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Devils top Habs 5-3 to spoil Cunneyworth's debut

by Arpon Basu /
MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens' change behind the bench did not solve the primary problem cited for making that change.

New Jersey Devils forward Patrik Elias' second goal of the game not only broke the franchise record for goals in a career, it also proved to be the winner in a 5-3 victory Saturday that spoiled the NHL coaching debut of Randy Cunneyworth.

In their first game since Jacques Martin was fired earlier Saturday morning, the Canadiens (13-13-7) continued their lackluster play at the Bell Centre, dropping their record at home to 5-7-6 and drawing periods of loud booing in the third period from the sellout crowd of 21,273.

The Montreal players held a 15-minute meeting with no coaches after the game to air out some things -- the disappointment from the performance was dripping from their faces when the doors finally opened to the media.

"We expect to win as a group in here -- the coaching staff and the management expect us to win, and the city and the fans expect us to win," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "More than that, they expect us to play the right way. I think if we put the effort in, they're going to be there to back us up; they always have. They know enough about hockey to understand if we played hard and just didn't get the breaks or we had a tough bounce and lost the game. But when it's something like tonight, why wouldn't they boo us?"

Cunneyworth became the sixth in-season replacement coach in the NHL, and the fifth one to lose his debut. The only one to win his first game with his new team this season was Ken Hitchcock with the St. Louis Blues.

"I would have enjoyed it a lot more with a win," Cunneyworth said of his first game in charge of an NHL bench. "We have a frustrated group of players who know it wasn't enough. They were up against a good team that is playing quite well right now, and they proved that tonight."

Petr Sykora, David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus scored the other goals for the streaking Devils (18-13-1), who won their fourth straight and their sixth in their last seven games.

While there were some minor tactical tweaks made by Cunneyworth, the end result for the Canadiens was a story that's been seen very often in Montreal of late.

With the Canadiens leading 3-2 late in the second period, Devils rookie defenseman Adam Larsson caught the Canadiens on a lazy line change with a brilliant stretch pass to spring Clarkson on a partial breakaway. Clarkson beat Carey Price for his 11th of the season at 18:26 to tie it heading into the second intermission.

Just 1:31 into the third period, Chris Campoli offered the Devils a gift when he turned the puck over to Zubrus deep in his own end to create a 2-on-0 break for Elias and Petr Sykora, with Elias converting on a give-and-go for his team-leading 13th of the season.

Just like that the Canadiens went from holding a one-goal lead to being down a goal within 3:05 of game time straddling the second intermission on a day when general manager Pierre Gauthier cited his team's inability to hold leads as a reason for firing Martin.

"It was the same old story," said center Lars Eller, who scored a goal and saw a big jump in ice time from the new coach. "We didn't play a good first period, had a pretty good second period and then in the third period again, the (stuff) hits the fan for some reason.

"It's frustrating, and I'm sure it's frustrating for all the fans in the stands. Nobody wants to win more than us guys in here. We want to win so bad. But for some reason we're fading away from our game plan in the third period and we start to do some individual things."

Elias' goals were the 347th and 348th of his career, moving him past his former coach, John MacLean. He scored No. 347 on a power play at 5:05 of the second period, one-timing a beautiful Ilya Kovalchuk feed past Price. No. 348 came courtesy of that Campoli turnover early in the third.

Elias broke the record in his 993rd game in a Devils uniform, 59 more than MacLean.

"It just feels nice," Elias said. "It just feels that you're doing something right and it keeps me going, obviously. Hopefully, I have a lot more in me, obviously, but at this moment I'm enjoying it."

Zubrus' power-play goal midway through the final period gave the Devils some breathing room.

The Canadiens got goals from P.K. Subban, Campoli and Eller. But Montreal was outshot 35-26, and if it weren't for Price the game could easily have been more lopsided than it was.

At the other end Montreal native Martin Brodeur won himself yet another game in his hometown with 23 saves, running his career record against the Canadiens to a staggering 41-18-5.

The Canadiens now head out on their annual holiday season road trip -- six games away from a building that has not been kind to them this season.
"We play well on the road," Gorges said, shaking his head. "I just don't know why we can't do that here."
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