We jumped aboard Devils fandom at the start of the 1995-96 season, immediately after the team had shamed itself by failing to make the playoffs immediately after winning the Stanley Cup. In the 14 seasons that followed (spread over 15 years) we were conditioned to believe, the entire time, that our team was a “contender”. Twice we got to actually see them win the Cup, which is truly, truly amazing. But the other 12 seasons involved watching our team come up woefully short; 12 years where we committed massive energy and emotion in a grueling nine-month slog, only to give the experience a final grade of “fail”. There’s nothing wrong with this — being a fan of a contender (even a self-described one) can be a ton of fun. You get to see more wins than losses, for one thing; every game can feel much more intense when you think you’re watching a Team of Destiny; and you can put a little swagger in your step right up until the moment it becomes clear that your team isn’t going to end up champion. But it also means, in the likely event that your team doesn’t win the Cup every single year, that you’re going to have a lot more bitter, angry, or sad hindsight than fans who had no expectations for their teams. Take, for example, the 2000-2001 Devils. That team was a remorseless winning machine, a juggernaut of a defending Cup champion, and got all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. Do we look back on that season with fondness in our hearts, or an appreciation for how lucky we were to see our favorite team be that good? Nope, not at all. Because they should have gotten that one last win, at least in our assessment. For better or for worse, our memories of that season are shaded primarily with a belief that the team came up short. Our memories of so many of the seasons during the first 15 years of our fandom are of wasted opportunities and squandered greatness.
Last year was the first time we experienced our Devils falling off a cliff. We expected it to be much harder than it was, but as it turns out, life goes on when your hockey team is decidedly not a contender. And more than that, it gave us a sense of perspective. Thanks to John MacLean, Terrible Head Coach, we suddenly got an understanding of what other kinds of failure a hockey team can have. Sure, losing in the first round when you’re the top seed is something worth being pissed about. But you know what’s worse? Being actually, sustainably, across-an-entire-season shitty. Last year’s experience was an epiphany for us: we don’t ever want to be back in the same place we were after losing in the first round to the Rangers (and all their attendant Avery-ness), where an entire hockey season of fun fandom is wiped out by one week of crap. It’s a polar shift for us, no question, but the thing is that being happy is… well, nice.
This spring’s Devils run has been a fantastic ride. Each step has been a further one out of our old mentality, starting with “we just hope the first-round failure is relatively painless,” then “how can the best regular-season penalty kill in the history of the league be giving up this many power play goals to the Panthers???”, then “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Who knew winning a wholly winnable first-round series could feel this unexpectedly sweet???”, then “hey, just one win against the Flyers will make us happy,” then “HOLY FUCKING SHIT, WE’RE MOPPING THE FLOOR WITH THEM!,” then “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!! Who knew getting to the Eastern Conference Final could feel this unexpectedly sweet???”, then “hey, just one winning period against the Rangers will make us happy,” then “this playoff thing can actually be fun, even if we don’t win,” and then “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” Because seriously, guys, the Devils won the Eastern Conference Final. The Devils are the Eastern Conference Champions. They beat the Flyers and the Rangers to do that. This is, without question, fabulous.
So who knows what happens now. Maybe they’ll salvage some pride and force a Game 5. Then maybe the ridiculous will happen and they’ll force a Game 6. Then maybe the insane will happen and they’ll force a Game 7. Then maybe the divinely outrageously magnificent will happen and they’ll win the Cup. Most likely, though, the Kings will win comfortably tonight, and the Devils will end up having been swept hard out of the Cup Final. It’s all cool, because you know what? We will not look back on 2011-2012 with even the slightest shred of anger, bitterness, sadness, or “what might have been”. This season was TRULY AWESOME.