NEWARK, N.J. - First place in the Atlantic Division was a seemingly unreachable goal for the New Jersey Devils when star goalie Martin Brodeur tore his biceps in early November.
Despite that setback, the Devils sit atop the division heading into the all-star break. Paul Martin scored on a breakaway goal and added an assist to help the Devils beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-2 on Wednesday night for their fifth straight win.
"It's a credit to the players, staying with it and being strong," Devils coach Brent Sutter said. "Being mentally strong allows you to handle adversity on the ice. We've dealt with adversity in the right way. Guys in that room have been through a lot, and they don't seem to get rattled."
That's especially true of Scott Clemmensen, Brodeur's replacement, who made 26 saves to improve to 19-9-1.
"I don't feel like I have to win games by myself," Clemmensen said. "I don't think the team feels they have to work harder to compensate for me, either. The team has confidence in me and I feel if I just play strong, I can let them do the rest."
Travis Zajac, Johnny Oduya, Zach Parise and Patrik Elias added goals for the Devils, one point ahead of the New York Rangers in the Atlantic.
Josh Gorges and Matt D'Agostini scored for Montreal, 1-10-1-1 in its last 13 games in New Jersey. The Canadiens head into the break on a two-game losing streak, having lost 4-2 in Atlanta on Tuesday night.
"The last 30 minutes against Atlanta was better," Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said. "Tonight we struggled for 60 minutes, but that's the way the Devils play. They make you work hard, they make you push yourself. Give them credit, that's the way they play. We've seen this for the last 15 years. We didn't have enough people respond."
Martin got the Devils rolling at 11:52 of the first, only moments after serving a cross-checking penalty. Elias spotted Martin skating behind the Montreal defence and hit him with a perfect lead pass. Martin broke in on Carey Price, making his first start in three weeks because of an ankle injury, and whipped the puck between the goalie's pads.
In the second, Zajac put the Devils up 2-0 at 6:18 by knocking home the rebound of Parise's shot that was loose in the Canadiens' crease.
Gorges got Montreal on the board at 13:56 before Martin set up Oduya for a slapshot from the top of the left circle at 18:20 for a 3-1 Devils lead.
Parise padded the New Jersey lead to 4-1 at 2:05 of the third on a shot from the left wing that a Montreal defender deflected past Price. Parise, the Devils' goal leader with 28, has six goals in the last seven games.
D'Agostini got a power-play goal at 7:46 that took several lucky bounces. The initial shot was deflected by Oduya and appeared to glance off Montreal's Max Pacioretty, who was initially credited with the goal.
Elias closed the scoring with a short-handed goal into an empty net.
Notes: The Devils went with the same lineup as in their 3-1 win Nashville on Monday, meaning recently signed Brendan Shanahan played while Jay Pandolfo was a healthy scratch for a second straight game. Defensemen Sheldon Brookbank and Jay Leach were also scratched by New Jersey. ... Captain Saku Koivu returned for Montreal after missing 17 games with a high-ankle sprain. The Canadiens scratches were Alex Tanguay, Georges Laraque, Christopher Higgins, Steve Begin, Mathieu Dandenault and Kyle Chipchura. .... The Devils saluted Brian Rolston before the contest for having recently played in his 1,000th game. He became the 234th player in NHL history to reach that total, and the seventh as a Devil, joining Dave Andreychuk, Neal Broten, Bobby Carpenter, Ken Daneyko, Claude Lemieux and Scott Stevens. ... Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said Brodeur skated Wednesday for the first time since the injury, after getting medical clearance that morning. Lamoriello said Brodeur remained "on target" for a March 1 return.