Quite possibly the most stunning ending to a playoff series imaginable, the final minutes of the New Jersey Devils' 4-3 loss (RECAP | BOX) couldn't have been more unexpected. In a matter of seconds, the Carolina Hurricanes went from thinking about their summer plans to booking a second-round trip to Boston, thanks to two goals in a 48-second span of the final 1:20 of Game 7.
"It's one of those [losses] that stuns you," New Jersey head coach Brent Sutter said. "It's as tough a loss as you can possibly have."
The Devils would know, given that two of their previous losses were mini-heartbreakers themselves. Recall TimGleason's goal in OT in Game 2 and then the bump and the buzzer-beater of Game 4. But this one was unlike any other.
"It's the toughest loss of my career," Devils forward Patrik Elias said. "It's still unbelievable that there's no game Thursday."
"I'm shocked," captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. "We played a really good game for 55 minutes. I thought we were in control. [But] we got caught running around a little bit, and they made us pay for it."
As the Hurricanes made a final push for their playoff lives, a heads-up play by Gleason to keep the play alive led to a shocking turn of events. The defenseman reached out at the blue line and passed the puck to Joni Pitkanen as Langenbrunner missed an attempt to knock the puck out of the zone. Pitkanen, on the left point, eyed fellow Finn Jussi Jokinen camping out back door on the play, and sailed a perfect cross-ice pass to his teammate's blade. Devils goalie Martin Brodeur moved across the crease to make the stop, but Jokinen shot it low and the puck slid under the goalie to tie the game at 3-3. With just 1:20 left on the clock, the game looked destined for overtime.
"And I thought that's the way it should be," said Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice. "This series should go to overtime in Game 7." But before Maurice could even finish the thought, Eric Staal finished the Devils. Speeding up the right wing, he shot the puck through Mike Mottau and past Brodeur with just 32 seconds left in the game, a shocking goal and the center's fifth of the series.
"A perfect shot," Mottau said.
After all this Devils team had been through -- not only in this series but this entire season (particularly, proving they were a team beyond Brodeur) -- the loss and the devastation seem to be magnified. And while one could come up with a list of reasons why New Jersey didn't win this game and the series -- like perhaps playing too conservatively without the puck in the last few minutes -- it was just a complete shock that the Devils lost it.
"You just gotta shake your head," Sutter said.
There is no other way to explain it.