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|The Devils didn't need to fall apart against the Kings just because of Steve Bernier's five-minute penalty for boarding Rob Scuderi.|
CHICAGO -- The chatter began and tempers raged after each of the first three Los Angeles Kings goals Monday night. As we tend to do in sports, we had to blame someone, and this was an easy call.
Well before the Kings spilled onto the ice as owners of their first-ever Stanley Cup, New Jersey Devils forward Steve Bernier had taken his place among the famous goats in sports history.
Just over 10 minutes into the first period, Bernier was trailing well behind the action when he slammed Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi into the boards without making any play on the puck. Bernier, a fourth-line forward, was clearly deserving of a boarding major (five minutes) and game misconduct (immediate ejection), as Scuderi was left bloodied from the hit.
During the subsequent power play, the Kings scored three goals -- the first two coming within two minutes of the penalty -- seizing permanent control of the game and series. Devils fans hardly had to take to Twitter and message boards with their anger. It was obvious who would take the fall when this was over.
"He's going to have to live with that," New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur said of Bernier. "And I don't think that's a fair thing."
Was Bernier's penalty costly? Absolutely. Does he deserve to be blamed for losing a series his team trailed 3-0 at one point after dropping the first two at home? Of course not. And maybe, one day, he will even serve as the same type of cautionary tale Steve Bartman has in Chicago: that it's never one person's fault when a team fails, even on the biggest of stages.
But the conflicting reality to that tale is that the bigger the game, the bigger the goat, regardless of how unreasonable it may be. In Chicago, nine years after our biggest championship-level flop, our biggest goat is barely mentioned anymore. It took a while, but eventually even the most ardent of haters saw the flaw in all of it.
Though he interfered with a fly ball that could have been the second out of the eighth inning in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, it was no more Bartman's fault that the Cubs ended up losing to the Florida Marlins than it was that black cat's fault for walking behind the Cubs' on-deck circle at Shea Stadium in early September of 1969. The Cubs gave up eight runs after leading 3-0 in that eighth inning and also surrendered a 5-3 lead and lost 9-6 in Game 7 the following night.
Likewise, the Red Sox were up 3-0 in Game 7 before losing to the Mets in the '86 World Series, but it was, of course, Bill Buckner's error in the 10th inning of Game 6 -- which followed three straight Mets singles and a wild pitch with two outs -- that turned the first baseman into one of sports' all-time scapegoats.
And while you can Google "Wide Right" and find a Scott Norwood entry for his missed 47-yard field goal as his Buffalo Bills trailed the New York Giants 20-19 in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XXV, little attention is ever paid to the fact that, during the season, Norwood was just 1-for-5 on field goals of 40 yards or more attempted on grass. Or that his teammates forgave him, offering examples of missed tackles and dropped passes earlier in the game that could have made the difference. Many outside New York, in fact, remember Norwood's attempt as a chip shot, rather than the difficult kick under extraordinary conditions that it was.
And it's just as likely that, years from now, many will remember Bernier's penalty but forget how the Devils' penalty kill fell apart, as did their composure, with Ryan Carter and David Clarkson taking 10-minute misconducts in the second period.
And the '69 Cubs? They had lost four straight going into the Cat/Mets series and still led New York by half a game after losing two more in that short set at Shea. But the Cubs' losing streak extended to eight games, while the Mets, having won 10 straight, surged ahead in the standings and never trailed again.
We understand this in Chicago now, and many players, team executives and politicians have taken it upon themselves to scoff at and apologize for the silliness. Still, Bartman has barely been seen or heard from publicly since 2003. And the poor cat has its own Wikipedia entry.
Bartman, who was not an overzealous drunken fan but one of several who reached for the ball as a reflex, had to be escorted by security out of Wrigley Field and rightfully has feared for his safety in the years after, choosing to stay silent.
Bernier had the opportunity and the responsibility as a professional athlete to explain his actions and did so immediately after Monday's game.
"I thought he was going to keep with the puck on his forehand and he turned back," he said of Scuderi. "I feel very bad, but it's a fast game out there and it ends up being a bad play ... It's very hard, for sure. I wish I could take that play back, but I [can't]."
Bernier is neither a high-priced superstar nor a goon; he is a journeyman earning the NHL minimum, a free agent who was playing in the AHL before signing with the Devils in January. He will undoubtedly have to pay the price for his mistake when it comes to another shot at free agency this summer. But in history?
Even Bernier himself acknowledged his hit will be hard to forget. "Hopefully something positive will [happen], but this game will stay with me for a long time."