The Devils' fate was officially sealed Thursday night.
It was unofficially sealed when Olli Jokinen's ill-fated backhand shot on Brian Boucher in the shootout was stopped, combined with Jamie Langenbrunner burying an empty-net shot with two seconds left in the Devils' season finale.
If you asked a person involved with the NHL back in December if the Devils would be eliminated in the first round for the third straight season, the answer would have been a resounding "No."
Unfortunately, the Devils seemed to lose a step as the season continued, and seemed to lose several more when the Stanley Cup Playoffs began, falling rather easily to the Philadelphia Flyers in five games.
The offense seemed to take the biggest nosedive of all. In the final three games against Philadelphia, New Jersey scored a total of three goals, all of which were on the power play.
In Game 5, which would wind up being the Devils' final game, they went out with a whimper, shut out by Brian Boucher, who outplayed world-class Martin Brodeur the whole series.
"Certainly very disappointed with the outcome," Devils GM Lou Lamoriello told the media and the Devils official website during a conference call on Friday. "We weren't intelligent at certain times, and did not take advantages of opportunities when they were given."
This loss might have been the least painful of the past three, but the most frustrating considering it's becoming a quite common occurrence.
The Devils fell in five games to their bitter rivals, the New York Rangers, in five games back in the 2008 playoffs.
Just last year, the Devils had a 3-2 lead in Game 7 at home against the Carolina Hurricanes with a minute-and-a-half left. They'd go on to lose 4-3 in regulation.
Part of this latest series loss can be attributed to the Devils' woes against the Flyers in the regular season, going 1-4-1 against them in six meetings. The Devils had similar struggles against the Rangers in 2008, going 1-4-3 against them in the regular season.
"They were the better team, unfortunately, during the season, too, against us," Lamoriello said of the Flyers during the same conference call. "We have to look at that."
Along with the struggles against division-rival Philadelphia, the Devils will certainly look at why they haven't been able to eclipse the first round since 2007.
While foundation-shaking changes should not be anticipated, the make-up of the team will certainly look different. The Devils will make every effort to re-sign star winger Ilya Kovalchuk, but will probably not be able to realistically re-sign defenseman Paul Martin, if they are able to retain Kovalchuk.
Either way, the Devils will lose a big name, resulting in a hole needing to be filled via trade or from within.
Lots of questions for the Devils to answer.
Fortunately, there's a lot of time to answer those questions.
Unfortunately, that time is the last thing the Devils wanted.
"We got outworked," Zach Parise told the Devils' official site when he was asked about the Devils' Game 5 loss. "They played well and we didn't respond."
Getting outplayed happens.
Getting outworked is something that each player, coach, and especially Lou Lamoriello, needs to look at closely.
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