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A season at 'The Rock'

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils

The Devils celebrate their first-ever win at Prudential Center on Oct. 31 against Tampa Bay. – The Devils packed up for the last time on Monday, closing up shop on their inaugural season at Prudential Center.

It was a season that ended earlier than any Devil player or fan would have hoped, following Friday's elimination from the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

The Devils dropped a 5-3 decision to the New York Rangers, who took the series four games to one. New Jersey exited the playoffs in the opening round for the first time in three seasons, having made it through to the second round in each of the last two.

But the Devils coming up short in the postseason shouldn't overshadow what was an exciting regular season filled with team firsts and player milestones.

For starters, the 2007-08 campaign brought a new head coach and a new home in Newark.

An unforgettable opening night at Prudential Center on Oct. 27, 2007.
After eight seasons as the owner, president, general manager and coach of the Red Deer Rebels (WHL), Brent Sutter was brought aboard as the Devils' new bench boss in July 2007. Sutter made his NHL coaching debut on opening night in Tampa Bay as the team opened with nine games on the road to allow for the completion of Prudential Center.

The gleaming, state-of-the-art facility would usher in a new era for the Devils, who had moved from their home of 25 seasons in the Meadowlands to New Jersey's largest city.

The Devils took two steps back right out of the gate, closing out training camp without the services of Jamie Langenbrunner or Colin White. The nine-game trip yielded three wins, and the team carried a 3-5-1 record back to the Garden State.

"The Rock" finally opened its doors for hockey on Oct. 27, and the Devils notched their first-ever win on Prudential Center ice with a 6-1 decision over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Oct. 31. Long-time Devil Jay Pandolfo christened the new barn with his first career hat trick and Martin Brodeur made 21 saves in his first Newark victory.

Langenbrunner rejoined the team on Nov. 14 after a groin injury had kept him shelved for the first 17 games of the regular season. He began his sixth year in New Jersey with a bang, scoring twice against the New York Rangers in his first game back.

After sustaining an eye injury during a Sept. 19 practice, White returned on Nov. 21 to help solidify the blue line. His first game back was a 2-1 win in Pittsburgh – the second of what developed into a nine-game winning streak from Nov. 17 to Dec. 7.

Brodeur started the streak by becoming only the second 500-game winner in league history. He made 26 saves in a 6-2 thrashing of Philadelphia, touching off the nine-game surge. The Devils became the first team ever to sweep a four-game road trip (@Phi., @Pit., @Atl., @TB) before sweeping a homestand of four or more games (Dal., Mon., Atl., Bos., Was.)

The future Hall of Famer had added to his legacy by season's end, notching his third straight 40-win season and becoming the first netminder ever to reach 40 wins seven times. A three-time Stanley Cup champion and three-time Vezina Trophy winner, Brodeur will embark on the 2008-09 season needing just 14 wins to surpass Patrick Roy's NHL all-time mark of 551.

By the end of their season-high winning streak, the Devils had chosen the one to wear the 'C'. Langenbrunner was tapped as the eighth captain in club history prior to a 4-3 overtime win over Boston on Dec. 5.

Former Devils defenseman Scott Stevens was honored at Prudential Center for his November induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the team rounded out a memorable night by taking their ninth straight with a 3-2 edging of Washington.

The streak matched the third longest in club history, and took the Devils from 13th in the East to first place in the Atlantic, just five points behind conference-leading Ottawa.

The Devils would challenge for the top seed before long. They held at least a share of No. 1 in the East for 17 of the 24 days from Feb. 24 to March 19th, and remained in contention until a slide in late March.

Sutter's group finished with 99 points – three shy of Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Division and just five behind Montreal for first place overall in the conference. They fell one point short of their fifth straight 100-point season, and what would have been their 10th in the last 11 seasons.

Leading scorer Zach Parise surpassed his career highs of a season ago, notching his second straight campaign of at least 30 goals (32) and 30 assists (33). Parise also emerged as a game breaker, tying Patrik Elias for the club lead in winning goals (8).

Elias, meanwhile, completed his second straight 20-goal campaign, chipping in 35 assists. The 10-year veteran tied Scott Niedermayer (364) for the most assists in franchise history on April 1, then stayed hot in the playoffs.

Already New Jersey's all-time leading postseason scorer (39g-71a-110pts), Elias extended his club records with a series-best four goals and three power-play goals against the Rangers in the quarterfinals. His six points were also a team-high.

Brian Gionta netted 22 tallies for his fourth straight season with at least 20 goals, and chipped in 31 helpers for his second career season of at least 30 assists. He collected his 100th career helper against Boston on Dec. 5.

Gionta's linemate John Madden enjoyed one of his best NHL seasons, playing in 80 of 82 games to hit the 20-goal mark for the second time (23, 2000-01) and match a career high in assists (23, '03-04). In his eighth campaign as a Devil, the Barrie, Ontario, native also reached a new career mark for points (43), surpassing his previous best of 41 set in 2002-03.

Pandolfo, who rounded out the checking line with Gionta and Madden, achieved milestones of his own. He notched his 200th NHL point with an assist against San Jose on Feb. 20, and appeared in his 700th game on March 25 versus Pittsburgh.

Devils' mainstay Sergei Brylin became the team's new ironman, extending his games played streak to a career-high 328. Brylin, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with New Jersey, passed Pandolfo (307) on Feb. 23 for the longest run among current Devils.

The 13-year vet then climbed ahead of  Kirk Muller (321) on March 25 against Pittsburgh, moving into second place behind Ken Daneyko (388) on the club's all-time consecutive games played list.

Rookie David Clarkson made major gains with nine goals and 13 assists for 22 points in 81 games. Undrafted, Clarkson was signed as a free agent in August 2005. Fast forward to 2008, and Clarkson exhibited the scoring touch and physical punch (183 PIM) that developed into a gritty, two-way game.

On defense, New Jersey was led by Paul Martin's 32 points, as the fourth-year rearguard reached 100 career assists (April 6 vs. NY Rangers) and appeared in his 300th NHL game (March 2 at NY Rangers).

Martin's efforts were bolstered by Johnny Oduya, who matured in his second full season with New Jersey.

Oduya set new career highs in goals (8), assists (29) and points (26), while recording a team-high plus-27. He  also provided one of the year's lasting highlights with his coast-to-coast goal on Feb. 9 against Carolina.

The feel-good story of the blueline corps was penned by journeyman Mike Mottau, who made solid contributions in his first full NHL season.

Mottau, 30, entered the season with just 23 NHL games to his credit over seven pro seasons. But the 2000 Hobey Baker Award winner settled in nicely in Newark, leading the 'D' with 76 appearances, including 36 straight from Nov. 16-Feb. 6.

Mottau scored his first career goal on Oct. 6 at Florida and added a multipoint game with two helpers against Montreal on Jan. 24. He later netted his first career postseason point with his goal in Game 4 of the East quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden.

Brodeur attached a few pages to his Hall-of-Fame resume, while players like Parise, Elias, Madden and Gionta showed why they're still vital parts of New Jersey's title hopes. Clarkson  and Oduya shined as a couple of young players whose best is yet to come.

The continued growth of a defense that served up a blend of youth and experience should also extend into 2008-09, when the Devils expect to get another crack at winning hockey's ultimate prize.

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