VANCOUVER - After a small hiccup, Scott Clemmensen has the best season of his NHL career back on track.
Clemmensen, who was mired in the minors last season but has emerged as New Jersey's nominal No. 1 netminder following an injury to Martin Brodeur, made 26 saves as the Devils held on for a 5-3 victory over the Vancouver Canucks before a disappointed sellout crowd of 18,630 at General Motors Place.
"I tried to get back on the right track after having lost my last three starts," said Clemmensen. "So it was important for me just to get a win, just to kind of get some building blocks going again.
"Hopefully, tonight's win is a step in the right direction."
Clemmensen, who started the season with New Jersey's farm team in Lowell, Mass., but was called up in November after Brodeur went down with a bicep injury, recorded his 16th victory of the season - twice as many as he totalled in parts of eight previous campaigns.
"It makes me feel good that I know I've proven to myself more than anyone that I can play well in this league and, pretty much, I feel I can beat any team in the league," said Clemmensen.
Despite allowing two late goals, he outperformed Vancouver netminders Jason LaBarbera and Curtis Sanford, who showed signs of nervousness with injured starter Roberto Luongo's return imminent. LaBarbera allowed two goals on six shots in the first three minutes and 29 seconds of the game while Sanford also struggled before the Canucks rallied. Vancouver outshot New Jersey 29-28.
The Devils darted out to a 2-0 lead in the first 3:29 and led 3-0 after 20 minutes.
Clemmensen shut the Devils' door for most of the second period as the Canucks attempted a comeback but only managed to score once, before New Jersey took an insurmountable 4-1 advantage early in the third.
"We were kind of up and down a little bit most of the game," said Clemmensen. "We obviously started up . . . and we finished down, but we got the win."
Brian Rolston, Zach Parise, Brian Gionta, Travis Zajac and Dainus Zubrus, into an empty net, scored for the Devils (25-15-3) as they posted only their second win in the past five outings.
Alex Burrows, Pavol Demitra and Steve Bernier replied for the Canucks (22-18-5) as they suffered their third straight loss and fifth in the last six games.
"The second and third, I thought we played pretty good," said Vancouver forward Mats Sundin. "But obviously being down 3-0 after the first, that's unacceptable. We have to be a lot better, especially on home ice."
Demitra made the score 4-2 as he one-timed a Sundin rebound past Clemmensen at 12:19. Bernier cut the Canucks' deficit to 4-3 at 17:19 of the third, but Zubrus added an empty-netter to seal the New Jersey win.
"I wish that we would have finished a little stronger," said Clemmensen. "But I need the win. That's the most important thing for me right now."
New Jersey coach Brent Sutter said, after his team outshot the Canucks 12-4 in the first period, the Devils tried to get too fancy with the puck in the second as they were outshot 13-10.
He conceded that his club's goaltending was the difference, but added Clemmensen probably wished he could have had all three goals back.
"I don't want to get too negative, because he's done a pretty darn good job considering everything," said Sutter.
Clemmensen, a 31-year-old, Des Moines, Iowa, native, gave fans in his home state a reason to feel proud again. He is the only Iowan drafted - and now playing - in the NHL.
Originally, drafted 215th overall by New Jersey in 1997, he moved to the Toronto Maple Leafs organization. He is excelling this season after spending 2007-08 with the Toronto's top farm club and returning to New Jersey as a free agent in the off-season.
He said his strong return to the NHL was a matter of attitude as well as aptitude as he tried to work on his game in the minors and make the best of the situation. But, he contended, he's not doing much differently.
"I think I'm pretty much the same goalie that I was three or four years ago," said Clemmensen. "It's just that people don't know me or have never seen me play . . . It's just a situation where I haven't been able to present what I could do before."
Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault would have liked to see a better performance from LaBarbera, who is also trying to establish himself after spending most of his career in the minors.
Rolston opened the scoring just 1:05 into the game as he fired in a pass from David Clarkson from behind the net after LaBarbera mishandled a shoot-in and was slow to get back between the pipes. Parise put the Devils ahead 2-0 at 3:39 as he put in Zajac's rebound following a two-on-one while LaBarbera was caught badly out of position making the save and leaving a gaping net.
Vigneault promptly inserted Sanford in place of LaBarbera.
"He didn't look sharp so I just thought we needed to make a change right away," said Vigneault. "Not the start that he wanted, not the start that we wanted. We have to deal with it."
But Sanford promptly got into trouble behind his goal. Gionta wrapped the puck into the net after Dainus Zubrus checked Sanford off the puck, giving the Devils a 3-0 lead at 11:07 of the opening frame.
Notes: Luongo, who has missed 24 games because of a groin injury suffered Nov. 22, hopes to return Thursday against Phoenix. That means the Canucks must soon decide whether to move LaBarbera or Curtis Sanford . . .Winger Taylor Pyatt returned to the Vancouver lineup after missing eight games with a broken bone in his foot, relegating rookie Jannik Hansen to the press box . . . Canuck defenceman Sami Salo is close to returning after missing 12 games with a fractured rib ..Brodeur has now missed 33 games compared to 12 over his previous 14 seasons.