For the first time since 1996, Devils miss playoffs

The choice -- an out-of-character one for New New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello -- brought about a renewed sense of optimism. A renewed sense of confidence. A renewed sense of pride.

Never before had Lamoriello named one of the organization’s former players as its head coach. But John MacLean, the player whose infamous overtime goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in 1988 vaulted the Devils to their first-ever playoff appearance in franchise history, Lamoriello decided, was ready. He’d served enough time coaching in the the minor leagues. It was time for MacLean to be promoted.

Lamoriello hoped that MacLean would be the one to finally bring stability and longevity behind the bench. The one who would be the Devils’ head coach for the next decade (Lamoriello had made 11 different coaching changes in the previous decade, twice filling the role himself). The one who would guide the team deep into the playoffs after three consecutive first-round exits.

On June 17, 2010, at his introductory press conference, MacLean was asked what type of hockey his team was going to play: The defensive-minded, trapping style that helped the team win three Stanley Cups? Or the offensive-minded, high-risk, high-reward style that many have become accustomed to seeing in the new NHL?

MacLean could’ve answered the question with either of those and been fine. Instead, he opted to go with a style that left everyone puzzled. “We’re going to play winning hockey,” MacLean said.

What exactly is “winning hockey,” you ask? And how do you execute it?

We’re not sure. And we’re not sure MacLean knew either.

As it turns out, that was the problem. During his 34-game tenure, the Devils (9-22-2) lacked an identity or a style to call their own as they plummeted into last place in the overall standings following their worst start since 1983-84.

The Devils ranked last in scoring. They were the worst 5-on-5 team in the NHL. Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur looked like he was finished. Sniper Ilya Kovalchuk -- he of the healthy scratch and shootout gaffe -- looked like a $100 million bust. Fellow sniper Zach Parise got injured and would miss nearly the entire season. In defenseman Henrik Tallinder’s words, their blueliners had “no idea what we were doing.” And when they got behind by a goal, they just imploded. There was no fight.

Optimism had turned into pessimism. Confidence waned. Pride was lacking. And losing -- not winning -- had become the norm.

And so, in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since president Bill Clinton was in office and the price of gas ranged from 78 cents to $1.60, Lamoriello finally decided to make a change, turning to last season’s head coach, Jacques Lemaire, to pull his team out from the depths of hockey hell.

Not many coaches would’ve taken such a daunting challenge. But Lemaire, who had to come out of retirement to do so, felt obligated.

Just eight games into his interim tenure, the Devils hit rock bottom. They had lost seven of them to fall to 10-29-2 at the halfway point. On Jan. 8, they were 27 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

It was over. Or so it seemed.

And then the Devils erupted for six goals in a 6-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 9. They scored five in a 5-2 win over that same Lightning team five days later. Progress.

At the time, the Devils didn’t realize it, but they were about to turn their season around in unparalleled fashion, and take their galvanized fanbase on a majestic two-month ride for the ages.

They capped off the month of January by going 6-1-1. Then came February. It began with two wins. Then an overtime loss. Which was followed by a season-high eight straight victories, including a 3-0 mark versus the Carolina Hurricanes, the team the Devils were trailing for the No. 8 seed at the time.

After a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Feb. 25, the Devils reeled off four straight victories to improve to 20-2-2 in their last 24 games. A 2-1 defeat at the hands of the lowly Ottawa Senators followed, but the Devils won three consecutive games after that.

On March 15, 2011, New Jersey, 23-3-2 in its last 28 games, had moved over the .500 mark for the first time all season (33-32-4). And all of a sudden, it found itself just six points behind the Buffalo Sabres, who had moved past the Hurricanes, for the eighth spot. The Devils were in 10th place with 13 games remaining. Lemaire had done the unthinkable.

He had instilled an unwavering sense of optimism, confidence and pride into a team that just two months prior possessed none of those qualities.

Kovalchuk was playing the best hockey of his career; More importantly, Lemaire had gotten him to buy into playing two-way hockey. After being hurt, a rejuvenated Brodeur had returned to form. Tallinder and the rest of the defensive corps were shutting down opposing offenses, closing off their own zone -- as well as the neutral zone -- like Devils’ teams of past lore. The Devils had become unflappable. Unstoppable. They had begun to play winning hockey.

Yet throughout their majestic two-month run, Lemaire always said his team was going to “dip” at some point. It just never happened. Until now.

A surprising 3-1 road loss to Senators on March 17 was the first dagger. A 3-0 home shutout at the hands of the Washington Capitals the following evening was the second.

A 1-2-1 four-game road trip followed, and just like that, a season that was filled with so much promise, had become a season of despair once again. And it was at that point, with his team 12 points out and just seven games left that Kovalchuk deadpanned, “we have no hope.”

The Devils fended off elimination on Wednesday and Friday night, but ultimately met their unseemly demise on Saturday evening, falling to the Montreal Canadiens, 3-1, at the Prudential Center.

And so, for the first time in 14 seasons -- or 15 years -- the Devils will not be in the playoffs. The reality of it all must be cold and hard for a fanbase that probably thought qualifying for the postseason was their birthright.

But if you’re going to miss the playoffs, this is probably the way you want to miss it: Knowing full-well that the team you’re watching now isn’t the same one that could only muster 22 points in 41 games.

Maybe, well probably, Lamoriello should’ve fired MacLean a week or two before he did.

He was probably too loyal to a fault. But can you blame him? In retrospect, of course, you can.

But at the time, you had to respect Lamoriello for giving MacLean a chance to right the ship.

It just never happened. And by the time Lemaire had, it was too late. The mountain was just too tall to climb.

Another chapter in Devils’ history has been written. It just wasn’t scripted exactly the way the fans and organization wanted.

But this much is certain: Devils fans will never take the playoffs for granted ever again -- if they did before, that is.