NEWARK - After having seemingly turned the corner in the game-starts department, an old habit crept up on the Canadiens and cost them their dance with the Devils on Tuesday night.
With points in their last seven games, the Habs were trending upwards and were looking like a team that was hungry to compete to win as many of their remaining hockey games this season as they could.
But on Tuesday night against New Jersey, the Habs came out flat in the first period, making things tough on rookie netminder Charlie Lindgren by digging themselves into a four-goal deficit which would be a hole too deep from which to recover.
"Everyone is in this together; no one wants to go through that. [Lindgren] has been awesome for us, making save after save. [We gave them] too many shots, too many scoring chances against," said Brendan Gallagher, who equalled his career-high for goals with his 24th of the season in the second period to bring the score to 4-1. "We had to go through this early on in the year, we kind of corrected it, but right now, it came back tonight and it hurt us."
The Canadiens got into a lot of penalty trouble, giving the Devils five opportunities with the man advantage, and Gallagher - who scored the Habs' first goal for a third consecutive game - pointed out that his team's lackluster start was the culprit.
"When you're not moving your feet and not skating, that's when penalties are going to happen. That's what happened in the first period, especially, with our group," he added. "They had the puck for most of it; we were chasing, we were losing battles. When you're doing that, you're going to be behind the play and that's usually when penalties happen."
The Canadiens did attempt to salvage the night and mounted a comeback of sorts, buoyed by a pair of goals from Jacob de la Rose, but the Swedish center was not exactly in a celebratory mood despite the accomplishment.
"You always want to help the team score goals," outlined de la Rose, who scored for the first time in 19 games. "I've been playing with more confidence lately. I've been trying to skate more and be more poised with the puck. I'm happy with the goals, but I'm here to win hockey games, not worry about my own stats."
Another Hab who was clearly not concerned with his own stats was the young backstop, Lindgren. He may not have been consulted on whether he wanted to remain between the pipes on a night like this, but his response would've been the same regardless of the score.
"My answer is always that I want to stay in the game," he relayed. "I was happy they kept me in and let me battle it out.
"You can take a lot from a game like this. I'm not going to pout about it; you just have to move on and work hard tomorrow. That's what I look forward to doing."
Andrew Shaw, who earned a helper on de la Rose's second of the night, understands that Tuesday night's game was emblematic of a difficult campaign for both himself and his team, but hopes his fellow Habs can once again learn from their mistakes and grow.
"It's never fun to be in a losing atmosphere, and it's also not fun missing seven weeks. Personally, it's been tough, but it's been tougher on the team," lamented Shaw. "We're going to learn from this experience, we're going to be better, and we're going to close out the year working hard, competing, and doing what we can to win and learn from them."
In fact, the Canadiens chose to learn the lesson as the night progressed. After Gallagher's goal mid-game, de la Rose's pair brought them to within three, and Byron Froese made it a two-goal affair with just under a minute to play. With that in mind, head coach Claude Julien may not have been satisfied with the way his troops started the tilt, but he was at least able to draw some relief from the way they finished it.
"I don't know if I was surprised or stunned, but I was definitely disappointed with our first period. It's tough to climb out of that hole, but if there's something positive to come out of it, it's that we improved as the game went on and the guys showed character by trying to come back," he said. "It's a proof of character. It would've been easy to say that it wasn't our night, but the guys battled and we like to see that, especially with all the young guys we have in the lineup.
"What I take out of tonight is how we fought to come back," concluded Julien. "No one in this locker room is proud of the first period and we have to take responsibility, but the character we showed is encouraging."