The New Jersey Devils' streak of 13 consecutive playoff appearances came to a quiet end on Saturday night.
The Devils officially were eliminated from the playoffs for the first time since 1996 when they were beaten 3-1 at the Prudential Center by the Montreal Canadiens, who all but clinched a playoff berth with the victory.
"We knew it was going to come," goaltender Martin Brodeur said after the Devils' playoff run was stopped at 13 seasons. "It doesn't come as a shocker. We had a good run, played really hard to get ourselves in position to compete. It was just too much. We've got four more games and we'll try to keep doing what we've been doing."
The Devils will miss the playoffs for just the third time in the last 23 seasons. They paid the price for a horrible first half that saw them go 10-29-2 -- most of it under rookie coach John MacLean.
GM Lou Lamoriello made a coaching change just before Christmas and brought Jacques Lemaire out of retirement. The team responded in early January and posted a 23-3-2 mark to pull within six points of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. However, they got no closer -- mostly because, as was the case Saturday night, they couldn't put enough pucks in the net.
The Devils are last in the NHL with 160 non-shootout goals. Edmonton, the next-weakest offense, entered Saturday with 180.
The Canadiens officially ended New Jersey's faint hopes, getting two goals from Mathieu Darche on deflections and 20 saves from Carey Price to inch closer to their own playoff berth.
"It's the first time for me to be eliminated before the playoffs start," veteran forward Patrik Elias said. "It's disappointing, no question about it. We had an uphill battle here. You work so hard in the off season to get yourself ready through camp and the games to put yourself in the playoffs to compete for the Stanley Cup. When you don't do that, it's disappointing."
The victory gave the sixth-place Canadiens a three-point lead over Buffalo and a four-point edge on the eighth-place Rangers heading into the final week of the regular season. It was just their fifth win in 33 visits to New Jersey since March 29, 1994.
"I thought we had a strong performance right from the start tonight," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "I thought we played well away from the puck and we have to do that to be successful. The goals from Darche were really good examples of the kinds of goals you need to score at this time of year."
Defenseman P.K. Subban also scored. Former Devils forward Brian Gionta set up both of Darche's goals as the Canadiens won for only the second time in six games.
"Tonight we did a good job of getting back on track," Gionta said. "The last few games we haven't been (good) and we did a much better job tonight."
Ilya Kovalchuk's goal with 5:59 left in regulation prevented Price from posting his ninth shutout.
Darche deflected a backhand pass by Gionta from the left side boards past Brodeur midway through the first period to give Montreal a 1-0 lead -- delighting thousands of Canadiens fans in the crowd.
Brodeur kept the Devils in the game in the second period but the Canadiens put the game away in the early minutes of the third. Subban ripped a blue-line shot past Brodeur on a power play at 29 seconds. Darche got his 12th goal of the season at 3:34, once again deflecting a Gionta pass by Brodeur, who finished with 26 saves.
Brodeur was the reason the Devils were just one goal down after two periods. He made 22 saves in the opening 40 minutes and several were spectacular, with the best being a couple on Michael Cammalleri in the second period. Brodeur got a piece of Cammalleri's rebound attempt with his glove about eight minutes into the second period, then robbed him in the closing seconds with the Canadiens on a power play.
The 38-year-old Montreal native also stopped former teammates Scott Gomez and Gionta from in close in the second period.
"Can you ask Marty to be better than how he was tonight?" said Lemaire, who added the rest of his team played poorly. "He had nobody in front of him. Sorry, but that's what it was. Mistakes after mistakes, just a bad game."
Devils rookie Mattias Tedenby was awarded a penalty shot in the opening minutes after being slashed on a breakaway, However, his attempt hit off the post and rolled along the goal line without going in.
The game also marked the first appearance by Devils left wing Zach Parise since knee surgery in early November. He had two shots in 21 minutes.
"Mentally I felt great," Parise said. "Physically for the first part of the first period I felt like I didn't belong out there. I felt more comfortable as the game went on."
Material from team media and wire services was used in this report.
1 - 0 MTL
2 - 0 MTL
3 - 0 MTL