NEW YORK -- They've talked about deserving better, about how their play was not indicative of their record, about how they wouldn't change anything in their game.
But the New Jersey Devils couldn't hide from reality Sunday.
The 2012 Eastern Conference champions will not be part of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, that much became official with the Devils' 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, where most of the 17,200 fans in attendance happily chanted, "Season's over!" with more than eight minutes still left in the third period and again, louder, six minutes later.
"You don't want to think about it until it's actually a reality," Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. "No other word but disappointment."
With the way the Devils have been missing scoring chances and booting away golden opportunities of late, even goalie Martin Brodeur thought their fate was sealed long before their 12:30 p.m. ET arrival at the Garden.
"We knew this time was going to come eventually," Brodeur said. "Even if we had won six games, I don't think we were going to make the playoffs anyway."
The Devils had won two in a row heading into Sunday, but they still needed to win four more and get help they weren't likely going to get to make the playoffs this season because from Feb. 23 through April 15 they won five of 25 games and picked up only 16 points (5-14-6).
Twenty-five games isn't a small sample size in a regular 82-game season; it's 52 percent of their season this year.
The Devils scored 2.04 goals per game over that 25-game stretch and dropped from second to 11th in the Eastern Conference.
Not enough. Not even close to enough.
"When you don't score goals, or score them timely when you don't score many, it's going to hurt you," Brodeur said. "Especially in a shortened season I think it's going to be magnified. And injuries got to us a little bit. You don't like to make any excuses, but those are definitely reasons why we're not there. Better teams than us are going to compete for the Stanley Cup."
Injuries certainly are a factor for why the Devils went south after a relatively strong 10-3-4 start to the season. Brodeur missed 12 games from Feb. 24-March 19 with a back injury and the Devils were 3-7-2 without him.
The Devils were 1-6-4 without Kovalchuk and they scored 1.73 goals per game. Brodeur said that's when the Devils truly started to miss former captain Zach Parise, who signed with the Minnesota Wild as an unrestricted free agent last summer.
"It's a top-three forward that we never got back," he said. "It's tough. We felt we played extremely good for a long part, but when Kovy went down it made a big difference. Not having another top guy, that's probably the biggest difference."
But even without Kovalchuk (and Parise), the Devils felt good about their game and thought they deserved a better fate because, after all, they outshot the opposition in nine of the 11 games they played without Kovalchuk.
"This was a tough go for us, but it wasn't for lack of effort, it wasn't for lack of the way we played or our systems," said power forward David Clarkson, who can become an unrestricted free agent in July. "I think as a team we outplayed and outshot a lot of these teams we played in the last 20 games. That was from sticking to our game that the staff installed. Whether it was us bearing down or not putting the puck in the net, it's put us in this situation."
The problem is the Devils' crutch was the fact that they felt good about their game despite going 1-6-4 without Kovalchuk.
"You have to be accountable to what you do out there," Brodeur said. "It's us not scoring. It's us not winning hockey games. We've worked really hard and we feel real good, it was just not enough this year."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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