Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sometimes You Just Want To Hit Your Head

Friends, enemies, acquaintances, I am no stranger to heartbreak. Both in real life and as a sports fan I have taken my fair share of difficult metaphorical stomach punches -- though fortunately far more in the sports department. Over the years just about all of my teams have had at least one utterly frustrating, deflating brutal defeat that has thrown me into emotional disrepair. To wit:

The Mets -- This team is a special breed with numerous tough losses to swallow since I started paying diligent attention, but the Kenny Rogers Ball Four in Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS, Armando Benitez's inability to strike out Paul O'Neill in Game 1 of the 2000 World Series, the final games of the 2007 and 2008 regular seasons and Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS all bring a special kind of pain with them.

The Giants -- At long last in February 2008, I was rewarded with the greatest upset in football history, but prior to that, a tough beating in Super Bowl XXXV, an almost absurd Trey Junkin-capped collapse in the 2002 postseason against San Francisco, Jay Feely's three missed field goals in Seattle in 2005 and the blown 21-point lead in 10 minutes at Tennessee in 2006 had left me wondering if glory would ever come.

The Devils -- Even a team with 16 consecutive playoff appearances and three Stanley Cups has had its share of tough setbacks, with Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals and Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup Final chief among them. Oh yeah, and this gut punch which I still wince while watching.

The Knicks -- The entire decade of the 2000s. Isiah Thomas.

Northwestern -- This season alone has been a bitter pill with a blown 21-point lead to Penn State just last week to go with collapses at home against No. 7 Michigan State and a broken, battered Purdue team. But just for good measure, let's throw Michigan State's 35-point comeback in 2006, last year's Outback Bowl and the 2008 Alamo Bowl in there for good measure. And don't forget that Northwestern is the only school in the BCS conferences to never make the NCAA Tournament.

Hell, even Southampton FC, with its Inigo Idiakez botched PK against Derby County in 2007's flirtation with Premier League Promotion, and Geelong FC, with this year's painful Qualifying Final loss to St. Kilda and the departing of Gary Ablett have gotten in on the act.

But given all of that pain, what happened to the New Jersey Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk last night was something else entirely.

No, I'm not going to be silly enough to suggest that a regular season shootout loss in November in a season quite possibly already down the tubes was enough to top this prodigious list. But it just may be the most embarrassing loss I've ever seen one of my teams suffer.

Yes, you watched that correctly. Ilya Kovalchuk, with the game on the line in the fourth round of a shootout against the equally disappointing Buffalo Sabres, simply had the puck hop over his stick and drift away, costing New Jersey another potential point in the standings. For a team that, with its new $102 million man in tow and several other major offseason additions to boot (Jason Arnott, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov), was expected by many not just to be competitive, but to take aim at a Stanley Cup this moment has represented everything that has gone wrong in about three seconds of non-action.

This muffed shootout attempt has epitomized a tremendously disappointing year in downright comical fashion. Now, of course, the season is not over. In fact, it's not even a quarter of the way over. But the Devils, tied with Edmonton and the NY Islanders for the lowest mark in the League have quite a bit of work to do to make their way back in the playoff discussion. And they're doing so without their best all around player for three months.

Now, to say this is not what I had expected is a dramatic understatement, and as I watched last night in the office, I simply dropped my head into my hands in a way I hadn't done since Carlos Beltran let strike three for Adam Wainright go by without a swing in 2006, but there is plenty of time for New Jersey to make a move and salvage a playoff run. After all, in the NHL all you need to do is make the postseason. Once there all bets are off. But the disenchanting thing is not that the Devils are in this almost inexplicable funk, but that they show very few signs of actually breaking out of it.

I won't lose hope yet, but to put it mildly, reasons for excitement are starting to fade away as the season progresses. The only thing that truly reassures me is that with the Devils' 15 games behind them, they still have 66 left to play. And that looks like an awfully large number at first glance. For now, I'll cling to that.

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