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In an amazing contest victory, the 20 fans who showed up to watch the Devils – Canadiens game in New Jersey were all given the opportunity to wear the blue, white, and red of the Habs and play against the hometown boys. With a calm and controlled game typical of a team that knows what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, the Devils prevailed by a score of 2-0.

Of course, Canadiens fans can be excused if that’s what they felt they were watching tonight.

It was a game where the visiting squad were flat, uninspired, and mentally unprepared; three traits that have been mercifully absent in the Habs for some time now. There were communication problems all over the ice, a majority of the passes hit skate blades or were behind intended recipients, and in the critical one on one battles, the Habs lost virtually every time.

Even Jose Theodore had a tougher game than usual. Sure, he made some great saves and neither goal had anything to do with him, but he was fighting the puck, giving out inexcusable rebounds and playing pucks outside his net directly to the opposition. The other Hab going to the All-Star contest in Minnesota, Sheldon Souray, had an extremely tough game himself, frequently missing on passes, hits, and his defensive coverage.

It was to be a measure of things to come when the Canadiens forwards were caught deep on most of the early shifts, leading to three on twos that are not normally seen from this defensively aware club. While the Devils didn’t take advantage, they looked far more dangerous than a team with the third worst goals per game average should look.

The first goal, however, fell to some misfortune – and also to the price you must inevitably pay at some point when you leave a forward on the blueline during the powerplay. After watching the puck take numerous bounces off players and sticks, Saku Koivu thought he could step in and send it deep before the Devils got close. Unfortunately, Patrick Elias was quicker on the draw and he deftly chipped it past Koivu and streaked in alone. His wrister caught the top corner, glove side, for what was to eventually be the winning goal.

The Habs, obviously looking to help Martin Brodeur’s shutout total, managed a mere nine shots in the first two periods combined. This was symptomatic of the lack of effort displayed all over the rink and particularly in the offensive zone. Certainly the Devils were trapping very well and routinely stopped an attack before it even hit the centre line, but as mentioned, the missed passes and lack of individual wins were devastating to a Montreal team looking to make a claim on 5th in the conference.

During a Devil powerplay in the second, Grant Marshall, in an attempt to hit a streaking Elias, had his pass deflected over the shoulder of Theodore by defender Francis Bouillon. It was shades of the loss to Toronto some weeks past when Sundin’s cross-ice pass did the same giving the victory to the Leafs.

Later in the period, newcomer Josef Balej, playing in his first NHL game, was sitting alone in front of Brodeur on a three on two when the other two Habs were beaten along the boards despite having control of the puck while entering the Devil zone. Typically on this night, the one clear-cut chance the Habs were given was completely squandered because of a lack of desire.

The early third played out much as the first two periods, except Pierre Dagenais was replaced on the second line by Balej, presumably because the former had taken a particularly stupid penalty in the second, but also because Dagenais just wasn’t at his best tonight.

Bad went to worse as Jason Ward, in an attempt to make things happen on a centring pass, was taken into the boards awkwardly and came out of it with a shoulder injury which kept him sprawled on the ice for two or three minutes. The injury is a huge shame for Ward who was playing his best hockey of the year and was making a place for himself on the third line. It’s also a hit to the Habs who lose a hustle player, one of the few on this night, and a guy with size who can hit.

The second half of the third found the Habs showing a little life, but against the best defensive team in hockey, that’s too little too late. Koivu found Michael Ryder behind the defence, but the rookie was stymied by the All-Star Devils keeper.

In the end, it came down to bad decisions, bad execution, and a lack of intensity for the Canadiens. Coach Julien will have his work cut out for him to get the Canadiens back on track as they have to face the Leafs tomorrow back in Montreal. Habs fans just hope the team shows up.