Talk about ending with a whimper.
The New Jersey Devils’ lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, which began with so much promise back in January, ended ignominiously on Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden with a 4-0 loss to the New York Rangers. Devils goalie Johan Hedberg made 17 saves as his teammates were outshot, 21-20, fell behind early (again) and never came close to coming back.
''We were not good,'' said Devils coach Pete DeBoer afterwards to the Associated Press. ''It was a bad situation that we did not handle well.
It was a lackluster effort in a futile season finale for the Devils, who started off by winning eight of their first 12 contests this abbreviated season, but were done in by a recent 10-game winless skid in which they simply couldn’t score goals.
They also lost their ability to win shootouts, after claiming a league-leading dozen contests in the extra session a year ago when they skated all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. A difference of 10 additional points, corresponding to New Jersey’s 10 overtime/shootout setbacks this year, would have placed the Devils comfortably in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings—although you can’t hinge your whole NHL season on a skills competition.
It didn’t get that far in what will be their final game until next fall.
The Devils showed very little fight after falling behind, except for perhaps Dainius Zubrus getting called for crosschecking in the third period, before exchanging words with Steve Eminger.
"This time of year—spring is here and the weather is getting nicer — when you’re still playing hockey, it’s a good time of the year. It’s fun to play this time of the year,” said Zubrus to nj.com. “You know how important all these games would’ve been.”
Would have been, but won't.
It was the second time in six days that the Devils came up short against their cross-river rivals, who ended the Devils slim playoff hopes with a 4-1 win on April 21 in Manhattan. Had the Rangers lost at Carolina on Thursday, the opportunity would have been there yesterday for the Devils to also deny the Rangers a postseason invitation in turn.
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan made sure that didn’t happen with his overtime goal in Raleigh, just four days after he tallied the game-winner just 34 seconds into what was a must-win game for the Devils. He also added an insurance goal on Sunday to give New York a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes that it wouldn’t relinquish.
The Rangers victory on Thursday made Sunday’s game meaningless for the Devils, who now have the entire offseason to lick their wounds.
The Devils played Saturday as though perhaps they didn’t want to be there. The Rangers, though, played as if they wanted to better their playoff position—which they ultimately did.
New York jumped up to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference by beating the Devils again, and will face the Washington Capitals in the first round instead of the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins. The Rangers edged Washington in seven games in the conference semifinals a year ago, before falling to the Devils in six games in the conference final.
The Devils, meanwhile, finished 19-19-10 overall after starting off 8-1-3. They will miss the postseason dance for the second time in three years, and just the third time since 1996. They also become the first Stanley Cup finalist since 2006 not to make the playoffs the next year.
To be fair, the Devils played well enough to win four of their last six games, except for the two Ranger contests. They bested Florida, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Montreal in that span—the last two in one-goal decisions.
However, they were outscored at MSG by an 8-1 aggregate and never seriously threatened to win either meeting with the Rangers.
The Devils will clean out their lockers at the Prudential Center in the next day or so, as the offseason begins with more questions than answers.
How much of an effort will New Jersey make to sign free agents David Clarkson and Patrik Elias, the latter a career Devil and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer? Will they get another scorer to supplement Ilya Kovalchuk, who missed 11 games with a shoulder injury, and scored just 11 goals in 36 games?
Who will be back on a battered Devils blue line that lost captain Bruce Salvador to a wrist injury down the stretch, and who might be able to make the jump from the American Hockey League to the NHL?
How much does Martin Brodeur, who was sidelined with back woes, have left in his tank entering the final year of his contract—and how will the Devils fare with the 81-year-old combination of Brodeur and Hedberg in net again next season?
Will the Devils return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2014?
Lastly, will there be any help coming from June’s NHL Entry Draft, which will be held in Newark—if not immediately for the parent team, than to possibly restock the franchise’s farm system?
Many mysteries, with no apparent solutions for an organization now 10 years removed from its last Stanley Cup title.
''Definitely this is not a good feeling a year after we went to the finals,'' said Devils forward Stephen Gionta to the AP after Saturday's loss. ''Not easy.''
Not easy at all.