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Game 58 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Montreal Canadiens

Erik Cole did get a penalty for this play.  Erik Cole is still a jerk.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Erik Cole did get a penalty for this play. Erik Cole is still a jerk. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Time: 6:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - NBC Sports Network, CBC, RDS; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (33-20-4) at the Montreal Canadiens (24-25-10)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the surging Anaheim Ducks on Friday. TheDucks came out hard while the Devils struggled to get rubber on net initially. While Anaheim led in the shot count, the Devils remained in the game thanks to the impressive play of Martin Brodeur. The Devils came out better in the second period and got on the scoreboard. Adam Henrique put back an Ilya Kovalchuk-created rebound early in the second; and Alexei Ponikarovsky sneaked a puck through Jonas Hiller's legs to make it 2-0. The Devils looked like they were ready to take further control of the game; but the Ducks had other ideas. Increasingly, the Ducks kept attacking and kept forcing Martin Brodeur to be great. Corey Perry pulled one back in the second, when he banged in a rebound off a 3-on-2 rush. The Ducks kept knocking on the door and it wasn't until the game's final few minutes when Sheldon Brookbank was found all alone in a precarious spot on the ice. Brookbank rifled a shot to the top corner to equalize and overtime was needed. Ryan Getzlaf looked like he ended it in OT but the goal was called off as the people in Toronto ruled he kicked it in. A shootout was necessary and the Devils took it thanks to Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, Brodeur, and a post. The Devils won 3-2, the main reason why they got anything out of the game was because of Brodeur, and my recap of the explained why along with other observations.

The Last Canadiens Game: While the Devils were getting shelled on the shot count by the Ducks, the Canadiens were battling with the Buffalo Sabres. An eventful first period saw four goals between both teams, and from some unlikely sources. Robyn Regher scored his first of the season within the game's first five minutes. That goal was answered about seven minutes later when Tomas Kaberle equalized down low just as a power play ended. Tyler Myers responded as he followed up on a loose puck that bounced off Derek Roy and torched a shot past Carey Price. In the final minute of the first period, the Scott Gomez converts on the final second on a power play to make it 2-2. Chris Campoli would be the third Canadien to score his second of the season when he finished off a rush up ice with a lovely wrister. The Sabres kept beating on Montreal with shooting attempts and eventually they broke through in the third period when Tyler Ennis was left all alone in the slot with traffic in front. He scored and that's where the score stayed until a shootout. Price was perfect, Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais scored to give Montreal a 4-3 shootout win and to keep their playoff dreams alive for a little while longer. Kevin van Steendelaar recapped the game over at Habs Eyes on the Prize, noting that the goal scorers were the same guys that Habs fans wouldn't mind seeing going elsewhere.

The Last Devils-Canadiens Game: Back at the beginning of February, the Devils hosted Montreal. This game was surprisingly physical with the refs letting a lot of garbage go, Mathieu Darche and Erik Cole getting away with high shots, and Adam Larsson getting hit hard legally by P.K. Subban which has led to the bone bruise that has kept him out injured ever since. The game was also featured a big comeback effort by the Devils. New Jersey was very bad in the game's first ten minutes, surrendering a fluke and a non-fluke goal. Price completely misplayed an easy Zach Parise shot to get the Devils on the board, but early in the second period, Kurtis Foster created the opportunity for Tomas Plekanec to get a shorthanded breakaway and didn't bother trying to pick up Darche, who put the rebound in. Down 3-1, the Devils looked to be in trouble they clawed one back on a power play thanks to David Clarkson. The third period saw the Devils break through for good. Dainius Zubrus tipped a shot by Ponikarovsky to tie it up; and Parise scored his second goal of the night by hammering a shot that originally came from a shanked Kovalchuk shot past Price's left side. Clarkson sealed the game with an empty netter to make it a 5-3 win. Not bad after being down 3-1 two minutes into the second period. I recapped the game here, noting that these Devils can't be knocked out.

