MONTREAL – Martin Brodeur just loves beating his hometown Montreal Canadiens, and even a game-ending injury couldn't prevent him from doing it for the 40th time in his career.
Brodeur did not come out for the second period after tweaking his right knee in the first, but thanks to a quick two-goal cushion provided by goals from Dainius Zubrus and Ilya Kovalchuk on the New Jersey Devils first two shots of the game, he was still the goaltender of record in a 4-1 win Sunday afternoon.
Johan Hedberg came on in relief and made 14 saves on 15 shots, including all 10 shots he saw in the third period when Montreal made a push to tie what was a 3-1 game.
"Hedberg did a good job holding on to my win," Brodeur said with a laugh. "It was a big game for us. We've built a lot lately and we wanted to continue building. Today was a big test, and we passed with flying colors."
Brodeur said his right knee got caught under him awkwardly during a Canadiens' power play in the first period. With about 5:45 left in the period, Tomas Plekanec took a sharp angle shot from the corner and the rebound bounced out in to the slot. As Brodeur shifted over to get in position for a possible shot off the rebound, his right knee may have twisted under him and he labored to get up afterwards.
Brodeur was flexing his right leg over and over again at the Devils bench at the next commercial break, and never came out for the second period.
"I stayed for the last three minutes (of the period), and when I looked at it I just wanted to make sure it wasn't that bad," Brodeur said. "Tomorrow we'll see how it feels and we'll go from there. But I don't think it's something that's major at all. You want to make the right decision; you don't want to get hurt more. It definitely wasn't 100 percent after I tweaked it."
The Devils (19-30-4) improved to 9-1-2 in their last 12 games and moved past the idle New York Islanders to climb out of the Eastern Conference basement.
Kovalchuk added an empty net goal to ice the game at the end of the third for his third two-goal game of the season. He leads the team with 17 goals and has nine of those in the 20 games since Jacques Lemaire took over behind the Devils bench.
"I think the whole team started playing better," Kovalchuk said. "That's what happened. Everyone started getting points, everyone started getting pluses. It's a team game."
In the same vein, Travis Zajac had a goal and two assists after notching a goal and an assist in his last game, his seventh multi-point effort of the season and first three-point game of the campaign.
Kovalchuk said the team's improved play of late comes closer to matching what he thought it would be like in New Jersey this season, and that he expects it to continue even though a playoff berth appears practically impossible.
"When I signed here we had high expectations, and we still do," Kovalchuk said. "We have 29 games remaining in our season and we'll see what happens. We'll fight in every game."
After allowing the first two shots past him, Carey Price recovered nicely in goal for the Canadiens (30-19-5) by stopping 26 of 27 shots the rest of the way.
The Canadiens suffered only their third regulation loss in 16 games since Dec. 30 (10-3-3), snapping a three-game winning streak in the process by losing the back end of a back-to-back set of weekend matinees.
"You're not happy with the loss, but we got six out of eight points this week," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "New Jersey didn't play yesterday, they were sitting and waiting for us. They jumped on us early and that set the tempo for the game."
The Canadiens' next game comes Wednesday against the Northeast Division-leading Boston Bruins.
"We'll definitely need to bounce back from this on Wednesday," Martin said.
P.K. Subban scored Montreal's lone goal on a shot he actually fanned on, but which deflected off of Kovalchuk's stick and past a bewildered Hedberg at 6:32 of the second.
It partially made up for Subban's start to the game, as he and defensive partner Hal Gill were on the ice for each of the first two Devils goals.
The first by Zubrus at 1:12 came off a Gill giveaway behind his net, with Zubrus picking up the loose puck, sweeping out in front and beating Price through the legs for his 10th of the season.
Kovalchuk's goal at 4:04 of the first was a bit less preventable, as he masterfully tipped a Colin White point shot that was heading wide past Price.
"We fell behind right from the start of the game against a team that knows how to protect a lead, and one that's one of the hottest teams in the League," Martin said. "That really took away our energy."
Zajac made it 3-0 at 3:16 of the second, pouncing on a puck that made it through a crowd in front and sliding it in for his ninth of the season.