Yet with one stunning announcement from then-coach Larry Robinson, who stepped-down on December 19, Lamoriello thrust himself back into a role he truly hadn’t occupied since the 1982-83 season, his final time behind the bench at Providence College.
The old-time hockey man would show he still had it.
The Devils rallied behind Lamoriello, winning 32 of the final 50 regular-season games in 2005-06. They marched into the playoffs riding an 11-game winning streak and steamrolled over their arch-rivals, the New York Rangers, in a four-game series sweep.
The good times ended, however, in five games against the Carolina Hurricanes, the eventual Stanley Cup Champions.
“I couldn’t be more proud of a group that sustained the tempo they sustained for two months,” Lamoriello said after the Devils fell in game five at Carolina.
|Patrik Elias returned to the lineup after missing the first 39 games of the season, and the Devils overcame a 19-point deficit to win the Atlantic Division title. |
“I think if anyone would have looked back in October or November and said we would have been in the playoffs, I think you might have questioned that. I think if anyone would have said in January that we would get home ice and then win the division, I don’t think anyone would have foreseen that. If anyone would have said we would go on a 15-game winning streak and beat the Rangers in four games, you probably would have said, ‘What’s he thinking?’
“It’s not acceptable in our organization unless we win the Cup. That’s something we breed and something we feel.”
If this wasn’t acceptable, it was darn near close.
The Devils went through some tough times to start the season. Patrik Elias, the star scorer, hadn’t yet played because he was still overcoming a bout with hepatitis-A which he contracted while playing in Russia during the lockout season.
Scott Stevens was retired. Scott Niedermayer left via free agency. Pat Burns, the coach who led the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 2003, was battling cancer.
The Devils had lost six of seven from December 6-17. They were in tenth place in the Eastern Conference, a mere 14-13-5 for 33 points. Then came the shocker from Robinson, a true player’s coach.
Lamoriello took over, and the Devils beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, 3-1, on December 20. However, they lost five of their first seven under the general manager-turned-coach. Then something clicked. It all started turning around.
The Devils got Elias back in the lineup and won nine straight from January 3-21. They climbed out of tenth place in the conference, moving into sixth. They began April still in sixth, still trailing Philadelphia and the Rangers in the Atlantic Division.
It would take a miracle for them to secure home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
Hey, sometimes miracles do happen!
The Devils ripped off 11 straight wins to close the season, and in their final game, they roared back from a three-goal deficit, scoring three times in the final 8:31, to win at Montreal, 4-3.
That win, coupled with the Rangers 5-1 loss in Ottawa, meant the Devils had come all the way back to steal the Atlantic Division title and home-ice advantage in the playoffs with 46 victories and 101 points.
The Flyers also had 101 points, but only 45 wins. The Rangers had 100 points.
“That’s kind of amazing the way that flipped around,” said Jamie Langenbrunner, who scored the gamewinning goal in Montreal. “A couple of weeks before, the furthest thing from our mind was a home-ice spot. We were shooting for sixth. Then, it was maybe we could get fifth. Then, in the last few days of the regular season, everything fell into place for us.”
On January 6 the Devils were 19 points out of first in the Atlantic Division, but they went 28-9-4 to close the season. The 19-point deficit was the largest any team has overcome to win a division since the NHL began divisional play in 1974-75.
|Martin Brodeur and the Devils rode an 11-game winning streak into the 2005-06 playoffs, where they swept the rival Rangers. |
The Devils carried that momentum into the series with the Rangers, a team they had never beaten in a playoff series before. They won four straight by a combined score of 17-4, running their winning streak to 15 games.
The 15 straight wins tied an NHL record for a regular /post-season winning streak, set by the 1955 Detroit Red Wings, who went on to win the Cup.
The Devils credited the turnaround to Lamoriello, who went from watching from his box in Continental Arena to coaching from the bench.
“At first, I was a little nervous,” center Scott Gomez admitted of the GM’s role behind the bench. “Sometimes you’ll do something that maybe you’re not supposed to do and now he’s standing right behind you. He’s been nothing but positive and he’s brought everyone closer.”
The Devils, though, couldn’t match those ’55 Red Wings. They lost three straight against Carolina, including a heartbreaking 3-2 overtime loss in game two after the Hurricanes tied it with three seconds left in regulation.
They won game four, but lost game five, ending one of their most miraculous seasons on a sour note.
“Anytime you’re in the playoffs and you make it this far, it’s disappointing,” Gomez said after losing game five. “Since day one of training camp, our goal is to win the Stanley Cup. You can sit here and say it was a great season and not take anything away from the guys, but we’re taught here that anything without the Cup is not a good season.”
Dan Rosen covers high school sports and the NHL for The Record (Hackensack, N.J.). He is a regular contributor to Center Ice Magazine.