The Goal: Tighten up on defense. In the Anaheim game, the Devils allowed 36 shots on net in regulation and many of them were from close range. The Devils would get clearances and stops after one or two shots, but the Ducks repeatedly got shots when they entered New Jersey's end of the rink. They were not slowed down in the neutral zone, they were not stood up at the blueline, and they were doing as they wished with the puck except for scoring thanks to Martin Brodeur playing out of his mind. While we can reasonably expect Brodeur to do well tonight because he has been playing great hockey and he's in Montreal; the defensive effort from the skaters must be better. They can start by better defending in the slot and around the net if only so Brodeur doesn't have to continually rob someone within 10 feet of the net to keep the Devils in the game.

As usual, I have more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. Please check out Habs Eyes on the Prize for an opposition point of view.

As a secondary goal, I want to see the Devils get shots on net more consistently. While the defense was bad against Anaheim, it was compounded by the fact that the Devils struggled for stretches at a time on offense. The Ducks would gain the Devils' zone, get a shot or two on net, and then that's it. The Devils would do the same only they'd miss the net, misplay a pass, or whatever so the Devils got nothing on net. The Devils would get shots on net it what seemed like spurts in between dry spells. As great as those times were, it's always going to be a struggle to succeed unless shots are registered more consistently. The Montreal defense allowed 30 from Buffalo on Friday and were generally out-attempted. While the Devils' offense aren't shot machines, they have achieved offensive success against the Canadiens and they can certainly do it tonight. They'll need to, if only to take pressure off the defensive end of the game.

How badly the Devils need to do both will partially depend on Montreal approaches this game. Since the 5-3 loss at New Jersey, the Canadiens have went up and down. They followed up the loss to the Devils with a 3-0 loss to the Caps; and then they went on a four game winning streak. That was ended by Carolina, but the Canadiens got three out of the next four points with a shootout loss to Boston and a shootout win at Buffalo. The team recently traded defenseman Hal Gill (and a conditional fifth round pick in 2013) for Blake Geoffrion, Blake Slaney, and a second round pick and it looks like they may continue to be sellers at the trade deadline. Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette has even declared them to be sellers. Yet, the players aren't acting like their season is done just yet.

So how are they now? In my previous Devils-Canadiens preview, I highlighted that the Canadiens weren't mixed by the advanced numbers. Not much has changed since then. Montreal is still below 50% Fenwick in close-score situations; they're now at 48.50% for the season. They're at 50% at home, but relative to the rest of the league, they rank rather low. They're still at about even between SF/60 and SA/60 in 5-on-5 situations: 28.2 for to 28.5 against. Their power play is still largely unsuccessful. Their conversion rate is only 13.8% and while they have a pretty good SF/60 rate in 5-on-4 situations at 49.2, their shooting percentage remains relatively low at 8.4%. They continue to shine on the penalty kill, though. Montreal has the best penalty killing success rate in the league at 89.1% as well as the league's best SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 situations at 38.2. Basically: the Devils shouldn't hope to rely on their power play to carry them tonight, they should be a bit careful on their own PK because the Canadiens will get some shots on net, and even strength may turn out to be an even game in terms of attempts. Same as before, really.

2011-12 - Max Pacioretty 56 24 21 45 1 46 2 0 4 201 11.9
2011-12 - Erik Cole 59 22 22 44 10 30 8 0 3 168 13.1
2011-12 - David Desharnais 59 11 32 43 10 18 3 0 2 69 15.9
2011-12 - Tomas Plekanec 59 12 29 41 -14 46 4 1 2 159 7.5

The main threats have also remained mostly the same. Still, their big four forwards are the big problems. Max Pacioretty has been a bit of an underrated player with respect to the league as a whole, but he's really been Montreal's most productive forward. Sure, he only has one more point than Erik Cole, but the 201 shots tells me that he's always involved on offense. Cole has been kind of like Mike Richards in the sense that he's got plenty of offensive talent, which makes one wonder why he does so many reckless, stupid things against opposing players. David Desharnais has been a very good playmaker for the team and Plekanec remains a good threat at passing and shooting, though he's been undercut by a lower shooting percentage than usual.

