One day after the Devils saw their playoff quest halted, head coach Peter DeBoer was still trying to figure out what went wrong.
Sunday's loss to the Rangers sealed the Devils' fate, ensuring that a season of high expectations would end without a chance to defend their Eastern Conference crown.
"It's difficult," DeBoer said Monday at AmeriHealth Pavilion. "One of the most difficult things I've gone through. I've coached teams that didn't deserve to make the playoffs. Most times, life gives you what you deserve. In this case, I don't feel that's necessarily the case, and that's what makes it more difficult, because then you're searching for the reasons why, and I don't have the answers yet."
A promising 8-1-3 start was derailed by injuries to Martin Brodeur and Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils went 3-6-2 while Brodeur recovered from a pinched nerve from Feb. 24 to March 16, and had slipped to 13-11-6 by the time he made his next start on March 21.
But Kovalchuk hurt his shoulder in the very next game, and the ensuing 0-6-4 slide proved too much to overcome.
The Devils are 11-3-3 when both Brodeur and Kovalchuk play.
"I'm not going to use those as crutches," DeBoer said. "My job [is], you get handed 20 to 23 players and you have to find a way to have success. That's for other people to decide or analyze, what factors those things played."
Even in the face of a 10-game winless streak, the team's effort was always there.
"There's not many guys in there, if any, that I don't think [whose] hearts weren't in the right place, that didn't buy into the system and the team-first approach we had all year, and it wasn't good enough," DeBoer said.
Three games remain on the schedule: the Devils host Montreal on Tuesday, Pittsburgh Thursday, then visit Madison Square Garden for Saturday's finale.
"I think the message to the team is the same way we've approached all season," DeBoer said. "We expect nothing but professionalism and the same commitment to work and win that we've had all year. I think that's what this team's about, what this organization's about. We're not going to expect anything less than that."
He praised the work of assistants Dave Barr, Scott Stevens, and Matt Shaw, and goaltending coach Chris Terreri.
"I thought our coaching staff worked diligently, prepared this team. That's been a common theme, even when you talk to the players. I thought our coaches emptied the tank, so to speak. Any time you don't have a successful year, the entire organization gets analyzed, including myself. I'm sure that's a process Lou [Lamoriello] will go through."
• No decision had been made on whether to rest Kovalchuk in the final three games.
"Again, I'll talk to Lou," DeBoer said. "That's a meeting that I'm going to have with him probably later today."
He also hopes to get Johan Hedberg another start: "He deserves to get in a game."