Drew Doughty spent the last 10 seconds of the 2011-2012 NHL season standing around and doing nothing. As the Devils made a token effort along the boards in the Kings zone, and as the Kings made a similarly token effort to chip the puck out, Doughty stood on the edge of the crease, never leaving his goalie's side. With two seconds left, Doughty tossed his stick to the ground and whipped his gloves off. He wanted to be ready. When the final horn sounded (and the Kings booth laid on that horn for 21 sweet seconds), Doughty was in position. The celebration would be at his end—Jonathan Quick's end. Jonathan Quick's spring.
There is, I think, no happier moment in sports than the final hockey celebration of the year. Players pouring off the bench, frantically shedding equipment as they make a beeline for their goaltender. The formal stuff will come later—the awards, the you-did-it speech from the coach, and the Cup, god yes, the Cup. At that moment there is nothing but dopamine.
I once asked Jay Pandolfo, who won a Cup on home ice with some of these same Devils nine years ago, to express what goes through a player's mind after the final buzzer.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA," he said. "With seventeen 'A's. You don't think. You just scream."
If that is the happiest moment in sports, I also know the saddest. Steve Bernier, sitting in a deserted visitors' locker room. There is no TV. He can only hear the Staples Center crowd. Seconds after he sits down, the crowd roars. Minutes later, the crowd roars again. Minutes later, the crowd roars again.
Bernier's boarding major and game misconduct put the Devils a man down for five minutes, and ended his season, and effectively ended New Jersey's season with two-plus periods left to go. A two-plus period death march then, with Quick a wall and Kovalchuk and Parise invisible men. Bernier—making minimum wage, on his fifth team in seven years, a free agent with a pregnant wife—will be blamed, but he won't be blamed. He will become shorthand for this game and series loss, in the way that we always resort to simplistic portioning of accountability when the bill comes due. On the scrap paper of memory, goathood can't be divided up.
It's useless to blame, because blame has no end. Bernier's penalty was bad, but the Devils' penalty killing was worse. Marty Brodeur let in a softie every game or two. The offense was never able to progress past dump, chase and pray. Instead—here's a novel idea—let us praise. The Los Angeles Kings were far and away the best team in hockey. There was nothing improbable about this playoff run. You don't fluke your way to 16-4. Credit goes to Dave Taylor for laying the groundwork, and Dean Lombardi for recognizing that the window doesn't stay open for long. Darryl Sutter brought no great tactical revolution when he joined the team in December, but did bring the kick in the ass that talented-yet-comfortable hockey players need every once in a while. These are the real Kings, not Terry Murray's band of underachieving misfits. In the playoffs, all the everyday players except Rob Scuderi scored at least once. A full team effort, around and in front of a world class goaltender. That is how you win a Stanley Cup, and that is the only way you win a Stanley Cup.
It seems silly to say history will not fully appreciate Jonathan Quick, the man who won the Conn Smythe and in a just world would take home a Vezina as well. But while Quick's numbers are impressive, they're not as impressive as they could be—only because he was near-unbeatable. In every playoff round, Quick faced declining numbers of shots on goal as the series went on. Opposing players gave up on shooting for the net, because it wasn't working; Quick wouldn't let the puck through. Frustrated, they sought the perfect shot—and ended up missing the net altogether. He was solidly in their heads. Once a goalie's won that battle, he's won the war.
A single question remains. Was this Quick's best, or only Quick's start? The playoff narrative is often reduced to that of a goalie who inexplicably goes beast mode for two months. It was an American backstop last year, too, who donned the Superman "S" chest pad. This year the Bruins lost to the team who lost to the team who lost to the team who lost to the Cup champs, and Tim Thomas is going to spend a year hitchhiking to Galt's Gulch or whatever. Jonathan Quick is 26 years old, on the cusp of a goalie's traditional prime. This was Quick's spring. The Kings and U.S. Hockey and all of us want to know: is this Quick's decade?