MONTREAL - With their playoff position already decided before the final siren, the Canadiens were edged 4-3 by the red-hot Devils Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.
It may have taken all 82 games but the NHL playoff picture is finally set. The No. 7 Canadiens will be packing their bags for Carolina for the second time in their last three playoff appearances, having also faced the Hurricanes in the second round in 2002.
In a game that had all the makings of an easy night with the Canadiens jumping out to a 3-0 lead, the desperate Devils stormed back for the victory to secure the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and a date with Jaromir Jagr and the Rangers.
Craig Rivet opened the scoring when his blast from the point fooled a partially screened Martin Brodeur at the 5:23 mark of the first period. Tomas Plekanec then notched his ninth goal of the year by tipping in a Francis Bouillon point shot past Brodeur midway though the opening frame. Alex Kovalev made it 3-0 with his 23rd goal, giving the Russian winger a team-leading 65 points in 69 games on the season. Kovalev undressed a trio of Devils before beating Brodeur up-high with a back-hand with just five minutes to go in the second period.
With the Atlantic Division crown on the line, the Devils sprang to life with four unanswered goals for their 11th straight win to close out the regular season. Patrik Elias, Jamie Langenbrunner and Brian Gionta scored for the Devils, with Gionta setting a new franchise record with his 47th and 48th goals of the season, surpassing Pat Verbeek's previous benchmark of 46 set in 1987-88.
Cristobal Huet stopped 36-of-40 shots to finish the season with an 18-11-14 record and seven shutouts. Despite a shaky start that saw him allow two goals on the first four shots he faced, Brodeur settled down in kicking aside 29-of-32 shots for his league-leading 43rd win of the season.
"The best lessons are those that come in the toughest of circumstances," said three-time Stanley Cup winner Mathieu Dandenault. "Sure there was a little panic here tonight, but it's something we can definitely learn from. I'm convinced we'll be able to respond the next time we hold a third period lead during the playoffs."
While disappointed to not see his team hold on to their comfortable lead and close out the regular season on a high note, Bob Gainey is well aware that the games that begin this weekend are the ones that count.
"Making mistakes is never the problem," said Gainey. "It's the repeated mistakes that we can't afford to make. There are two ways to approach being taught a lesson. You can either put it behind you and forget it ever happened or learn from it. It's up to us to get the team together and form a game plan on how to face Carolina."
The Canadiens will now get set for their first round series against the Hurricanes, which gets underway Saturday night in Carolina.
NOTES: The Canadiens set a new franchise record with their 41st consecutive sellout of the season, while also setting a new attendance benchmark with a total of 872,193 fans having taken in a game at the Bell Centre in 2005-06. The previous record of 864,377 was set in 1996-97, the first full season at the Molson/Bell Centre... Leading scorer Michael Ryder (flu) was given a well-deserved breather, leaving Craig Rivet and Mathieu Dandenault as the only Canadiens to have suited up for all 82 games this season. Todd Simpson, Niklas Sundstrom and Maxim Lapierre were healthy scratches. Steve Begin remains sidelined by a left knee injury... Rivet set career-highs across the board in 2005-06 with seven goals, 27 assists and 34 points... Bouillon logged 12:51 of ice-time and blocked four shots in his return to the lineup after sitting out 15 games with a left ankle injury suffered against the Penguins back on March 18.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com