NEWARK, NJ – The New Jersey Devils earned two very important points against the Montreal Canadiens Friday night at the Prudential Center.
With a 4-1 victory, the Devs have moved into a temporary tie for fifth place in the Eastern Conference with the Philadelphia Flyers, before the Flyers beat Anaheim later in the evening.
The win also pulled New Jersey within one point of Montreal in the standings, and two points of Atlantic Division co-leader New York Rangers.
With many of their top players scratched with injuries, the Habs looked like the Devils of earlier in the season.
“It changes dynamics on your team, but as an opposition you don’t get caught up in that. You worry about your own game and how you have to play. I don’t think anyone felt sorry for us when we went through that situation,” said Devils’ coach Brent Sutter.
Against the depleted visitors, New Jersey found the back of the net first.
Defenseman Mike Mottau chipped the puck out from the boards and pushed the puck to Patrick Elias at center.
Elias made his way to center ice before making a cross-ice pass to a wide-open Brian Gionta on the right wing, crossing the blue line. Gionta sped to the right face-off circle and fired, rifling the puck underneath Canadiens’ goalie Jarolsav Halak’s right leg pad, with 14:21 gone in the first period.
“We had a four-on-two broken with two back checkers, so I looked at the middle, it wasn’t there, and I tried to find a spot on net,” said Gionta.
Third on the team in points, when Gionta scores New Jersey gives itself a much better chance of winning. The team is 9-1 this season when “Gio” finds the net.
“I think we’re finding an offensive spark. We’re playing good hockey the last 20-30 games; it balances the attack a lot more when we’re going,” Gionta said of how his line’s success parlays into team wins.
But nothing was certain even with that recent history backing the Devils.
Montreal tied the game two minutes later when recent-call-up Max Pacioretty took a pass from Kyle Chipchura up the right boards and put his first career goal over the shoulder of Scott Clemmensen in goal.
“We don’t give up too many odd man rushes, let alone two-on-one, and that one guy (Pacioretty) came down my left side and beat me over the glove, plain and simple,” explained Clemmensen.
Despite the game being tied, the Devils would not give up control of the game’s momentum. Shortly after the Canadiens’ goal, agitator David Clarkson and Montreal winger Tom Kostopolulos got together at center ice to fight. Earlier in the period, Clarkson jawed with several of the Canadiens after Mike Rupp took a brutal hit in the corner.
The fight, which Clarkson won by takedown, kept the crowd and the Devils’ bench energized.
New Jersey regained the lead with a minute and a half left in the first period when Zach Parise faked a pass and put the puck in through Halak’s five-hole.
John Madden broke a 24-game scoring drought in the second to give New Jersey a two-goal lead. Madden and Rupp broke a two-on-one down the ice, and put the puck top-shelf over Halak.
After the second period, Halak’s night was finished. Marc Denis replaced Halak in goal for the third session. Regular goalie Carey Price was injured before the Habs’ last game against Tampa Bay, as was forward Alex Tanguay.
At the other end of the ice, Clemmensen was keeping the Habs off the scoreboard.
With 4:15 left in the second, Clemmensen made several key saves against Tomas Plekanec’s line, preserving the 3-1 lead.
“It was a tough game, because it was a two-goal lead, which is very deceiving, especially in this sport,” said Clemmensen. “Any time if they score, it’s three to one most of the game, and if they get that one goal, that makes it a one goal game and the complexion of the game changes a lot from there.”
Clemmensen maintained his high level of play in the third, making two glove saves off of face-offs in front of him half-way through the period. Clemmensen saved 33 of 34 shots he faced, including all seven power play shots the Canadiens took.
Clemmensen’s win was secured at 13:11 in the third period. Bryce Salvador saved the puck from leaving the Devils’ offensive zone, and put a shot on net from the left side.
Salvador’s shot bounced off the net and Parise recovered the puck to the left of the net. Parise made a slick backwards pass to Jamie Langenbrunner in the slot, and Langenbrunner put the security goal past Denis’ left glove.
“We’re tough when we have the lead after two (periods). We’re tough to come back on,” Parise said.
The Canadiens out-hit and out-shot the Devils throughout the game, but New Jersey was in control of the tempo throughout.
“Four to one final score I don’t think was very indicative of the type of the game it was tonight,” said Clemmensen.
The Devils, coming off of a three game road trip, responded to Coach Sutter’s criticism of the team’s play in Dallas on Wednesday.
“I had good vibes coming into the rink today that we were going to play a really good game. We had a tremendous effort from out goaltender right on out — go right through the whole lineup, everyone played very well,” said Sutter.
“I trust that group inside that room. There’s times through the year that where coaches are going to challenge their players and that’s the way it is, that’s the game, that’s sports,” Sutter said of his Wednesday post-game comments.
Sunday the Devils will continue their push for the top of the Eastern Conference when they take on the Ottawa Senators at 5 p.m., at the Prudential Center.
Next week, New Jersey will travel to Carolina for a match, come home to face Atlanta, and then embark on a nine-day, six-game road trip. This is the second long road trip of the season for the Devils, who finished 4-1 on a five-game, 18-day trip starting before Thanksgiving.
“No games are easy; it’s going to be a tight battle to the end. We’re almost to the midway point now, and I don’t think anything is going to change here in the second half as far as how tight it’s going to be. We’re going to find a way to get a few more wins than we did in the first half, and then we’ll be in those upper four teams,” said Langenbrunner.