newjerseydevils.com – A Game 7 defeat is difficult enough for any club. A defeat like this was almost too much to bear.
"That's the toughest loss that I've ever been a part of," said Devils defenseman Mike Mottau. "It's tough to put into words the disappointment that I'm feeling and everyone in the room is feeling. It's just not the way you want to end a season."
The Devils led the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-2, with 1:20 left in Tuesday's Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. They were 80 seconds away from taking care of business on home ice and moving on.
But in a series that had seen so many twists through six games, Carolina delivered a final, excruciating turn just when it seemed the Devils had a second-round berth secured.
Jussi Jokinen tied the game at 3 at 18:40 of the third period, and Eric Staal broke the stalemate 48 seconds later, shocking the sold-out crowd at Prudential Center.
New Jersey got trapped in its own zone and couldn't get fresh legs on the ice following a late icing. Jokinen used Joni Pitkanen's cross-ice to put a one-timer past Martin Brodeur from the bottom of the right circle, just moments after Tim Gleason had held the puck in at the line.
Staal's wrist shot from the right side found an opening underneath Brodeur's blocker with 31.7 seconds left, and the Hurricanes stole a 4-3 win at the Rock to take the series in seven.
Two goals in the final 1:20 of a Game 7. No one could have seen it coming.
"I'm still kind of in shock," captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. "It stings a little, that's for certain. The guys in this room really battled through a lot this year. We never made it easy on ourselves, but we gave ourselves a chance again tonight. This one hurts."
Langenbrunner scored for New Jersey, as did Jay Pandolfo and Brian Rolston.
Brodeur finished with 29 saves. Cam Ward stopped 32 for Carolina.
"We were under control for most the game," Brodeur said. "We had our chances to pull away. We left a team whose luck follows them against us hanging around. The puck bounced on their side again."
The Devils dropped their third straight postseason series to Carolina, following series losses in 2002 and 2006. None were more difficult than this.
"It's shocking," Brodeur said. "We did everything we could. We worked really hard in this game and guys performed really well. Guys have nothing to be ashamed of, losing like that. It's definitely shocking, and that's the bottom line. But we had them on the ropes with a four-minute penalty and a one-goal lead."
Brodeur continued: "When you leave a team that plays that way hanging around, they're going to score. They're going make plays. It's really disappointing."
Gleason presented the Devils with their best shot at extending their 3-2 lead in the second period. He drew blood with a high-stick against Zach Parise in front of the Carolina net, and was tagged with a four-minute double-minor.
New Jersey couldn't capitalize.
"We really believed in this group, and all of us, to a man, thought we could do a lot of damage this year," Langenbrunner said. "It hurts. Sometimes you overachieve as a team – you're going to come out and play hard but really, you know you don't have a shot at it at the end of the day. This group, we felt we did."
Trailing 1-0 on Tuomo Ruutu's goal 1:02 into the game, the Devils roared back on consecutive strikes for a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes.
Langenbrunner tied the game at 1 in the first period with his first goal since returning from a three-game absence due to a lower body injury. He snapped home Parise's pass from the left side of the cage for his fourth career Game 7 tally.
Pandolfo broke the tie with his first goal in seven career Game 7s, redirecting a John Madden pass through Ward on a Devils 2-on-1. Pandolfo's 11th career playoff tally was his first in 13 postseason games since May 2007.
Ray Whitney knotted things at 2 early in the second, when Staal centered from behind the net. Whitney misfired a shot off his left skate and underneath Brodeur at 3:42.
Rolston's first of the series on a power-play blast broke the 2-2 tie at 8:47 of the second, and put the Devils in control heading into the third.
"You see leads change like this all the time in the playoffs," Rolston said. "We just got caught on our heels a little bit. They get the tying goal and they have the momentum, then they come right back and get another quick one. You see it happen in the playoffs all the time."
Brendan Shanahan assisted on New Jersey's second and third tallies, and made a smart backcheck on Patrick Eaves that led to Rolston's marker.
The Devils survived three straight penalty kills in the middle frame, including 1:08 of a Carolina 5-on-3 advantage.
Dainius Zubrus was whistled for tripping, and Shanahan was called for hooking Staal on the ensuing kill to give the Hurricanes the two-man edge.
Brodeur's rebound management helped New Jersey escape the threat. He kicked Joe Corvo's slapper back between the Hurricanes' point men, buying a clear for the penalty killers. Later, he made a quick left skate save on Jokinen's one-timer from the right circle.
Later, Parise was called for New Jersey's third straight minor of the period. The left wing got his hands up as he tried to get around Gleason at the left boards, and Gleason helped sell it to the refs.
Brodeur protected the 3-2 lead with a slew of superb saves as time wound down. He robbed Erik Cole from the slot with 6:47 left, repeated the feat against Rod Brind'Amour with 4:13 left, then stopped Sergei Samsonov's try from the right circle with 3:43 on the clock.
But the Devils' season would be decided by those last two goals in the last 80 seconds of play.
"Right now there's nothing to say," head coach Brent Sutter told the press. "I think everyone's pretty disappointed. It's as tough as a loss as we could possibly have."
NJD NOTES The Devils exited the playoffs in the first round for the second straight season and third time since winning their third Stanley Cup in 2003. They were eliminated in the second round by Carolina in 2006 and Ottawa in 2007.
• Langenbrunner said he suffered a similarly tough loss, but never in the NHL.
"In juniors, I lost a Game 7 like that," he said. "We were ahead by a goal and went on the power play. They scored shorthanded and won in overtime."
• Shanahan's two assists moved him ahead of Elias on the all-time playoff list into a five-way tie for 43rd with Mike Bossy, Steve Larmer, John Tonelli and Chris Pronger.
• Langenbrunner's fourth career Game 7 tally matched Elias for the lead among current Devils.