Nothing brings a larger sense of dread to the heart of a Montreal Canadiens fan than a visit to the swamps of New Jersey and a road game against the Devils. There are other places were the Canadiens normally don’t play well, but none of them can match the utter hopelessness of a road game in New Jersey. No team or arena brings more of a sense of despair or failure to a Canadiens fan. How many times have we all sat down, full of hope that diminishes with each game, and proceeded to watch the Devils score the first goal, maybe add a second, and then go into suffocating shut down mode.
It just wasn’t how the Devils dominated the Canadiens, but it was how they did it. Every game seemed to feel like it was following an all too familiar story; Canadiens get outplayed in all facets of the game, are usually out shot, out hit, and always outworked. Watching games between these two for the past decade and a half was an exercise for the dedicated. Over the years, the names on the back of the uniforms have changed for both teams, the rinks have changed for the Devils, but one constant has remained; Martin Brodeur.
No goalie in NHL history has dominated the Canadiens like Martin Brodeur. And while the Canadiens are certainly not alone in their ineptitude against Brodeur, they have become his predominant whipping boy. The numbers going into Thursday night’s game tell the story …
– the Canadiens were winless in their last nine against the Devils with their last win coming on March 20th, 2004
– in those nine games the Canadiens were outscored by the Devils 33 to 16.
– in 51 career games against the Canadiens, Brodeur has 34 wins, 12 losses, 5 ties, with a 1.74 goals against average to go along with 8 shutouts.
And most ominously,
– the Canadiens last win in New Jersey came on February 5th, 2002 when Jose Theodore shut out the Devils 1-0.
– before that the Canadiens had failed to win in New Jersey since October 26th, 1993 when their captain was Guy Carbonneau and their goaltender was Patrick Roy.
-coincidentally, the two Canadiens victories saw both Roy and Theodore record shutouts.
– the Canadiens record in New Jersey since that win over the Devils in the fall of 1993, was a pitiful 1 win, 24 losses, and 4 ties.
So when the Devils established a two goal lead late in the second period, the game appeared to be over. And then as if on cue the Canadiens appeared to lose their cool, and began taking regular visits to the penalty box. With the Devils holding a two man advantage for well over ninety seconds, the game appeared over, yet another futile, wasted night in New Jersey.
After all, the Canadiens hadn’t produced a single third period comeback all year, and let’s be honest, in the past fifteen years there has been no team better at holding the lead than the New Jersey Devils; they have three Stanley Cups to show for their stunning efficiency.
The end result seemed to be a rerun from years past, another wasted trip to New Jersey, with nothing to show but frustration. Just as the Canadiens appeared to look like a legitimate Eastern Conference contender, here were the Devils, ready to expose Montreal as just another pretender.
And then a funny thing happened …
– the Canadiens killed off the two man advantage and headed to the dressing room down by two.
– a mere twenty nine seconds into the third period the much maligned Brian Smolinski scored his second goal of the game to bring the Habs within one.
– as the third period progressed it slowly became painfully obvious that the Canadiens had taken control of the game, as the play was almost exclusively in the Devils end of the rink. Not only were the Canadiens taking it to the Devils but they were doing it with a mixture of style and aggressiveness that the Devils haven’t seen in the past fifteen years from a Montreal team
– with a little over 8 minutes left in the game, the Canadiens captain, Saku Koivu, the Canadiens primary witness to the years of Devil domination, tied the game at three.
– and then two minutes later, the previously struggling Chris Higgins completed the comeback by putting the winning goal past the previously unbeatable Brodeur.
Not only had the Canadiens gained a huge win over a team that has dominated them for the past fifteen years, but they had achieved victory in a most decisive way, out shooting New Jersey 20-3 in the crucial third period on the way to enjoying a decided 32-13 shot advantage for the game. But perhaps, more impressively, the Habs had asserted their will over the Devils and controlled the game, and the tables were turned, with the Devils becoming the discouraged, the disheartened, and the embittered by game’s end.
Only time will tell if Thursday night was just a mirage, but right now it feels like a benchmark, a game that we may look back on as the defining moment of this team’s season, the moment where this years Canadiens established themselves as not pretenders but contenders to the throne.