NEWARK, N.J. - This spring is very different for the New Jersey Devils. For the first time since 1996 they're not going to the playoffs.
The Devils' post-season streak ended at 13 years Saturday night when they lost 3-1 to the Montreal Canadiens. The run was the league's second longest to Detroit, which recently extended its post-season streak to 20.
For the past week, the end of the Devils' run was just a matter of time. A 1-4-1 slide had made the outcome inevitable, along with miserable start that left New Jersey 27 points out of playoffs spot in early January. A frantic 23-3-2 burst drew the Devils within six points of a playoff spot a couple of weeks ago.
"You can't be proud because our goal is to make the playoffs regardless of how you get in," said goaltender Martin Brodeur, a member of the '96 team that missed the playoffs a year after winning the Stanley Cup.
"This is the first goal that you need to achieve in the regular season and we haven't done that," the 38-year-old added. "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."
There are a lot of reasons the Devils failed. They never gelled under rookie coach John MacLean and they never recovered from losing left wing Zach Parise—83 goals over the previous two seasons—for four months with a knee injury.
So now the playoffs go forward without a team that has won three Stanley Cups since 1995 and was the two-time defending champion in the Atlantic Division.
Canadiens centre Scott Gomez played his first seven seasons in New Jersey and was a member of two of their Cup winning teams. He shook his head in disbelief when asked about the Devils' absence from the post-season.
"It almost doesn't go together," Gomez said. "The last time, was '95 or '96. I can't remember. It just shows you how important the start of the season is.
"They got in a hole, lost Zach, but give them credit for what they did. For a while it looked like it would be a great story," Gomez added. "Look at the lineup—they'll be around. They'll be back. But it's weird now thinking they won't be in the playoffs."
Still, there are positives for New Jersey.
Jacques Lemaire did a fabulous job coming out of retirement and righting the team after replacing MacLean in December. The question now is whether the 65-year-old coach will return next season.
A number of young players gained experience. Forwards Nick Palmieri, Mattias Tedenby, Jacob Josefson, Vladimir Zharkov and defenceman Mark Fayne were all regulars in the season's second half.
"We put so much into the second half and we came up short," said left wing Ilya Kovalchuk, who more than lived up to his $100 million contract in the second half of the season. "But it's going to make our team better next year."
Brodeur said the Devils easily could have played out the string in the second half after falling into last place in the Eastern Conference.
"It could have a lot more miserable way to play the last 40 games of the season. We all worked hard and listened to what our coach had to say. We went out there and did it," he said. "It's unfortunate we couldn't continue as much as people believed we could have. It took a lot of energy from everybody to do it. Our future will be bright, there's no doubt about that."