NEWARK, N.J. - The New Jersey Devils found themselves in an eerily dark Prudential Center Monday morning, clearing out their lockers and heading home, a situation that the franchise had not experienced since 1996.
The Devils indeed missed the post-season in '96, just one year after the first of three Stanley Cup championships. Every year since, there's been extra hockey in Jersey.
Not this year.
"It really stinks, seeing the season end early like this," centre Travis Zajac said. "It's not what you play for. It's not what we're used to."
The Devils closed on Sunday with a 3-2 home win over Boston.
"The last three times our season ended with a victory, we were holding the Stanley Cup," said veteran goaltender Martin Brodeur, who was not in net on Sunday. "So, this is a little different for me."
Since they last missed the post-season, the Devils—a staple atop the Eastern Conference for parts of three decades—have made three Stanley Cup finals, wining two. Brodeur was a member of all three of those teams, as was forward Patrik Elias.
"Everything ends in life," Elias said. "You want to be playing at this time of year. It's disappointing. There's an empty feeling."
Defenceman Colin White was a rookie in 2000, when the Devils defeated the Dallas Stars to win their second title. Winning has always been a given to White with this franchise.
"This is clearly something we haven't dealt with in a while here," White said. "It's as bad as you can dream of, missing the playoffs. I never did my entire life. It's going to be a long summer, thinking about what we let slip by. I've had friends in the league who had to go through this and they always said how bad it was. Well, you don't know until you do it. It's not fun at all. It's a new season, a new start, the most exciting time of the year, and we're not a part of it. You always want to be a part of it."
The Devils took their end-of-season physicals, had meetings with team officials and then headed off on their separate ways. Some, like Elias, will play in the upcoming World Championships. Others, like Brodeur, will just go home and reflect.
"You can't say that we didn't try," Brodeur said. "But this tells you how important the whole year is. You can't have a bad start like we had, and think you'll have time and win later. It's why we all play 82 games. We had to pick it up earlier than we did."
The Devils started off miserably and owned the NHL's worst record in December, posting a 10-29-2 record under first-year coach John MacLean. The organization then fired MacLean and brought back veteran coach Jacques Lemaire, who had retired at the end of last season. Lemaire won the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 1995.
The coaching change brought some life to the Devils, who absolutely caught fire and posted an astonishing 23-3-2 record over the next 28 games to get back to within six points of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.
However, the schedule tightened down the stretch, and the Devils lost some steam. They went 5-7-1 over the last 13 games.
"It just got tough mentally," Brodeur said. "We didn't have the same drive. We said the right things, but you could see that we weren't the same team like we were when we were winning almost every game. It was tough to go through. We played the last two weeks, even though we knew we were out of it. We just wanted to play well."
And now begins the search for a new coach for general manager Lou Lamoriello. That's because Lemaire, on Sunday, once again retired ... this time for good.
Of course, it's old hat for Lamoriello. Since 2005, in fact, there have been nine coaches behind the Devils' bench, including two stints for Lemaire and Lamoriello each.
"I think every player would like to see some sort of consistency in that area," said forward Zach Parise, who is a restricted free agent, but expressed his interest in staying with New Jersey. "It hasn't worked out the way we thought it would. I definitely would like to see some sort of constant with our coaching, because we're starting up something new almost every year."
The Devils all know one thing: The new coach won't be Lemaire.
"I never had a coach like him in my 15 years in this league," forward Dainus Zubrus said. "Whatever he was doing and preaching, obviously, worked. It's not going to be easy to find someone like that."
Lemaire also kick-started forward Ilya Kovalchuk in the season's second half. Kovalchuk, who signed a 15-year deal in the off-season, was headed toward a miserable season when Lemaire took over. He finished with 31 goals and 29 assists.
"It's important to realize how to play to be successful," Elias said. "You can see what a difference Jacques made with these players. Every coach has his own impact, but I don't know if there's one who can make everyone feel comfortable like Jacques did."
The Devils believe they can take some solace out of the second-half surge, and the performances of young players like Jacob Josefson, Mattias Tedenby and Nick Palmieri.
"When you think of the history of this organization, it's not known for bringing in young guys and giving them a chance to play," said Palmieri, 21, who scored nine goals in 42 games, called up from Albany of the AHL soon after Lemaire returned. "We had a lot of young guys playing regularly. It was the best way to learn. I know nothing is etched in stone, but this gives me a leg up on next year."
Palmieri also had eight assists, and was a plus-9.
"You try to take the positives," Elias said. "The way we played in the second half, the way the young guys got a chance to play. It's all good for the organization moving forward."
The Devils finished 4-2 in April.
"What we did in the second half, I think as a fan, as a player, you have to be really pleased," said Brodeur, who has one year remaining on his contract. "There are positive things that can get translated to next year. I know I'm excited. If you asked me the same thing in December, I would have probably not said the same thing."
Either way, the Devils' off-season is beginning earlier than anticipated.
"It's going to be very annoying watching other teams still playing," Zubrus said. "We made it interesting for a bit, but we're not playing now."