Devils spoil Cunneyworth's debut as Habs' head coach

Randy Cunneyworth's debut as coach of the Montreal Canadiens ended in booing from the Bell Centre crowd as Patrick Elias set a club scoring record with two goals in the New Jersey Devils' 5-3 victory on Saturday night in Montreal.
Montreal Canadiens interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth talks with players during first period against the New Jersey Devils in Montreal on Saturday. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Even after the shock of a coaching change, things remained the same for the Montreal Canadiens.

The Canadiens held a 15-minute players-only meeting in their dressing room after Randy Cunneyworth's head coaching debut was spoiled by the same kind of third period letdown that ushered his predecessor Jacques Martin out the door.

David Clarkson tied the game late in the second period and Patrick Elias and Dainius Zubrus scored in the third as the New Jersey Devils downed the Canadiens 5-3 on Saturday night.

Francophone coach important: Gagnon

Where does having a francophone head coach rank in the eyes of Montreal Canadiens fans?

Ask La Presse newspaper columnist Francois Gagnon and the answer is second behind winning.

"Good luck Randy Cunneyworth. You have 50 games to remind us that you don’t speak French," Gagnon posted to his Twitter account Saturday, shortly after the Canadiens fired head coach Jacques Martin and promoted Cunneyworth from the assistant’s role.

Later, Gagnon appeared on Hockey Night in Canada’s Hotstove segment and was asked by host Ron MacLean about his tweet and thoughts on the coaching move.

"I have the utmost respect for Randy Cunneyworth," said Gagnon, who covered the Ottawa Senators when Cunneyworth was team captain in the mid-1990s. "It’s a tough situation for him.

"He has 50 games to show that he can coach in the NHL, and not only that, that he can coach the Montreal Canadiens, and that he can learn French.

"It’s impossible for him to do all of that," Gagnon added. "He needs to win games first and foremost. After that, French will be a second issue. But here in Montreal, the language barrier is an issue."

"Is it important to the fans of Montreal that there is a French-speaking head coach?" Elliotte Friedman of HNIC and host of the iDesk asked Gagnon. "Or, would they accept a great candidate that they knew was a great candidate if he didn’t speak [French] to start?

"That’s the biggest question of all. For me, a GM [general manager] could be in Montreal and speak only English," Gagnon said. "[Tampa Bay Lightning GM] Stevie Yzerman would have been a wonderful GM for this franchise. If you told me [Detroit’s] Mike Babcock, who I think is the best coach in the NHL, would be available, I would write in my paper and say, ‘Let’s see fans, we have a chance to get the best coach in the NHL, so let’s be patient.’

"But [in] this situation, depending who’s going [to take over full-time], [the language barrier] is a big issue. If there’s nobody that great available, then the fans will say [winning] is No. 1 priority but the No. 2 priority is the issue to find a way to get a francophone coach."

— Doug Harrison, CBC Sports

"It's a frustrated group of players," said Cunneyworth, who had been promoted that morning when Martin was fired after too many similar losses at home, where Montreal is now 5-7-6 for the season. "They know it's not enough.

"They were up against a good team but I thought they were up for the task. I know it was a letdown in the end."

Boos filled the Bell Centre as the game wound down on Cunneyworth's first game as an NHL head coach.

Elias passed John McLean as the Devils' all-time goal-scoring leader with his 347th and 348th, while Peter Sykora also scored for New Jersey (18-13-1).

Montreal (13-13-7) started the day in 11th place and fell further out of playoff position. Now they are relived to be heading out on a six-game road trip.

"We wanted to start fresh and it's the same story over again," said centre Lars Eller. "But there are still a lot of games left and we have to pull ourselves together and figure out a way to win."

Cunneyworth made small adjustments from Martin's routine, including placing more trust in a young centre like Eller and his linemates Louis Leblanc and Mathieu Darche. The team looked a little more adventurous on attack, while ice tme between the top three lines was more evenly distributed.

Eller and defencemen P.K. Subban and Chris Campoli scored for the Canadiens.

Campoli was also the goat on the game-winner, as he was stripped of the puck in the slot and Elias finished a give-and-go with Sykora 1:31 into the third period. Cunneyworth said it was not all Campoli's fault.

"We have to be better positionally," he said. "I don't think we gave him a good out, a good target. But we tell them to use the glass if they don't see anything."

Sykora picked up the puck for Elias' record goal.

"It just feels nice," said career Devil Elias. "It feels like you're doing something right and it keeps me going. Hopefully I have a lot more in me."

Zubrus sealed the win with a power-play goal at 10:18.

"Part of the reason for the changes was exactly what we did tonight," said defenceman Josh Gorges. "At some point we have to take ownership upon ourselves and understand it's not good enough."

He said it may help the team to be on the road over the holiday period. They have a winning record (8-6-1) away from home.

"It's a chance to be together as a group and focus on hockey," he said. "And on the road, you don't have to be pretty. You can just win games. We've done that a lot on the road and hopefully we can gain the confidence we need and apply it to home ice."

The Devils were coming off an emotional 6-3 victory over Dallas on Friday night, when legendary defenceman Scott Niedermayer's No. 27 jersey was retired.

The Canadiens hoped to take advantage by jumping on the Devils early, but New Jersey had the first seven shots and got the opening goal when Zubrus' shot went in off Sykora past a screened Carey Price.

Montreal took three penalties in the first period, the last one a minor on Erik Cole for a hit to the head of rookie rearguard Adam Larsson, who was reaching forward for a puck behind his net when Cole's shoulder contacted his helmet. Larsson was not hurt and stayed in the game, but it will likely be looked at by NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan.

Montreal was on a two-man advantage when Subban scored on a point blast 2:21 into the second period. Tomas Kaberle picked up his fifth point in four games as a Canadien with an assist.

Elias got it back when he sneaked in from behind the net to pound Ilya Kovalchuk's pass into an open side on a power play at 5:05.

Campoli got his first as a Canadien on a shot from the slot at 6:33 and Eller scored from the slot at 8:57, but Clarkson tied it at 18:26 after taking a perfect stretch pass from Larsson and beating Price with a wrist shot.