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Game 50 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Montreal Canadiens

What Peter DeBoer Could Say: "Stop making terrible mistakes in your end that leads to 30-40 second shifts with 3-4 shots against! Get it together!"  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
What Peter DeBoer Could Say: "Stop making terrible mistakes in your end that leads to 30-40 second shifts with 3-4 shots against! Get it together!" (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (27-19-3) vs. the Montreal Canadiens (19-22-9)

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils returned to the ice to take on the New York Rangers. The Eastern Conference leaders and the Devils traded chances early on in a frantic first period. Anton Stralman put the visitors up one off a rebound late, forcing the Devils to play from behind. In the second period, Zach Parise tied it up by putting in his own rebound at an incredibly sharp angle. The third period seemed to resemble the last third period between these two teams when Brian Boyle was found all alone with Martin Brodeur at close range and made it 2-1 early on. However, the Devils would get a second equalizer as the power play created a rush off a Ryan Callahan turnover and Ilya Kovalchuk slammed it home. The Rangers were undeterred and immediately responded with a goal from Michael Del Zotto. In the final minute, an Andy Greene dump-in bounced right off a glass support and into the slot. David Clarkson got to the puck and had ice-water in his veins as he clinically put the puck in between Martin Biron's legs. The excitement in OT continued, but a shootout was needed to decide the winner. Kovalchuk and Brodeur sparkled and the Devils beat the Rangers 4-3. My recap of that game is right over here.

The Last Canadiens Game: While the Devils were battling the Rangers, the Canadiens were hosting Buffalo. The home team didn't come out so well in this one. No, the Sabres seemingly had answers for everything Montreal threw at them. Sure, the game started off well for Montreal as Max Pacioretty scored a little over four minutes into the game. This only steeled Buffalo's resolve as they started taking the game right at Montreal's defense and Carey Price. The Sabres put up 11 shots in the first period, 19 in the second, and 10 in the third. Ville Leino equalized four minutes into the second; Paul Gaustad gave Buffalo the lead a little over six minutes into the third; and an empty net goal sealed a 3-1 loss for Montreal. Yes, the Sabres put up 39 shots on Price and one has to wonder how bad it would have been if he wasn't playing so well. Needless to say, Kevin van Steendelaar summed it up well in his recap at Habs Eyes on the Prize: the team that wanted the win got it.

The Last Devils-Canadiens Game: Back on December 17, the Devils went up to Montreal after celebrating Scott Niedermayer Night the night prior. Unfortunately for Les Habs, the Devils weren't fatigued. The Devils came out strong and went up early thanks to Petr Sykora's shot hitting P.K. Subban's elbow and knocking the puck over Price and in. Montreal would respond to their tepid first period with a much stronger second period. Subban scored a more legitimate goal on a 5-on-3 situation early in the second. Patrik Elias scored a power play goal of his own minutes later; which was quickly responded by Chris Campoli firing one in from distance. Lars Eller made it 3-2 on a shot through a screen and Montreal was on their way to holding that lead in the second. They lost it when Adam Larsson hit David Clarkson perfectly on a long pass and Clarkson sweetly beat Price to tie it up. Elias made it a 4-3 game early in the third and became the franchise's all time leading goal scorer. The Devils also showed Montreal how to defend a lead - by getting an insurance goal from Dainius Zubrus on the power play. The Devils went on to win 5-3 and here is my recap of the game.

The Goal: Make smaller mistakes. That sounds strange as a goal but it's quickly becoming my belief about what the Devils need to do more on defense. Against the Rangers among other games, the Devils allowed a breakaway despite two defenders in the general vicinity of who broke away, at least four shifts where the skaters just chased the puck around to little avail, and required their goaltender Martin Brodeur to make several bail-out saves. The defensive effort was inconsistent, with horrible plays following a few good ones. Tonight's opponent is desperate for something - anything -good to happen. They've slid all the way down to the lower end of the East, and they looked second-rate against Buffalo (my impression from Mike Boone's recap at Hockey Inside/Out) despite most of their team resting through the All Star break. If they want to keep any playoff hopes alive, they need wins and fast. They need opportunities to shine. The Devils defense would be wise to learn from their errors against the game against New York among many others and seek to make fewer mistakes. That will allow for fewer opportunities for Montreal and lessen the pressure on Brodeur or the forwards to lead the way.

As usual , I have more to say about tonight's game after the jump. For an opposition perspective, please check out Habs Eyes on the Prize.

The New Jersey Devils are likely to keep the same roster against Montreal as they were against New York. While Patrik Elias was resting and Bryce Salvador suffered a leg injury during the Rangers game, Tom Gulitti reported on Wednesday that Peter DeBoer does expect both to play tonight. The schedule is rather tight for the first two weeks of February, so some extra rest for a few players makes sense. Per Gulitti's post at Fire & Ice, Salvador's injury was minor and DeBoer insisted his minutes were cut due to coaching. That I can believe; Salvador had a poor game right from the start against the Rangers. I do hope the injury really is minor. While Matt Taormina could step into the lineup in a pinch, when Salvador is on his game, he's a real defensive asset at evens and on the PK. Going back to my goal for this game, he normally doesn't back into the boards and give up the puck or fall down randomly or be unaware when one the other team's top scorers is all alone breaking through the neutral zone. An improved Salvador will ensure fewer big mistakes even if it means a few more minor errors.

