On Saturday night, in a sold out home arena half-filled with enemy fans, the New Jersey Devils saw their slim hopes of a playoff berth come to an end.
For the first time since the 1995-96 season, New Jersey will not participate in the playoffs. Their run of 14 straight postseason appearances, the second longest in the league, ended after that 3-1 defeat. Elimination wasn't surprising - the team's recent 2-5-1 streak guaranteed their finish outside the top eight - but the feelings of frustration and failure weren't lost on the players.
"It's disappointing, no question about it," Patrik Elias told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record. "We worked so hard in the off-season to get yourself ready and training camp and 82 games - or less in our case now - to put yourself in the playoffs and have an opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup and when you don't do that it's disappointing and this is the first time for me and I guess there is a first time for everything, but I wish that wouldn't be the case this year."
"You can't be proud because our goal is to make the playoffs regardless of how you get in," Martin Brodeur told Gulitti. "This is the first goal that you need to achieve in the regular season and we (haven't) done that. So, right there it's a failure because you've got to go for that chance to compete for the Stanley Cup and the first step is the playoffs and we didn't make it, so it's a failure of a season. So, regardless of how we came back and made it interesting we're not going to play when the playoffs come and that's what we want and, at the end of the day, we needed a chance to compete for it."
New Jersey's valiant second-half effort fell just short of becoming a miracle run. The team held a 10-29-2 record during the first half of the season, putting them 27 points out of a playoff spot. John MacLean failed as a coach, Ilya Kovalchuk couldn't score goals and every player faltered at the wrong time. It led to MacLean's firing and the installation of Jacques Lemaire as interim head coach.
Lemaire brought the team back to basics. He said every player was out of game shape and lamented the team's inability to make simple plays. He put them through Hockey 101, re-teaching them basics. The return to simple hockey helped spark the Devils. They reeled off win after win, eventually compiling a 23-3-2 record in their next 28 games. Yet the hole proved too steep, and the magical run would end empty-handed.
"We knew it was going to come. It doesn't come as a shocker," Brodeur told Gulitti. "But we had a good run. We played really hard to get ourselves in position to compete for the last 10 games or 15 games or so and try to get into the playoffs. But it was just too much. We've got four more games and we're going to try to keep doing what we're doing. We're going to try to play hard and get some wins."
The Devils may be the best team left out of the postseason. They showed their true potential during the second half of the season, and many observers believe they would have been a force in the playoffs. But that's all speculation now that they've been eliminated.
General manager Lou Lamoriello must now take a thorough look at the team, an evaluation process he thinks will start soon.
"I'm just thinking about everything that has to be done," he told Gulitti. "I'm sure that over a period of time (he'll do a full-season evaluation). The season is not over yet here. There's nothing that can be done. There's certainly no excuses. We put ourselves in a position that was very difficult to overcome."
Lamoriello will face several questions and roster decisions over the next six months. While many will be minor, there will be a few big question marks that need answers. Those could look something like these:
1. Will Lemaire return as head coach?
2. How will Brodeur perform in the last year of his contract as a 40-year-old goalie?
3. How do you re-sign restricted free-agent Zach Parise?
4. Will the team once again look to shed cap space this off-season?
5. Does Lamoriello trust the rookies and young players enough to fill voids left by veteran departures, especially on the blue line?
It won't be an easy off-season by any means. The players, however, are focused on just finishing this disappointing season.
"I don't know what to say," Kovalchuk told Gulitti. "We're still going to play, you know? There's four games left. We're going to try to win the most games that we can."