NEWARK, N.J. — The New Jersey Devils’ season isn’t going to be remembered for Martin Brodeur’s elbow injury, his NHL career record for wins by a goaltender, the team’s club-record 51 wins or its seventh Atlantic Division title in 12 years.
Instead the unforgettable moment will be the Devils’ Game 7 collapse.
New Jersey was 80 seconds away from eliminating the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round when they gave up two late goals in a span of 48 seconds and were stunned 4-3 to lose the series on Tuesday night.
“They are all tough, but there are certain times you go to the playoffs really believing in the team and thinking that you have what it takes to go on a long run,” captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. “Losing it that way hurts that much more. I think we really believed in this team, so it’s tough to swallow.”
The end to the season was almost impossible to believe.
Clinging to a 3-2 lead, the Devils could not get the puck out of their zone in the final two minutes and Jussi Jokinen tied the game with 80 seconds left off a great cross-ice feed from defenceman Joni Pitkanen.
It took the voices out of most in the crowd of 17,625. Less than minute later, Eric Staal stole their hearts, ripping a brilliant shot from the right circle past Brodeur with 31.7 seconds left in the clock.
It left the Devils players, executives and fans in a state of shock.
And that’s saying a lot. This is a franchise that lost the Eastern Conference final in double overtime to the eventual champion Rangers in 1994 on the now famous goal by Stephane Matteau.
They also lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals to Colorado in 2001.
“This has got to be the worst,” said Jay Pandolfo, who has played on two of the Devils’ three Stanley Cup championship teams. “We had the game won. It’s a Game 7. It’s going to hurt for a long time, I’ll tell you that.”
Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello was as disappointed as anyone.
“It just went so quickly, I don’t know if you could believe what you were seeing, although it was real,” Lamoriello said.
Lamoriello said that this was the first time in his career that a game has turned so dramatically against his team. However, he refused to point fingers or make excuses.
“The 09-10 season started today,” he said. “You just don’t dismiss or get our of your mind what just transpired. You look for reasons, not for excuses. It’s not something I believe in. You self-reflect and go from there.”
The Devils have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs two straight seasons and have not advanced past the conference semifinal since winning the Cup in 2003.
“We don’t want anything but the Cup, so no matter what our regular season is and no matter how far we go in the playoffs, the Cup is the only thing,” Lamoriello said. “As long as we can go into each season believing and feeling comfortable that the team we have has a chance of doing it we’re OK.”
“…As far as rethinking philosophically, I believe in our structure and believe in our core,” the longtime executive said. “We just have to get better.”
Looking back on the regular season, it was a surprisingly good one for New Jersey, which made the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season, the longest streak among Eastern Conference teams. It won a franchise-record 51 games despite losing Brodeur to elbow surgery for 50 games between November and late February.
When he returned, Brodeur excited the hockey world, breaking Patrick Roy’s league record for regular-season wins by a goaltender with his 552nd.
The season also saw young Zach Parise score a career-best 45 goals. Langenbrunner added a career-best 29 goals and third-year centre Travis Zajac had career bests in goals (20) and assists (42).
Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya emerged as top defencemen.
“When you win 51, you have to say, although you are never satisfied, getting home ice, it had to be successful,” Lamoriello said. “Then you go to the most important part of the year, which is the playoffs, and you know what transpired.”
Coach Brent Sutter has a year left on his contract and Lamoriello is expecting him back despite reports that he is homesick. Sutter hails from Red Deer.
There are bound to be changes in the off-season with nine key contributors headed for unrestricted free agency. The three biggest names are right-winger Brian Gionta (20 goals), checking centre John Madden (16 goals) and Oduya. Forwards Bobby Holik, Brendan Shanahan, Mike Rupp, defenceman Niclas Havelid and goaltenders Scott Clemmensen and Kevin Weekes are also eligible to test the market.
Zajac and defenceman Andy Greene are restricted free agents.