration palpable. Nothing's working. 5-2.
Jacques Martin is not a coach fond of unchecked creativity. He is not very impressed by Spezza's raw talent and undisciplined play. Spezza plays for much of the season in the minors, despite his draft-year colleague Kovalchuk given an opportunity to play in the big league, unrestrained. Yet Jacques Martin knows the time to take a risk. The Senators are down 3-1 and hockey's best right wing, Alfredsson, Havlat, Hossa, is dry. Spezza is called up and prepares to skate in his first NHL playoff game.
There is more to this story than just Spezza's youth. Roger Neilson, a fatherly assistant coach, suffering from pancreatic cancer, is so weak by this point he can't watch the games from his box anymore. He gives the team a stirring pregame speech: you know they listen to him. He sends out a defenseman on a penalty shot because nobody says that he can't, he waves white flags to protest the referees because nobody says he can't, but he has never won the Stanley Cup. Mike Fisher is practically his son. They want to win for him.
Spezza works. Listening to Roger works. And by gawd, the game is beautiful like an oasis. Spezza sets up Havlat's game-winning goal, and then finally scores a rare power-play goal. 3-1 Senators, a two goal win that makes fans delirious with hope. Spezza comes as a spark in a dull night. It is our first victory in a must-win game.
Meanwhile, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks have swept the Minnesota Wild in a dull, mind-numbing fashion. It is great technical hockey, yes, but without any sense of passion or excitement. They are Cinderella, and I hesitate to look ahead, but their playoff run just seems improbable. When the players speak, they don't speak like they know they deserve to be there.
One game. One bloody win to even the entire thing up and make the rest of the games, wasted time, not count. I don't even remember much of this game. All I remember is screaming Chris Phillips' name in delight, ecstacy, as he swung wildly at the puck and batted it in, admist a crowd of delirious Senators in overtime. 2-1.
Game 7. Did you really think I could stand to watch this entire game? Arvedsson scores on a blast, early. I settle down. I wish I were religious so I could have rosary beads in my hands and not feel strange. My heart sinks to the floor when the Devils, not swayed by the pure emotional outbursts of Senator fans in the Corel Centre, tie the score. My heart sinks to the dirt when they, seemingly in a smug defiance of the crowd, score to lead.
I didn't know at the time that I would hate Bonk later. He just had a funny name and finally seemed comfortable. He scores the tying goal. Unfortunately -- or fortunately -- at this point, I am hiding underneath the covers of my safe and secure bed, afraid to watch the Senators lose. Perhaps I should've just stayed in there.
We are 2:30 away from overtime. The Senators are undefeated in overtime; on the confidence of Chris Phillips' goal last game, the team believes they can get the next goal should it come to that. Wade Redden would admit later he hadn't expected the Devils to score -- "I thought we would just take it to overtime," he says, eyes averted.
Jeff Friesen and Grant Marshall lead the rush for New Jersey into our zone. It is innocuous. Innocent. Not only are Redden and Rachunek on the case, Havlat even comes back to back-check. Somehow, Marshall attracts the attention of all three Senators and Friesen is left alone to beat Patrick Lalime 1-on-1.
It's all gone.
The Devils swarm out onto the ice, and Wade Redden is so demoralized he cannot pick himself up. He presses his face into his hands, mouth gaping for air, the series of events burned into his brain and replayed in a loop. Maybe he thinks about the regular season, how far they had to travel to get to this point. Maybe he thinks about Stanley. In the span of two minutes, it is all gone.
They tried. Wade Redden looks to be on the verge of tears. When the New Jersey Devils skate their victory lap, they are not skating on ice -- they are skating on the blood, sweat and guts of every Senator out there.
Ottawa rains the next day. The Devils go onto win the Stanley Cup against Ducks, in an utterly forgettable series, save Steven's hit on Kariya and Brodeur's mishandling of the puck. Jean-Sebastien Giguere lugs his Conn Smythe home like a pile of groceries. I can't bear to watch as Stanley comes out.
Roger Neilson dies, without having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
There was hope. Spezza, an improbable playoff hero, was disgustingly young. Hossa, Havlat, Volchenkov, Schaefer, all in their prime and youth. Surely they could only benefit from experience. You have to lose before you learn to win. Nobody could know, or want to know, that 4 years later, 3 seasons passed, this is still the closest we have come.
Labels: anton volchenkov, anxiety, grant marshall, jason spezza, jeff friesen, loss, marian hossa, martin brodeur, mike fisher, new jersey devils, roger neilson, round two, sympathy for the devil, wade redden