After stumbling in the final run-in for the past two seasons, there was some mumbling around Cardiff whether they were a team of chokers, and whether Lord had the coaching wherewithal to finally end Cardiff’s 20 year league drought this season. Generally fans were behind him and the owners, there were the few vocal critics on The Inferno who are ready to sack an entire team if they misplace a pass, but even so, this felt like a now or never season. The new owners had always said they had a three year plan, and if this season came together, that would look like a profound commitment, but if not then maybe it was wishful thinking.
Summer recruitment went well, with previous line partners Ulmer and Bentivoglio adding to the likely scoring, Mark Louis and Scott Hotham strengthening defence, Matt Myers returning to provide much needed face off and screening talent, David Brine establishing depth to a likely fourth line, and late into the season, some much needed toughness in the form of bona fide NHL enforcer Patrick Bordeleau. Of the new signings, Patrick Asselin who hadn’t played for a year was maybe the one doubt. Combined with the retention of the key talent from last year, this looked like a team that had definite lines, scoring throughout and a number of players who knew what it was like to win, and thus combat the chokers tag. The previous season had seen an over-reliance on Martin to score, and a lack of settled lines. This team addressed those issues and had depth throughout, with Lord able to bench or play himself as the situation demanded.
The season got off to a stuttering, but efficient start. Although they managed to get the requisite wins and get to the top of the table, the Devils rarely impressed for a full game. In cup games the Devils were poor, losing three in a row in October, and the team seemed unsure of their roles and lacking in confidence. Asselin proved to be an early positive sign in this period, with quick hands, reliable goal scoring stats and an eye for an effective pass. He was being the new Joey Martin.
November saw the Devils put together a series of wins, and their away performance in particular began to foretell the determination and professionalism of the team that would go on to win the league. This month ended with a crucial win against the Steelers, in which they were probably the better team, but their own team psychology proved their undoing. As the Devils approached Christmas at the top of the league, there were still signs that they weren’t convincing in this role. The game against the Panthers brought all of those doubts into painful focus. Elements that many had commented upon: a lack of physicality (particularly from Bordeleau), a tendency to over-embellish, easy puck giveaways by advancing D-men, Bowns’s susceptibility to long shots, all combined in a horror show and an 8-0 thrashing.
This defeat may have been a crucial moment in the season however. Rather like the kid who gets top of the class in a poor school without trying, suddenly finding themselves scoring badly on an independent test, it made the team address the issues they had. They could no longer get away with it if they were to survive that final push at the end of the season. Another candidate for a factor in determining the outcome of the season was the pre-game video the very next night against the Steelers. Credit goes to Paul Sullivan for getting the tone just right here, putting the defeat in context and getting the fans behind the team. This could have gone badly, but as it was another victory over the Steelers really provided the immediate redemption the Devils required.
The Devils came out of the Christmas period on top, but there were still some doubts as to their character. One aspect that seemed to be affecting them was the performance of Bowns in the first half of the season. Whilst not disastrous this had not been on a par with last season, and in a few games this had generated a wave of anxiety in the team. This was reinforced with three consecutive home defeats in January. Then at the start of February Bowns got his first shut out (following a MOM the week before) in a revenge 5-0 defeat of the Panthers, and from here the team seemed to click. Lines settled, scoring distributed throughout the team, a streak of toughness came to the fore, but most importantly self-belief now seemed to be embroidered across their jerseys. From here, they looked like champions elect.
With the Steelers stuttering, the double header away to Belfast began to look like a title decider in impact if not actual maths. And if any game encapsulated the Devils season it was the 4-3 victory over the Giants in the first game. The Devils were completely absent for the first two periods, trailing 3-0 down at the second break. In the crowd doubts began to surface – was this the start of a collapse like last year in the final run-in? And then there was that period, with the Devils a side transformed from the one we’d seen in the first 40 minutes. The Giants collapsed and the Devils won 4-3, with the sense of a cup victory and from here on, the title seemed an inevitability.
An assured performance against the Steelers in the Challenge Cup final brought the first silverware. At the start of the season I had mooted that I would be happy to exit the cup, as the final in the previous two years had marked a wobble in the final league run in. But the opposite was true this season, and it only gave rise to an extra dose of belief over the last few weeks. Inevitably the opportunity to win came at Sheffield. Having denied the first chance the previous week, the Steelers were tired after winning the previous night in Belfast, and ultimately provided little by way of opposition, after Richie had scored within the opening minute.
The conference trophy was secured the following weekend against Belfast, which left only the play-off trophy to secure an historic grand slam. Here, having led 3-1 the Devils were engaged in a monumental struggle, the Steelers driven by the dual motivation of needing to win something to rescue their season and desire to prevent the Devils realising the grand slam. Eventually in the second period of OT, they scored the OT winner. And while it hurt, particularly given the tactics and behaviour of Sheffield, that soon faded.
It’s a strange thing to support a team that starts winning after a long wait, to actually get what you desire after prolonged anticipation. There is a sense of anti-climax to it. Nothing changes, the world doesn’t become a better place, most of your work colleagues the next day don’t know of care. Your money concerns are not erased, health problems magically cured. Not long after the victory fans started talking about next year, about winning more. But sports fans need to learn to be more buddhist. Enjoy this moment for what it is.
Anyway, about next year…