The same roster also means that Adam Henrique will miss another game due to a groin strain. That means Dainius Zubrus will likely center Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise again; while David Clarkson lines up with Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora. By the end of Tuesday's game, I was pleased with their production. I do hope they will be a bit more consistent about it; as the various forwards had their moments in separate periods. The bottom six may see a swap in centers as Ryan Carter was on the third line and Jacob Josefson was on the fourth. I really don't want to see that in action tonight, Josefson did quite well in possession between Steve Bernier and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Plus, he's not really suited for the likes of Eric Boulton, Brad Mills, and/or Cam Janssen since Josefson has a significant amount of actual hockey skill.

Also for New Jersey, Martin Brodeur will get the start tonight, which should surprise no one since Brodeur hasn't been bad as of late and the opponent is Montreal. Brodeur has frustrated Canadiens players, fans, and journalists alike over the years. It makes sense to start him. Those who love Johan Hedberg will just have to wait until the weekend to see him get a start.

Now let's talk about the Canadiens. They currently are in a three-way tie for 12th in the East and two points ahead of last place. That's not where they want to be, but let's see whether the stats can shine a light as to why they are where they are.

First off, the Canadiens are in the lower third in the league in close-score Fenwick% at 48.26% per Behind the Net. They are just above 50% at home, but on the road they are not so good at 46.38%. They're also not good in possession when the score is tied at 47.64%. Basically, I wouldn't expect Montreal as a team to dominate the puck on most nights.

That said, in looking at the advanced stats for the players at Behind the Net, there are a few players who have done well this season in this regard. One of them is Scott Gomez, who will certainly help out even if he's got no goals. Among players with multiple goals, Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty have been standouts in pushing the play forward. They're not just good by advanced stats, but also basic stats. Cole and Pacioretty lead Montreal in goals and points. The Devils will have to be wary when those two and David Desharnais. From a production standpoint, the Devils should also not sleep on Tomas Plekanec's offensive skillset and Rene Bourque's goal scoring prowess; though both players aren't usually driving the play forward for Montreal.

2011-12 - Erik Cole 50 19 20 39 10 22 7 0 2 149 12.8
2011-12 - Max Pacioretty 47 18 18 36 1 40 1 0 3 171 10.5
2011-12 - David Desharnais 50 9 26 35 11 14 2 0 2 59 15.3
2011-12 - Tomas Plekanec 50 10 23 33 -12 40 3 1 2 132 7.6

Second, the team's stats in all situations paint a good picture as to what Montreal's all about. In 5-on-5 situations, the Canadiens have a SF/60 rate of 28.1 which isn't great, and a SA/60 rate of 28.7, which is quite good. In 5-on-4 situations, Montreal has generated a good number of shots with a SF/60 rate of 50.2, but they are snake-bitten with a shooting percentage of 7.2%. That's even worse than their shooting percentage at 5-on-5 play, which is at 9%. So their power play has been poor. On the flipside of special teams, Montreal can claim the title of the Best Penalty Kill in the NHL. Not only they are the most successful at killing penalties at 89.6%, but in 4-on-5 situations they have the league's lowest SA/60 at 38.7. No other team in the NHL is below 40 SA/60, so it just demonstrates how excellent they've been defending in those situations. Basically, they're similar to the Devils on special teams and sort of at evens with a slightly worse defense and a more effective offense. I understand their power play has seriously undercut their efforts to win games - they can't be shooting at 7.2% for the rest of this season, right? - but if I were in charge in Montreal, I'd focus on trying to out-shoot opponents more often at evens. At least then, they could get more goals to help their cause even if the PP continues to stall.

2011-12 - Carey Price 43 2604 17 18 8 104 2.40 1224 1120 .915 2

Their goaltending has been below average statistically at 5-on-5, but it's not really too bad. Carey Price has been taking the lionshare of Montreal's starts and I suspect he'll get tonight's game as well. Per, Price has an overall save percentage of 91.5%, 91.6% at even strength, and has moved up to 91% on the PK. He's coming off a great performance on Tuesday, having done the best he can against a barrage of shots by Buffalo. I would recommend the Devils to try and emulate that approach, especially if the Canadiens are willing to allow so much space for lots of shots.

In terms of recent news about the Montreal roster, Mike Boone of the Montreal Gazette reported on Wednesday that the team called up Louis Leblanc. He's been up with the team for 14 other games and has played limited minutes, averaging under 10 minutes per game. Boone's short post suggested he may be used a little more with some possible line changes, but we'll see. What's important out of that was what he didn't say; Cole, Pacioretty, and Desharnais are expected to stay together. Ryan White and Travis Moen aren't expected to play, and Andreas Engqvist was sent down.

One final note, there's a lot of bummer feelings surrounding the Canadiens. At least, it seems that way when reading through Hockey Inside/Out, Habs Eyes On the Prize, and the Montreal Gazette. From the latter, Red Fisher's article today noted how the Canadiens are chasing a lot of teams in the East in light of their disappointing loss to Buffalo. I almost want to say this is a desperate team, but I don't quite get that impression. Hopefully, I'm not in for a rude awakening tonight. If only for the Devils' sake.

That's my take on tonight's game, now I want to know yours. What do you make of Montreal coming into this game? What do you expect out of the Devils tonight with mostly the same lineup? Given how great both teams have been at killing penalties, will this game stay mostly at even strength or will both teams get to use their PK quite a bit (note: each weren't perfect in the last Montreal-Devils game)? Who do you think needs to have a good game for the Devils succeed? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.