If the Devils shared anything as they packed their equipment at the end of the 1995-96 season, it was the bad taste left by a subterranean year on ice.
"We were a better team than we showed," said center Bobby Holik, "except that we didn't show it."
Missing the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup was about as awful as it could get, especially since coach Jacques Lemaire iced virtually the same lineup as the previous season with one key exception.
"There's no doubt we missed Claude Lemieux on many levels," said captain Scott Stevens. "That's not an excuse; just a fact."
Lemaire had a few things to say himself. He said that his club lacked confidence. Surprising since they had come off a Cup-winning campaign the previous spring.
"There was a lack of leadership," Jacques added.
Stevens took umbrage with Lemaire's assessment. The captain believed that he had been singled out for the coach's stinging "leadership" critique and let Jacques know how he felt about it. In a word - bad.
Jacques and Scott convened and eventually cleared the air.
"I was speaking for the entire hockey club," Lemaire told the press. "What I said was not meant for Scott. And the other thing I want to make clear was that I wasn't putting the accent on defense at the expense of offense."
Having erased the problem, Lemaire and his boss, Lou Lamoriello, set about the offseason business of putting the Devils Express back on track.
The general staff had come to the conclusion that Stephane Richer had lost his offensive spark and an experienced defenseman was needed. With that in mind, Lou traded Richer back to the Canadiens.
In return the Devils obtained rock-solid defenseman Lyle Odelein and also selected young blueliner Willie Mitchell in the 1996 Draft.
"Our goal," asserted Lamoriello, "is to make the playoffs and win another Stanley Cup."
To achieve that goal Lemaire had to find the formula that would enable Cup-winning players such as Bobby Holik, Johnny MacLean, Billy Guerin and Martin Brodeur to fulfill their potential. Ditto for Dave Andreychuk.
"At first," Guerin remembered, "we didn't get off like Gangbusters. It took time."
What mattered was that Lemaire kept his charges out of the slough of despond. Removed from the once-intimidating Crash Line, Holik began exploiting the full extent of his offensive abilities.
"Everything began working for me," said big Bobby. "I had reached the top of my game."
Fortified with an emphatic defense, Brodeur also excelled - with a lot of help from his backup, Mike Dunham, who worked 26 games. On any other team Dunham would have been a starter.
"I knew that Marty was the man," said Dunham, who had graduated from the Devils AHL farm team, the Albany River Rats. "And I was grateful for any time I could get in between the pipes."
By mid-autumn the club had hit its stride. Starting on Nov. 2 and through Nov. 12, 1996, the Devils won five straight games.
By mid-winter they were flying high with no thoughts about falling.
"It was," said Johnny MacLean, "as if last season never happened."
The calendar and arithmetic said it all. On Jan. 24, 1997, New Jersey's record was 24-17-5. As of Feb. 20, 1997, the club was up to 29-17-12 and it appeared that the Atlantic Division crown was there for the asking.
"The homestretch belonged to us," said Andreychuk, whom some reporters cited as a key forward whose steady two-way game galvanized the season. Among his many positive contributions, towering Dave led the team in the plus-minus department. I considered him the club's MVP.
In its 15th NHL season, the Devils topped both the Atlantic Division as well as the Eastern Conference.
The final totals underlined the overall superiority - 45-23-14 - in addition to other pertinent points. To wit:
* DEFENSE: The Garden Staters allowed the fewest goals (182) and the fewest power-play goals. Also, they took the fewest penalties and led the league in penalty killing. A dozen shutouts also was a league-leader.
* GOALTENDING: The form that eventually led Brodeur to the Hall of Fame was evident - 37 wins and a 1.88 goals-against average.
* SCORING: MacLean and Guerin tied for the goal-scoring lead with 29 red lights apiece. Holik paced the assist department with 39 helpers. But the real surprise had Bobby as also the team's leading scorer - 62 points.
"It was," concluded a wide-grinning Lemaire, "just the comeback season we were hoping for. Now we go for another Cup."