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Game 49 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Montreal Canadiens

The Time: 7 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (33-14-1) versus the Montreal Canadiens (23-23-5)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils were mired in a three game losing streak and along came the Florida Panthers. Tomas Vokoun was excellent, but the Devils were the better team on the ice in all aspects in the game. They snapped their streak with a shutout of all possible wins, 2-0. In my recap, I lauded the improved play by the Devils in comparison to their last three games.

The Last Canadiens Game: After falling behind 3-1 to the St. Louis Blues, the Canadiens bravely fought back with important goals from Benoit Pouliot and Mike Cammalleri. While Montreal got a point, Andy McDonald sealed the win in overtime to end it all at 4-3 for the away team. Dave Stubbs at Habs Inside/Out has a standard recap, whereas the game made Robert L of Habs Eyes on the Prize is becoming more and more resigned with the squad of the team he supports.

The Last Devils-Canadiens Game: The Devils and Canadiens put on an up-tempo, end-to-end, intense hockey game on January 9, 2010. The game had it all: tense power plays, hits all over the place, scoring chances for both teams, and both Martin Brodeur and Jaroslav Halak playing very well. Regulation ended at 1 apiece, but Travis Zajac found Zach Parise wide open and alone with the goaltender after winning the puck in the corner. Parise made his move, froze Halak, and earned the Devils' second win over Montreal this season. My recap highlighted the excellent play of ZZ Pops and the general energy level brought by the team. On the opposition side, Robert L of Habs Eyes on the Prize felt the overtime loss by the home team was a moral victory for the Canadiens.

The Goal: Don't get cocky, get better. Against the Panthers, I was really happy to see how the Devils earned their win. They didn't concede early goals (or any at all), the defense didn't have giant brainfarts in their own end, and the power play - while scoreless - actually was threatening. That said, upon further reflection, it wasn't perfect hockey. I'm not going to fault the offense for not scoring more given how well Vokoun played. Yet, I will fault them for some of the sloppy passes in the game, and decisions on two-on-ones to pass to a covered player. The second period was a bit of a slow start for the team and Florida just didn't take any kind of advantage. And it really is time for the power play to finally get some goals, 0 for 21 is ridiculous. Now, the Devils could still win even if their power play remains unplugged and they aren't completely precise with their puck movement. They will not win if they just rest on their laurels, thinking that what was done on Wednesday will be good enough tonight. For the long term (games going forward) and short term (tonight's game), the Devils need to build on what they did against Florida.

Please check out Habs Eyes on the Prize for all your big picture Canadiens analysis and click on over to Habs Inside/Out for the latest news about the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. Read on further for additional thoughts about tonight's game.

The big news yesterday for the Devils was that Ilkka Pikkarainen was put on waivers. As reported by Tom Gulitti, the reason was clear: Pikkarainen wasn't playing well enough to justify a roster spot. Pikkarainen was understandably a little upset by this, but should he clear waivers, he'll go down to Lowell. Honestly, if there was a player on the roster I would have placed on waivers for poor performance, it'd be Andrew Peters. I know Pikkarainen had a bad game, but before then he was bringing good energy, plenty of hits, and even a few shots on the fourth line. With multiple forwards coming back, the Devils had to make their choice.

There was some more positive news - Vladimir Zharkov and Dainius Zubrus both practiced today. Zubrus still needs more time practicing after being out so long, but according to Gulitti's post on the Pikkarainen, he noted that Zharkov may be back for tonight's game. It was just a minor injury (a bruise? soreness?) to his right foot after taking a shot there on Monday. Unfortunately, Rod Pelley is still out and so I wonder who the fourth center would be. On Wednesday, Lemaire shortened his bench and went with three centers: Zajac, Rob Niedermayer, and Dean McAmmond. Patrick Davis has played some center in the past, but by waiving Pikkarainen, a roster spot is open for the Devils to call up someone from Lowell. Given the positional need, I would think the man to call up would be Tim Sestito. So far, there's no indication as to what the Devils will do.

What is clear is that Martin Brodeur is starting tonight and there's no reason he shouldn't. Once again, I give you his lifetime stats against Montreal:

vs. Montreal - Martin Brodeur 57 3448 37 15 5 101 1.76 1496 1395 .932 8

Yeah. He's starting. I would guess that this will be the Devils' lineup.

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
Brian Rolston - Rob Niedermayer - Niclas Bergfors
Jay Pandolfo - Dean McAmmond - Vladimir Zharkov
Pierre-Luc Letourneau Leblond - Patrick Davis - Nick Palmieri

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

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Going back to call ups, tonight will be the second game for Davis and Nick Palmieri tonight. I felt they did well on Wednesday and made a very good first impression for Lemaire. He even gave both players ice time above the fourth line due to how well they're doing. Very good for both players, even though I think they'll start there again. Lemaire had this to say about both players, according to this post by Gulitti:

"The first game, the kids will get ready," he said. "They play probably at their best. Nervousness was not a factor in their game because they’ve been around and they know the league. So, the point of this is trying to play the same the next game and keep playing the same way. You’re going to get kids a lot of times they come up for one game and they play just great. They’re really excited. They go the next game and they drop a bit. They go the third game and they drop again. Then, the fourth game they drop and then after that you say, ‘They’re not ready’ and they go back. So, this is what we’ll be looking for."

