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Elimination by Senators marks ends of an era for Devils

Next season is expected to bring major changes - another new coach, a new arena in Newark and probably some different players.

While the Devils excelled in the regular season and many felt they had a chance to win a fourth Stanley Cup since 1995, the postseason was a disappointment. After struggling to beat Tampa Bay in six games in the opening round, second-seeded New Jersey was sent packing by the Senators in five games.

"Once you get a taste of the Stanley Cup, that's probably the most disheartening thing that you're not going to get the opportunity to raise it," said centre Scott Gomez, who led the Devils with four goals and 10 assists in the postseason. "You feel it belongs to you.

"That's what we play for. We fell short, there's no doubt about it."

Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello will have to bear part of the blame. It was his decision to fire Claude Julien and to take over as coach with three games left in the regular season and the Devils in first place in the Atlantic Division.

His rationale was the Devils weren't ready for the playoffs. The switch didn't change that.

"I made the decision based on the facts that I had and I would make the same decision under the same set of circumstances," said Lamoriello, who also took over as coach during the 2005-'06 campaign. "I do not look back on the decision with any regret, nor would I do it over again based on the result."

What Lamoriello always has done is look forward, and he has plenty of decisions to make before the Devils open next season at the new Prudential Center in downtown Newark. They had spent the previous 25 years at the Continental Airlines Arena.

His most pressing job is finding a coach since Lamoriello once again isn't interested in returning on a full-time basis.

That could be tough, though. Who wants to become the Devils' seventh coach in as many years? Assistant John MacLean was considered last season, and remains a legitimate candidate again.

During the playoffs, Lamoriello said this team was special. Whether he can keep it together is a question mark, especially with the Devils' annual problems with the salary cap.

The Devils have two major unrestricted free agents - Gomez and defenceman Brian Rafalski, both members of the 2000 and '03 Cup champions.

Gomez refused to discuss his future, but it seems he is interested in playing for a team that'll allow him to go against the opposition's top lines.

"What can you say, I've grown up here," Gomez, 27, said. "It's not only the hockey, it's the area.

"New Jersey - it's an awesome place. That's the dirty part of the business and that's for another time."

Rafalski, who will be 34 in September, would seem more likely to return.

Lamoriello also has to review a season during which Devils won a franchise-record 49 regular-season games and goaltender Martin Brodeur set a single-season mark with 48 wins.

Young forwards Zach Parise (31 goals) and Travis Zajak (42 points) excelled, as did new defenceman Andy Greene and Johnny Oduya. Jay Pandolfo was nominated as the league's top defensive forward. Patrik Elias celebrated his captaincy with a team-best 69 points.

There were negatives, especially in the playoffs. Brodeur was sub-par, allowing way too many soft goals. Elias scored once in the postseason, and the checking line of John Madden, Pandolfo and Sergei Brylin didn't shut down anyone.

Brodeur cautioned against thinking the Devils, who have been to the playoffs 10 straight years and 16 of 17, are on the decline. He noted that New Jersey came up empty between their first Cup in 1995 and the second in 2000.

"We've been hitting walls, but we're going in the right direction," said Brodeur, who turned 35 on Sunday.

Leaving the ice Saturday night after being eliminated, Brodeur could not help but look up to the rafters at the Continental Airlines Arena and see the three Stanley Cup banners, the division title banners and the retired sweaters of players like Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko.

"There are not too many teams in the NHL within the last 15 years that have so many banners," Brodeur said. "When you look up, I think you take a lot of pride in what we accomplished in this building.

"We're really, really, really looking forward to having a new chapter in the new building."


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