NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - One of the fixtures of the NHL playoffs is going to be missing this season - the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils failed to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 1996 when they were beaten by the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 on Saturday night.
``We knew it was going to come,' goaltender Martin Brodeur said after the Devils' playoff run was stopped at 13 seasons. ``It doesn't come as a shocker. We had a good run, played really hard to get ourselves in position to compete. It was just too much. We've got four more games and we'll try to keep doing what we've been doing.'
This will mark only the third time in the last 23 seasons that the Devils have missed the playoffs, and this one can be attributed to a dismal start under rookie coach John MacLean. It forced general manager Lou Lamoriello to make a coaching change and bring Jacques Lemaire out of retirement.
The team responded in early January and posted a 23-3-2 mark to pull within six points of the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. However, they would get no closer and New Jersey has been faced with must-win games the past week just to stay alive.
The Canadiens ended their faint hopes, getting two goals from Mathieu Darche on deflections and 20 saves from Carey Price to inch closer to their own playoff berth.
``It's the first time for me to be eliminated before the playoffs start,' Devils veteran Patrik Elias said. ``It's disappointing, no question about it. We had an uphill battle here. You work so hard in the off season to get yourself ready through camp and the games to put yourself in the playoffs to compete for the Stanley Cup. When you don't do that, it's disappointing.'
The victory gave the sixth-place Canadiens a three-point lead over Buffalo and a four-point edge on the eighth-place Rangers heading into the final week of the regular season.
``I thought we had a strong performance right from the start tonight,' Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. ``I thought we played well away from the puck and we have to do that to be successful. The goals from Darche were really good examples of the kinds of goals you need to score at this time of year.'
Defenseman P.K. Subban also scored and former Devils star Brian Gionta set up both of Darche's goals as the Canadiens won for only the second time in six games.
``Tonight we did a good job of getting back on track,' Gionta said. ``The last few games we haven't been (good) and we did a much better job tonight.'
Ilya Kovalchuk scored for the Devils with 5:59 to play, preventing Price from posting his ninth shutout.
Darche deflected a backhand pass by Gionta from the left side boards midway through the first period to give Montreal a 1-0 lead to the roars of what seemed a Canadiens crowd in New Jersey.
Brodeur kept the Devils in the game in the second period but the Canadiens put the game away in the early minutes of the third.
Subban ripped a blue-line shot past Brodeur on a power play at 29 seconds with Andrei Kostitsyn providing a screen.
Darche got his 12th goal of the season at 3:34, once again deflecting a Gionta pass by Brodeur, who finished with 26 saves.
Kovalchuk got his 29th goal of the season in close with the Canadiens about to be called for a delayed penalty.
Brodeur was the reason the Devils were only a goal down after two periods. He made 22 saves in the opening 40 minutes and several were spectacular, with the best being a couple on Michael Cammalleri in the second period.
Brodeur got a piece of Cammalleri's rebound attempt with his glove about eight minutes into the second period and he had another in the closing seconds with the Canadiens on a power play.
The 38-year-old goaltender also stopped former teammates Scott Gomez and Gionta in close in the second period.
``Can you ask Marty to be better than how he was tonight,' said Lemaire, who added the rest of his team played poorly. ``He had nobody in front of him. Sorry, but that's what it was. Mistakes after mistakes, just a bad game.'
Devils rookie Mattias Tedenby was awarded a penalty shot in the opening minutes after being slashed on a breakaway, However, his attempt hit off the post and rolled along the goal line without going in.
The game also marked the first appearance by Devils left wing Zach Parise since knee surgery in early November. He had two shots in 21 minutes.
``Mentally I felt great,' Parise said. ``Physically for the first part of the first period I felt like I didn't belong out there. I felt more comfortable as the game went on.'
NOTES: Price tied a Canadiens record appearing in his 70th game in goal. Gerry McNeil (1950-51, 51-52) and Jacques Plante (61-62). ... Gionta got his 400th NHL point on Darche's first goal. ... Devils D Colin White missed his fourth straight game with a lower body injury. ... Brodeur returned to action after being rested on Friday against Philadelphia. He had started 15 straight games.
The Associated Press News Service
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