NEWARK, N.J. - It certainly wasn't the way the New Jersey Devils wanted to head into the all-star break, blowing a two-goal lead in the third period at home against a Montreal club the Devils had totally dominated in recent years.
"To be honest, I'm quite disappointed," Devils coach Brent Sutter said after his team's 4-3 loss to Montreal on Thursday night, the first loss to the Canadiens in the last nine meetings overall and only the second in the last 20 in New Jersey.
"I'm disappointed in the whole team and its commitment to win. Their play was brutal. They already had their plans to head to (Las) Vegas or wherever the hell they're going before the game was half over. It's totally unacceptable. Everything it takes to win a hockey game, we didn't do. It was a total lack of effort from everyone."
Chris Higgins scored a power-play goal with 5:29 remaining to cap a three-goal third period and give the Canadiens their 17th road win of the season.
"It was nice to be able to come back on them like that," said Higgins, who scored his 16th goal of the season. "We got a lot of help with that power play."
It was the final game for both teams before the all-star break.
Brian Smolinski scored twice for Montreal to bring them within reach.
Just 29 seconds into the third period, Smolinski scored off a rebound from Andrei Markov's shot, slicing the lead to 3-2. Saku Koivu tied it with 8:06 left when he deflected Mike Komisarek's slap shot for his ninth goal of the season.
"I don't know how long it's been since we won here, but it's been a long time," Koivu said. "They've certainly given us a lot of trouble over the years."
The Devils had leads of 2-0 and 3-1, thanks to two goals from Patrick Elias and one from captain Jamie Langenbrunner. Elias scored just seven minutes into the game on a power play, assisted by defenceman Mike Mottau and scored again in the second period on a perfect give-and-go between himself and Mottau.
After Smolinski sliced the lead to 2-1 on a goal he set up by maneuvering through two defenders, Langenbrunner scored a power-play goal on an uncontested slap shot with just three minutes left in the second period, seemingly giving the Devils command.
Then it unraveled, with Montreal outshoting the Devils 20-3 in the final period.
"I think the shot total says it all," said Koivu, alluding to the overall 32-13 shot discrepancy. "Pretty much every line had some success out there."
And that's what sent Sutter into his post-game tirade.
"For whatever reason, we had a lot of guys who wanted to do their own thing out there," Sutter said. "We had a 2-0 lead and had a 5-on-3 power play and had four or five quality scoring chances, but they were thinking of themselves instead of the team. We've had two-goal leads in our building and let them slip. It shows a lack of commitment to want to play. It tells you that this is not a mentally strong hockey team."
Added Sutter, "To be honest, they should be embarrassed. It's hard for me to sit on this for four days. It sure as hell better be hard on them as well. We were brutal."
After the game was over, the Devils did not return to their locker room within the 10-minute cooling off period mandated by the NHL. It was reported that the team headed to a post-game workout in the auxiliary practice rink.
Despite the loss, the Devils entered the break with the best record in the Atlantic Division and trailing only Ottawa for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.