The Canadiens did add Rene Bourque, however he has had his struggles with Montreal. He has a whopping 3 goals, 2 assists, and 28 shots on net in 15 games on his new team. He has no points in his last three games and so I don't know how much of a threat he really could be. He did join a team that's undergone some struggles this season so perhaps he's still getting acclimated. I wouldn't be too concerned with him; though that doesn't mean he should be left alone around the net.

A more underrated factor may be Scott Gomez. As much fun as people have had at his expense, Gomez has pushed the play forward better than the other regular skaters on Montreal this season according to Behind the Net. (Aside: Cole, Pacioretty, Darche, and Desharnais all follow Gomez in on-ice Corsi - three of those four are among Montreal's top forwards. Again they are threats.) He's only been given secondary minutes (11-14 minutes) and he only has two goals, that could prove to be a problem against the Devils' depth.

2011-12 - P.K. Subban 58 3 20 23 5 70 1 0 0 23:41 148 2.0

From the back, the name you need to know is P.K. Subban. He is Montreal's leader on defense in scoring, shots, minutes, and on-ice Corsi. He can also throw a pretty big hit too - just ask Larsson. Subban is a stud and the Devils are going to have to work around him somehow. Possibly Josh Gorges too, since he takes on the toughest competition and toughest zone starts on his team. I don't think they'll be that much worse without Hal Gill since he's been a possession anchor. While they did allow 30 from Buffalo in their first game without him, they allowed 33, 32, 34, and 34 shots in their last four games with Gill.

2011-12 - Carey Price 51 3095 22 20 9 122 2.37 1465 1343 .917 4

That workload has hindered Price's numbers as of late, though he remains a bit above average over the course of the whole season. While he did post up a shutout four starts ago, he has allowed ten goals over his last three starts since then. That gives me some confidence in the Devils' offense. While Price certainly isn't a bad goaltender, it's proof that he can beaten for several goals at a time. That is most definitely relevant to the interests of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, and company.

I get the impression that the Canadiens now aren't too different from the team the Devils beat 5-3 back on February 2. Truthfully, the Devils aren't too different either except that Adam Larsson's hurt and some line shuffling. Well, anyone who saw the Anaheim game is likely going to see the same roster orientation again. Tom Gulitti's report from Saturday's practice has the same forward lines - yes, even the fourth line - and defensive pairings. I believe that's how we'll see the Devils start in Montreal tonight. Look for the Adam Henrique line to attack, the Dainius Zubrus line to bang on Montreal hard along the boards, and the fourth line to try and play hockey at times.

If there's one player I really want to see have a good game is Petr Sykora. It's been sometime since he really had a good one. While Patrik Elias is back with him on his line, Sykora's just been off in recent weeks. He still has a decent shot, yet he doesn't seem to use it enough or as accurately as the shots really need to be (namely Friday against Anaheim). His backchecking sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. I want Sykora to do well because when he is at least decent, he helps make that second line that much better. Hopefully, we'll see some improvement after a somewhat frustrating performance against Anaheim.

As one last thought, I will say that I'm looking forward to how Martin Brodeur will play tonight. As Gulitti noted in this post, Brodeur has been hot in his last 12 games with a save percentage of 92.8%, 1.80 GAA, a record of 8-3-1, and he even picked up a shutout. This is notable because Brodeur has seemingly always enjoyed success in Montreal. Gulitti brought up his record at the Bell Centre: 18-8-1, five shutouts, 1.55 GAA, and a save percentage of 94.4%. Brodeur's career numbers against Montreal have been similarly superb: 42-18-5, nine shutouts, 1.81 GAA, and a save percentage of 93.1%. Mike Boone of Hockey Inside/Out (a part of the Montreal Gazette) always calls him Martin F. Brodeur - and with good reason, he's been fantastic against the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. I hope tonight will be no different.

That's my take on tonight's game, now I want to know yours. Will the Devils put up a better defensive effort against Montreal? Will the Devils get more shots on net consistently against Montreal's defense? What do you expect out of the Canadiens tonight? Can the Devils make it three in a row at the Bell Centre? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.