The Devils were 80 seconds from knocking the Carolina Hurricanes out of the playoffs, winning the first Game 7 in the Prudential Center's history. Then, the unimaginable happened.
In fact, "unimaginable" is an understatement.
Jussi Jokinen slammed home a one-timer from a bad angle as the Devils scrambled to clear the zone to give the Cardiac 'Canes a 3-3 tie. Then, with a third overtime game of the series looming, Devil killer Eric Staal picked up a head of speed in the neutral zone and came barreling down the right wing, firing a seeing-eye shot that beat Martin Brodeur between his blocker and his leg pad.
"The dreaded 7-hole," Brodeur would say minute later in a dejected Devils dressing room.
Two goals in 48 seconds turned a rocking Rock into flat-line silence.
Towel-waving fans that threatened to raise the roof off the building as Brodeur turned aside chance after chance in the third period's second half were suddenly rendered by the Meltdown on Mulberry Street, a loss that ranks right up there, uh, down there, with the "Matteau, Matteau" lose to the Rangers in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals and the 2001 Stanley Cup Final Game 7 loss to Colorado at the Pepsi Center.
Afterward, the Devil players couldn't even process what had happened, how a 3-2 lead they had nursed for 29 minutes and 53 seconds evaporated in a sickening blink of the eye.
"It's going to hurt for a long time; I'll tell you that much," said forward Jay Pandolfo, who was brilliant in scoring the first goal and shutting down the Staal line for 59 minutes, but was on the ice for the winning goal.
"This one will definitely stick with me for a while, only because we had plenty of opportunities to put the game away and get a two-goal lead," said John Madden, who sat motionless for several minutes after the dressing room opened, a Gatorade towel draped over his head as he stared straight ahead, seeing nothing. "To have, in the matter of a minute and half, things turn; it's unreal. Crazy."
Defenseman Niklas Havelid was the last player to have a chance to stop Jokinen's goal, but Joni Pitkanen threaded a cross-ice pass that just eluded Havelid's stick as he stood paralyzed in front of Brodeur, unsure if he should move toward the point or drift back to close the space between himself and Jokinen.
"It's the toughest loss I have ever been a part of," fellow defenseman Mike Mottau said. "It's impossible to put into words the disappointment I am feeling and everyone in the room is feeling."
Zach Parise, who had a monster game, but was also on the ice for Jokinen's tying goal, was still sitting in his locker as the media left the dressing room, at least 25 minutes after the game's final buzzer ending a year that just two weeks earlier had been a postseason full of promise for the Atlantic Division champion Devils.
It won't be an easy task, said his coach Brent Sutter. A hockey lifer, Sutter has absorbed some gut-punch losses during his 40-plus years in the game. But, Tuesday night might just be the worst of all.
"I really don't know what to say -- shocked and stunned," Sutter said, pinching the bridge of his nose with his left hand as he spoke at the post-game press conference. This is as tough a loss as you can possibly have."
"It's not the way you want to end your season," Mottau mumbled as he drifted off into the shower to begin facing a summer that arrived so suddenly Tuesday night.