In my opinion, this applies just as well to the team with respect to their recent performances. It's not enough to just hang back after a good result, it is important to keep working hard to get good results. Otherwise, we'll see another slump shortly.

As for tonight's opponent, I'm not quite sure what to expect. The first game against Montreal was a game that no one really wanted to win and a late Devils goal sealed yet another 2-1 win. The second and most recent game against Montreal was an intense, high-energy affair that the Devils won 2-1 in overtime. I suppose a close game should be expected, but will the Rock see an energized Montreal team or a lackluster one?

One of the big questions surrounding Montreal is whether they'll make the playoffs. Currently, they are in a three way tie with 51 points, three behind current the eighth-place New York Islanders. It's easy to think that with 13th place Tampa Bay only behind by 4 points, it's still anyone's game. Yet, I don't think it'll be that simple for Montreal. The Canadiens have played more games than Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay while being tied with, two points behind, and one point ahead respectively. Moreover, their record is remarkably mediocre at both home and away. In front of their hometown faithful, they are 11-11-4; on the road they are 12-12-1. Are they good? Are they bad? It seems like that and more.

From that standpoint, I can certainly understand Robert L's gloomy outtake on the Canadiens' current playoff hopes. That they are playing a team they haven't beaten yet this season and features a goaltender who dominates them on a regular basis certainly can't make the outlook better. One would think the Canadiens will come out tonight playing with a lot of passion since they really need wins and quickly. Yet, the record suggests otherwise.

Also from that standpoint, I can also understand the recent decision by the team to release Georges Laraque, as reported here by Dave Stubbs of Habs Inside/Out. Given that Laraque's known for being a bruising heavyweight, a fighter with few peers in the NHL, that he did very little including fighting understandably leads to this unceremonious dismissal.

2009 - Georges Laraque 28 1 2 3 -6 28 0 0 0 0 2 50.0

Laraque hasn't made the Canadiens a better team on the ice and given their situation, they had to make the tough decision to dump him. How will his teammates react in the first game without him? I don't know, maybe not at all. From a fan's perspective, Robert at Habs Eyes on the Prize is pleased at this development.

He, and I'm sure many Canadiens fans, are pleased with performance of the not-quite-so-recently acquired Benoit Pouliot. In 13 games, he has 8 goals (!!) and an assist. He's has put in 4 in his last 5 games, including a two goal effort against St. Louis on Wednesday. As I understand it, he's been on a scoring line with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta and clearly, it's been working out. Each have earned at least a point in 4 of their last 5 games as well. Provided I am not mistaken, this gives the Canadiens a very formidable pair of scoring lines with Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri, the team's top two scorers, on the other unit.

2009 - Tomas Plekanec 51 11 38 49 2 28 1 0 1 0 121 9.1
2009 - Mike Cammalleri 51 23 18 41 7 12 4 0 4 0 176 13.1

One thing that I'm actually am certain about is Montreal's excellent power play. Once again, the Devils will have to pay special attention to where they put their sticks and their bodies without the puck. The Montreal Canadiens currently have the second best power play in the league with a 24.9% conversion rate. The power play goals can come from anywhere: from the point by Marc-Andre Bergeron (6) or Andrei Markov (3); from the big guns of Cammalleri (4), Gionta (5), and Andrei Kostitsin (5); and even from Glen Metropolit of all people (6). If there's one player to pay special attention to when the Canadiens have a man advantage, then it should be Plekanec. Don't be fooled by his 1 power play goal, he has 18 assists on the power play this season. The man's involved when the Canadiens strike on the power play. The Devils really should avoid what they did in their last game against the Canadiens and hand them 4 power play chances. It'll make tonight's game that much easier.

2009 - Carey Price 32 1893 11 16 86 2.73 990 904 .913 0
2009 - Jaroslav Halak 21 1205 12 7 53 2.64 677 624 .922 2

As of this writing, it isn't clear who will be starting in net for Montreal but the idea of hitting them with a variety of shots is a good one as any. Like in the Florida game on Wednesday, the goaltender would have to have a great night to stop them - so New Jersey should force Price or Halak to be great. If they can catch Montreal's defense sleeping or get them skating after them, then all the better.

Regardless, the goal for New Jersey is to continue improving in their performance. A win over Montreal tonight would do that, but pay attention to how New Jersey does it. Does their passes and decisions with the puck look sharper? Does the team come out well after each period? Does the power play actually make you think, "Yes, this indeed is a power play," along with whether or not it scores? These are the questions the Devils will answer tonight at the Rock.

Please leave your thoughts, questions, concerns, and news updates in the comments. Steve will have the GameThread up later today, closer to gametime. I'll attempt to comment via mobile in my usual seat in Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5. Go Devils!