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Game 32 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Montreal Canadiens - 12/16/2009

The Time: 7 PM EST

The Broadcasting Info: TV: MSG+ (HD); Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (22-8-1) vs. the Montreal Canadiens (15-16-3)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils started off great against Philadelphia, had a poor second period, but had a decent enough third period to put the Flyers away 4-1.  The win was the first one this season over the team's Second Most Hated Rivals and was the game where Patrik Elias scored his 300th (and 301st) career goals. I recapped the game back on Saturday night.

The Last Canadiens Game:  Oh, it's been a season of inconsistency for Les Habs.  Up against Buffalo on Monday, the Canadiens got into penalty trouble and that led to Clarke McArthur's game winning power play goal. The Sabres went on to win 4-3 and Robert L of Habs Eyes on the Prize lamented the team's lack of discipline from that game, which truly stems from the team being outworked more than anything else.

The Goal:  Try to win the second period.  Oh, tonight would seem so magical for Martin Brodeur to get his 104th shutout against the team he seemingly owns on a regular basis, the Montreal Canadiens, in front of the hometown fans.   Well, forget that noise.  I'm more concerned with the team's performances in the period of the long change. Against the Lightning (Dec. 4), the Red Wings (Dec. 5), the Hurricanes (Dec. 9), the Panthers (Dec. 11), and the Flyers (Dec. 12), the Devils were arguably the second best team on the ice in the second period from what I saw.  That's 5 of the Devils' last 7 games.  That's disappointing.

I'm not saying the Devils should forgo playing well in the first period or the third period; I just want to see a good, solid second period performance.  A second period where the other team doesn't make the game competitive after a great first period by the Devils.  A second period where the Devils don't ease up on their work effort.  A second period where the Devils don't loosen up on defense.   Sure, the Devils have been getting results in the end, but they aren't doing it with complete games and they'll have to start giving more 50-60 minute efforts to keep getting results.

Read on for the rest of the preview for tonight's game, including some insight from Robert at Habs Eyes on the Prize. 

First, let's get this out of the way, expect the lineup to be the same. So my guess will look awfully familiar to those who saw the team against Philadelphia:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Nicklas Bergfors
Brian Rolston - Patrik Elias - Jamie Langenbrunner
  Jay Pandolfo - Rob Niedermayer - Vladimir Zharkov
Rod Pelley - Dean McAmmond - Ilkka Pikkarainen

Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador
Colin White - Mike Mottau
  Mark Fraser - Johnny Oduya

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

The Devils have been getting wins with current lineup and there's no way Martin Brodeur isn't starting against Montreal.   Tonight, he'll tie Patrick Roy's career record for games played (1,029) and, well, Brodeur has done incredibly well over his career against Montreal, per Yahoo's career split stats:

Career vs. Montreal - Martin Brodeur 55 3326 35 15 5 99
1448 1349 .932 8

In a word: DOMINATION.  Please note that those are his best split statline compared to all the other teams he faced. 

Yeah, I'd expect Brodeur to do pretty well tonight.  But as usual, this doesn't mean the defense can relax against Montreal.  Sure, the team averages only 2.47 goals per game, but they had no issue putting up 3 goals past Ryan Miller.  The big concern for the defense, on paper, will be the power duo of Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri. 

2009 - Tomas Plekanec 34 6 28 34 5 16 1 0 0 0 74 8.1
2009 - Mike Cammalleri 34 18 12 30 10 12 3 0 4 0 114 15.8

Behind them, it's a mix of seemingly inconsistent forwards.  Talented players like Andrei Kostitsyn, Alexei Kovalev, and Scott Gomez (P.S. The Rock will still boo you, all is apparently not forgiven.) are just not producing like the above two players.  I'm sure the Canadiens faithful would love to see them improve on that front. Hence, the low goals scored per average for Montreal.

I'm also sure they'd love to see less penalties committed by their team.  The criticism from Robert's recap of the Buffalo-Montreal game is not only echoed by Kevin Mio of Habs Inside/Out, but the team stats provide additional evidence. In terms of penalty minutes per game, it doesn't look so bad as the Canadiens average 13.4 minutes per game - that puts the team squarely in the middle of the league at 15th.   But the minor penalties, oh, that's a different story. Les Habs have taken 170 minors this season, the second most in the league behind Philadelphia (172).  By contrast, the Devils have only taken 101, the fewest in the league. 

While that may not mean much in tonight's game, I think it highlights the importance of the Devils needing to outwork the Canadiens.  They'll get beat, they'll do something dumb like hook, slash, or hold a player, and then they'll take a call that hurts them. Even if they kill all of the Devils' power plays (an increasingly difficult prospect  as the Devils' PP is converting 22% of them), it's time they're spending mostly in their own end instead of attacking. That's opportunity to pressure them further and that's a benefit.   So again, the Devils giving a complete - this includes the second period - effort on the ice will lead to many dividends beyond just possession of the puck.

