Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Devils Made Me Buy This Jersey!

Rest in peace, Dame Elizabeth Taylor. You lived about 20 years after the tabloids began trumpeting your "brave last days." As much difficulty and nonsense as you went through, you maintained your class all the way to the end. You so often took the opportunity to stand for something larger than yourself. You stood by the people you loved, even when most of us wondered whether they deserved it -- from Richard Burton to Larry King to Michael Jackson. And you thrilled millions for 60 years, from National Velvet to These Old Broads.

You were the Catherine Zeta-Jones of your day. Yes, that was a compliment.

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Remember Flip Wilson? Clerow Wilson Jr. was from Jersey City, and was one of the premier standup comics of the 1960s. In 1970, NBC rewarded him for this by giving him his own variety show, The Flip Wilson Show, which ran until 1974. I'm just old enough to remember it.

Occasionally, he would mention his pastor, the Reverend Leroy. "You see, I belong to The Church of What's Happening Now." And Rev. Leroy would mention his wife's spending habits. Then he would do the voice, a voice he also used for other characters, including Geraldine Jones -- dressing in drag. He'd say, "I didn't want to buy this dress. THE DEVIL made me buy this dress!"

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As you're aware, I am a fan of a certain hockey team, called the New Jersey Devils. They were named for the mythical Jersey Devil, a hideous creature that terrorizes the Pine Barrens of South Jersey -- which, if you know the Garden State's geography, is actually Philadelphia territory rather than in the New York City sphere of influence. So it's a dumb name, above and beyond the religious, anti-Christian implications. So I wish the team had another name.

I have a jersey of that team, with my name on the back. (I figure, players come and go, especially with general manager Lou Lamoriello trading good players to save money, the cheap bald twat; but he can never trade me.) Unfortunately, when I took it to a local sporting goods store to put the lettering and numbering on it, they screwed up, and it looks fake. This was not what I had hoped for.

I wanted to buy a real-looking jersey. I didn't want to buy THAT jersey. The Devils made me buy that jersey!

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This season, the Devils got off to one of the worst starts in National Hockey League history. Heading into the Christmas season (or, as they call it in English soccer, the festive period), they were dead last in team points, 30th out of 30. They had lots of injuries (including their top offensive player, Zach Parise, who is finally on his way back), and legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur, who's about to turn 39, was suddenly looking old.

Then Lou Lam fired coach John MacLean, once one of the team's greatest players and still its all-time leader in goals (347). He brought back Jacques Lemaire, a Hall of Fame player for the Montreal Canadiens who coached the Devils to their first Stanley Cup, in 1995.

Despite his age, 65, Lemaire put his faith in kids, like right wing Nick Palmieri (21), left wing Matthias Tedenby (also 21) and defensemen Mark Fayne (23), Mark Fraser (24). He's also found trustworthy veterans in left wing (and fellow 1995 Devils hero) Brian Rolston (38), backup goalie Johan "the Moose" Hedberg (37), defensemen Henrik Tallinder (32) and Anton Volchenko (29), and the revitalized Patrik Elias (34 and playing like a Captain again) and Ilya Kovalchuk (27 and turning out to be worth the huge contract the Devils shoved at him).

It seemed to work. The Devils won 23 games, and got at least a point in 25, in a 28-game stretch. They had their fans, including me, thinking that a miracle run to the Playoffs might just reach completion.

But now they've lost 3 out of their last 4, all in regulation. This includes last night, against the Boston Bruins in Cheatertown.

The Devils are now 9 points out of the 8th and final seed for the Eastern Conference Playoffs, with 9 games to play. It looks like they're finished.

It was fun while it lasted, and it's given fans hope that the future will be a lot better than the immediate past. Especially since the defense has been helped: Andy Greene has finally come out of his shell, and Colin White, who we were counting on to be the tough-guy successor to legendary Captain Scott Stevens, is making far fewer mistakes.

Still, the replacement for Stevens was not found before he was needed. And while Brodeur has been less shaky, his successor does not appear to be on the way, either. Hedberg will be 38 on May 5, Brodeur 39 the next day.

Albany Devils starter Mike McKenna has been good at the hockey equivalent of Triple-A ball, but he's about to turn 28: If he was going to be a great NHL goalie, he would have reached the majors by now. The days when a guy can be stuck in the minors until he's that age are over: Johnny Bower, who starred for the minor-league Cleveland Barons in the 1950s, but didn't make his NHL debut until he was 29 and didn't stick as an NHL starter until he was 34 -- and then backstopped the Toronto Maple Leafs to their last 4 Stanley Cups, the last coming when he was 42 -- is not likely to be repeated in this day and age. (Bower is still alive, age 86.) McKenna's backup is Jeff Frazee, about to be 24, but he shows no statistical sign of being NHL-ready.

If the Devils can squeeze one more good season out of Marty, the 2011-12 season could be something special, especially if Lemaire, as he's suggested he might do, sticks around. But I'll feel a lot better if the next good Devils goalie is ready to step into Marty's skates. He doesn't have to be as great as Marty was from 1994 to 2010. I'll settle for regularly being as good as Sean Burke was in 1988, or Chris Terreri in 1992.

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