- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2011

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - 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 postseason 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,” center 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 postseason, 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.”

Defenseman 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.

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