The Canadiens have suffered a number of significant injuries to their roster along with inconsistent results.   I had some additional questions about how Montreal on Sunday night. Thankfully, Robert Lefebvre, the man behind the epic Canadiens encyclopedia Habs Eyes on the Prize, was able to provide me with some answers.

Question #1.  After a very busy summer, the Montreal Canadiens certainly haven't wowed many with a 15-15-3  (now 15-16-3) record.  Regardless of what happened in Buffalo on Monday night, is there any one aspect that really sticks out that is holding the Canadiens back from success?

RL: While the Canadiens record may not have wowed many, fans in Montreal have generally been impressed with the majority of the new players.  Cammalleri especially, [Brian] Gionta, before the injury, [Travis] Moen on the penalty kill, and with strong play from [Jaroslav] Spacek, [Hal] Gill and [Paul] Mara, the Canadiens are far from being in a desperate situation. If anything has held the team back, it has been the injury to Andrei Markov. After he was lost long term after being injured, the hope was that when he returned, Montreal would be somewhere around eight spot, looking at the playoff picture. It's mid December and Markov's return is imminent, so things are good.

Question #2. While Brian Gionta is injured and won't be at the Rock on Wednesday, Scott Gomez will make his first appearance in a Canadiens uniform.  I can almost guarantee the Devils fans still haven't forgiven him for jumping to the Rangers, but how has he been received in Montreal?  How is he performing so far, outside of what his stat line says?

RL: Scott Gomez - would you take him back? Personally, I haven't much good to say. I find he's a player who avoids making the tough plays in the offensive zone. When confronted, he seems to coil away and pass off, and it often appears that every set of defensemen in the league know it. While Gomez has merit defensively, that ain't what he's getting the big bucks for. For the anchor of a cap hit, he ain't worth it.

Question #3. Let's talk goalies. Chris Boyle's monthly analysis of Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak is an impressive statistical analysis.  While the latest article notes that Price has been criticized for his glove side, but the numbers show he's been beaten low and to the right slightly more often.   Why do you think that is the case?

RL: In November, there were many more accolades accorded Price for his strong play than there were criticisms of any glove side or low side weaknesses. Generally, the goals beating Price are less his fault than in the past. Why he would be more susceptible in one area is anyone's guess. My smirky answer would simply be because shooters are firing less to the upper regions since Carey's made certain corrections to his style.

Question #4. One of the more impressive team stats for the Canadiens this season is their winning percentage after scoring the first goal.  The Canadiens are fourth in the league with a .846 percentage when they score first in a game. In contrast, they have one of the worst winning percentages when they give up the first goal, .200 and tied for 5th worst in the league.  With that in mind, is it fair to say that the gameplan for Montreal will be to get that first goal?

RL: Every game plan in the history of hockey includes scoring the first goal, because as stats show, most teams have a losing record when they don't. Against the Devils, with a busy schedule, the Canadiens will place an emphasis on avoiding being pinned in their zone for long stretches. They'll also be tactical in using their speed to break through Lemaire's system in hopes of spending more time in the opposite end of the rink for a change. While the Habs aren't always getting that early goal, this team has shown that it rarely quits.

Question #5.  Lastly, do you have a prediction for tonight's game?

RL: My prediction? How about a one goal game with the Canadiens taking it in a shootout. Boos for Gomez too, as he'll perk up some and put in solid effort.

Thanks to Robert for his answers.  From them, I'm thinking the Canadiens could be better what their record indicates.  Most of their free agent signings outside of Gomez have done well - most notably Cammalleri. Apparently, Andrei Markov is being talked up as the answer in Montreal - and when he returns, some of their troubles will ease.  But he won't be playing tonight, and Scott Gomez and his pass-first ways will be.   Now, with respect to the first goal question, I'd like to defend myself here.  The Devils are one of three teams with a winning percentage after trailing first in a game (.571, behind Washington at .667 , ahead of Pittsburgh at .500).  Rare, but the Devils have done it so many times this season,  I don't think it is that far fetched to wonder why a team has trouble coming back from games.   Still, look for Montreal to try and strike first and push ahead with speed.

All the same, it all goes back to whether the Devils play hard for all three periods.  I really stress the second period because it's been 20 minutes of trouble in recent games; but as usual, hard work will lead to results. Don't worry about Martin Brodeur.  Don't worry about the media. Don't worry about "what could be" in terms of any records.  Be concerned with how the team performs.

Steve will have the GameThread up later today.  Please comment on tonight's game in the comments (feel free to post any updates from Gulitti or Chere), and Go Devils!