Jamie Langenbrunner capped a sensational third-period comeback Tuesday night that earned New Jersey the Atlantic Division title with its 11th straight victory, 4-3 over Montreal.
The Devils, who trailed the division-leading Flyers by 19 points on Jan. 6, registered the biggest comeback to claim a division title since the league divided into two conferences with the 1974-75 expansion. Detroit held the previous record, overcoming an 18-point deficit in 1993-94.
Gionta had three points, including his franchise-record 47th and 48th goals, then Langenbrunner scored with 2:23 to go in regulation. New Jersey, which was battling for one of the last playoff positions a month ago, won its sixth division championship in nine seasons in spectacular fashion.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in,” Langenbrunner said. “We were basically so far out of it even three weeks ago that somehow we won this division and have home ice is—I think we’re all a little bit in shock about that. But we definitely earned it.”
The Devils last lost 4-3 in Toronto on March 26. They trailed the Canadiens 3-0, however.
Gionta scored late in the second period and again midway through the third before assisting on Patrik Elias’ tying goal 14:55 into the final period.
“We knew what was going on,” said Gionta, acknowledging the Devils were aware the New York Rangers had lost 5-1 to Ottawa. “Down 3-1 going into the third and with a chance for a division title, we had to throw everything on the line.”
Langenbrunner further silenced the stunned sellout crowd of 21,273 when he beat Cristobal Huet on a 2-on-1 to win it.
“I was definitely excited,” Langenbrunner said. “To be able to help your team clinch a division is definitely a good feeling, especially considering all that we’ve been through this year with our struggles early on, players leaving and coaches quitting. It’s been quite a year.”
The Devils finished with 101 points, the same as Philadelphia, but won the division with more victories. They will play the New York Rangers in the playoffs; the Rangers wound up with 100 points.
“To win 11 in a row at the end of the year is quite an accomplishment, especially the schedule we were playing, against pretty much all playoff teams,” Langenbrunner said. “We’re excited about the way we’re playing, but this team is built to play in the playoffs and that’s what we base our accomplishments on and we’re excited about our opportunity now.”
Montreal, which topped its own league attendance record, finished seventh overall with 95 points after clinching a playoff spot the night before when Atlanta lost. The Canadiens will travel to Carolina to open its opening-round series.
“If you had asked me 24 hours ago I would have said I was excited about it because we’re happy to be playing and we skated right down to the wire to get into the playoffs,” Canadiens coach and GM Bob Gainey said. “Even tonight, teams were moving all over through the division, so we’re happy to be playing, we’re happy to be in the playoffs. That’s what our goal was at the beginning of the year.”
Gionta had his sixth three-point game of the season to finish with 89 points. He extended his points streak to 15 games when he broke Huet’s shutout effort. He moved ahead of Pat Verbeek, who scored 46 goals for the Devils in 1987-88.
The 5-foot-7 right wing added his second goal of the game 11:29 into the third.
Montreal’s 41st sellout in as many home games brought the Canadiens’ total attendance to 872,193 this season, the team’s 10th full season at the Bell Centre. That tops its NHL record of 861,072 set in 1996-97.
Devils G Martin Brodeur tied his career high with 43 wins, a figure he first attained in 1997-98. Brodeur also won 43 games in 1999-2000 before the Devils went on to win the second of their three Stanley Cups in the playoffs. … The Canadiens’ total attendance was higher than baseball’s Expos drew in five of their six final seasons at Olympic Stadium. Montreal’s defunct NL team played 59 home dates in its final two seasons, when some games were moved to Puerto Rico to boost revenue before the franchise was moved to Washington, D.C., for the 2005 season. … The Canadiens have sold out 64 consecutive regular-season games.