MONTREAL - Despite a rally in the dying moments, the Canadiens' winning streak was finally snapped at eight, following a 3-2 loss to the Devils Saturday night at the Bell Centre.
After entering the night tied with the Devils for the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference, the Canadiens (40-28-9) now find themselves at No. 8 with 89 points. Montreal is currently two points behind the No. 6 Devils and tied with the Lightning, who sit seventh with two more wins than the Canadiens. Although both mathematically still alive, the ninth-place Thrashers trail Montreal by six points, while the Maple Leafs remain on a respirator, seven points out of a playoff spot with only five games left. The Devils (41-27-9) meanwhile, kept their hot streak alive with their sixth straight victory.
Martin Brodeur kicked aside 40-of-42 shots, including the first 33 he faced to improve to a perfect 3-0 against Montreal on the season. Brodeur was especially brilliant in a first period that saw the Canadiens outshoot the Devils by a whopping 16-6 margin.
"Brodeur played a strong game," admitted Saku Koivu. "He plays the puck really well and made key saves that really kept them in the game tonight."
With the Canadiens trailing 3-0 in the third period, Mike Ribeiro finally got the Canadiens on the board at the 11:20 mark with his 16th of the year, when he got a stick on an Aaron Downey blast from the high slot.
Then with Brad Lukowich sitting in the penalty box and Cristobal Huet on the bench in favor of an extra attacker, the Canadiens made it interesting when Chris Higgins continued his recent tear by notching his 22nd goal the season with only 12.8 seconds remaining in regulation. Montreal pressed for the equalizer in the dying moments but Brodeur slammed the door.
The line of Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Zach Parise led the way for the Devils, with Gionta scoring his team-leading 43rd of the season and Gomez potting a pair, including the game-winner.
Huet made 26 saves as he suffered his first loss in almost three weeks, dating back to a 3-1 loss to the Islanders on March 21.
In a battle that appears poised to come down to the wire between the Canadiens and Devils, the No. 6 seed may not be decided until Montreal and New Jersey face off on April 18 at the Bell Centre to close out the regular season.
The biggest news of the night may have been a player who ended up playing a total of only six shifts before leaving the game due to injury. Steve Begin left the game late in the first period and did not return after falling awkwardly and apparently twisting his left knee following a high-stick from Ken Klee. Begin was in considerable pain as he was helped from the ice.
"We don't have any details right now," said head coach Bob Gainey. "It sometimes takes a couple of days before anything is known for certain. There is no sense in speculating until Steve gets an MRI done.
"But with the style of play he brings, we really missed him with tonight being such a tough, tight-checking affair."
There's no need to remind Downey of what his linemate brings to the table every night.
"He's a huge part of this team and it was tough for all of us to see him go down like that," admitted Downey. "Steve is like a dog. If it was up him, he would just lick his wounds and be right back on the ice with us tomorrow at practice. Steve's a warrior and he'll be back."
Next up for the Canadiens is a date with the Ottawa Senators Monday night at the Bell Centre.
NOTES: Niklas Sundstrom, Todd Simpson and Richard Zednik were healthy scratches, while Francis Bouillon remains sidelined with a left ankle injury... Saturday night's showdown with the Devils drew a capacity crowd of 21,273, marking the Canadiens' 38th consecutive sellout of the season and 61st straight overall packed house dating back to 2003-04...
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com