A season ago, a second-half surge saw the New Jersey Devils eyeing an improbable playoff spot. This year, their sights are set on home-ice advantage.
Zach Parise and David Clarkson scored and Martin Brodeur made 21 saves to lead the New Jersey Devils to a 3-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday.
Matt Taormina added an insurance goal as New Jersey (34-20-4) won its third straight and vaulted past division rivals Pittsburgh and Philadelphia into fourth in the Eastern Conference.
"The roll that we're on, it's well-deserved," Brodeur said of his team, on an 8-1-1 run since the NHL's all-star break. "The boys are working really hard, we're playing with a lot of passion every night, guys are blocking shots, making second efforts.
"We're happy with the position that we're in but we just want to move forward."
Bell Centre victories are a career habit for Brodeur. The Montreal native is now 43-18-5-0 lifetime against the Canadiens, with a 1.81 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.
"I gotta give credit to my players. I think every time they know I care about it," he said. "They play really hard here for me."
Added Brodeur: "It's a fun place to play, the atmosphere is great. A lot of friends always come to see me and support me so to go out and perform well on top of it; it's definitely what I'm looking for every time I come to Montreal."
Max Pacioretty scored the lone goal for Montreal (24-26-10), which has now lost eight straight to New Jersey at the Bell Centre. The Canadiens last beat the Devils in Montreal nearly four years ago, a 4-0 triumph on March 11, 2008.
Carey Price made 22 saves for Montreal in Sunday's loss.
After a key 4-3 shootout victory in Buffalo on Friday, the Canadiens' slim hopes for a playoff berth became narrower. A win would have moved Montreal within four points of the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference.
"We all know how important these games are, especially tonight when we had a chance to make up some ground," Pacioretty said. "It's frustrating that, myself included, we came out the wrong way. If we'd played like we did in the third period, we would have had better results."
Slow starts have been an issue for the Canadiens of late. While Price gave his team a chance in the opening 20 minutes — stopping 12 shots including a chance by Patrik Elias from in close — the Habs managed just four shots on Brodeur in the first period.
The Devils opened the scoring when Parise deflected an Ilya Kovalchuk shot off the faceoff past Price at 18:03 of the first. It marked the fourth straight game that the Canadiens have seen their opponent be first on the board.
"Maybe it's nerves of knowing that our season could be over before the playoffs, but it's no excuse at all," Pacioretty said." That should give us more motivation to go out there and play 60 minutes hard as a team."
New Jersey doubled its lead at 19:42 of the second. Elias' wristshot from the blue-line deflected off Clarkson and into the net for the rugged winger's 22nd goal of the season.
Pacioretty ended Brodeur's shutout bid at 1:46 of the third when he picked up a loose puck in a busy crease and wristed it past the Devils goalie, who had no idea where the puck was. The 23-year-old winger has been on a tear of late, picking up 13 goals and five assists in his last 17 games.
"We've been playing pretty good hockey, getting points in a lot of the recent games. Tonight, there's no excuse, though," Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges said. "We don't have the luxury — and I've said this before — of taking a night off, a period off or a shift off. We don't have that because every game is maybe the difference of getting in or us going home early.
"That's the frustrating part," he added. "When we're making a push and playing some good hockey and getting some points, the opportunity for us to get four points out of the playoff picture tonight and we don't have the effort that we needed in order to be successful.
Taormina re-established New Jersey's two-goal lead with his first of the season. After the Canadiens failed to clear the zone, Devils defenceman Mark Fayne took a shot from the blue-line that went in off Taormina at 8:27.
Notes: Called up by the Canadiens on Saturday, Aaron Palushaj was inserted into the lineup in place of winger Louis Leblanc, who was under the weather. ... The Devils scratched defenceman Kurtis Foster and wingers Stephane Veilleux and Cam Janssen. ... Anton Volchenkov left in the first period after a Tomas Plekanec shot hit him in the mouth. He returned for the second period. ... For the first time since January 20, 2001, the Canadiens did not take a penalty.