OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators returned from the all-star break Tuesday night, but in the opinion of Craig Hartsburg, they certainly didn't bring their best effort with them.
"Never won a battle," the Senators coach lamented after Ottawa suffered a 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils at Scotiabank Place. "Never won a battle for a loose puck.
"You can do all the Xs and Os you want, it doesn't matter if you don't compete hard for the puck."
Jamie Langenbrunner scored a pair of goals for red-hot New Jersey, which took an early lead and outworked and outscored the Senators the rest of the way. The Devils picked up from where they left off before the break with their sixth straight triumph.
Prior to all-star weekend, the Devils (30-15-3) had won six of their previous seven games.
"The big thing was to get a win," said Brendan Shanahan, who had a goal for New Jersey. "We ran into a bit of penalty trouble, but overall, five-on-five, I thought we deserved a win and coming out of the break, it was a good win for us."
Patrik Elias also scored and Scott Clemmensen made 21 saves for the Atlantic Division leaders.
The victory allowed New Jersey to leapfrog the Washington Capitals, 3-2 losers to the Boston Bruins on the night, for second overall in the Eastern Conference.
Langenbrunner had the go-ahead marker in the second period and added some insurance early in the third before a crowd of 18,786.
"That was a pretty complete game for us," Langenbrunner said. "We limited their chances and didn't make mistakes and Scott made some big saves for us, too."
Clemmensen picked his 20th victory of the season. The longtime backup's previous career high was three, but he's making the most out of the playing time given to him after an injury to Martin Brodeur.
"I didn't even think about (winning 20 games) because I was playing one game at a time. I know it sounds cliche, but it's true," Clemmensen said.
The Senators (16-22-7) had fared well recently, with three wins in the past four games while recording at least a point in each of those outings. Their fortunes turned last night, hours after owner Eugene Melnyk told reporters that he hadn't given up hope, even though he admitted it would take about 28 wins over the 38 remaining games to be in playoff contention.
They came out flat, allowing Elias' goal in the opening five minutes and, even though Alexandre Picard eventually tied it, they weren't level for long and never recovered.
"We didn't start great, they got a good bounce right away," Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "Overall, they kept us on the outside and we didn't get too many chances."
Brian Elliott stopped 23 shots in goal for Ottawa.
On Tuesday, the Senators announced they'd assigned Martin Gerber to Binghamton of the AHL after the 34-year-old goaltender cleared waivers last Friday.
Meanwhile, Danish centre Peter Regin was recalled from the AHL and defenceman Anton Volchenkov returned after missing the past eight games with an upper-body injury.
With Gerber gone, it cleared the way for Elliott to make his sixth straight start in the Senators' goal and it didn't start well.
Brian Gionta broke down the right wing and threw the puck at the net with Elias driving to it. The puck appeared to bounce off Senators defenceman Brian Lee and in as he tried to prevent Elias from crashing the crease, but, after a review to make sure it wasn't kicked in, the goal stood as Elias' 21st of the season.
It stayed 1-0 until just past the midway point of the second period when Picard scored with New Jersey's Bryce Salvador off for hooking. All six of his goals this season have come on the power play.
Langenbrunner restored New Jersey's lead a few minutes later when he collected the bounce off the end boards after Johnny Oduya missed the net with a point shot and banked a shot off Elliott and in.
Then, just 19 seconds into the third, he was at it again, collecting a nice backhand pass from Zach Parise and wristing in his 10th goal of the season.
Ottawa's night was summed up when it had a four-minute power play after Shanahan was called for high-sticking Alfredsson, but failed to manage a shot on goal, drawing boos from the home crowd.
""It's not the way we wanted (to return)," centre Mike Fisher said. "We were in the game until the second. In the third, they didn't give us a whole lot.
"That (power play) was a critical point in the game and we didn't respond. There's no excuse."
The Senators finished 1-for-5 on the power play; the Devils went 0-for-4.
Shanahan added his second goal in three games since signing with the Devils to finish off the scoring, snapping a shot past Elliott from the right faceoff circle.
Notes: The Senators made veteran defenceman Jason Smith a healthy scratch along with fellow blue-liner Christoph Schubert. Starting Thursday at St. Louis, Ottawa is on the road for the next three games, including stops in Columbus and Washington. Left-winger Jay Pandolfo was among the Devils' scratches. New Jersey faces another Northeast Division team Thursday when it travels to Boston.