My Best is Better than Your Best may seem like a silly tagline to stick on a t-shirt or some kind of sports apparel. It is also a good template to sum up what happened in tonight's preseason game between the New Jersey Devils and the Montreal Canadiens. The Devils didn't send their best squad up to Montreal but brought several NHL players as with past preseason games. Montreal put out a roster that could easily be their starting lineup next week. Their best was better than the Devils' not-so-best. That they won shouldn't be such a surprise.
What is a bit of a surprise was that it was a fairly tight game. The Devils lost 2-3 with the game winner coming within the final five minutes of the game. The decider was a deflection by Ryan White right in front of net off a long shot by Jarred Tinordi. The deflected puck itself had to bounce off Brodeur in some way to drop in. Not exactly a poor play or just an example of Montreal dominating the game. On the surface, it's easy to not feel so bad about the final result. The Devils, which included a two scrubs in their bottom six and three young defenders, held the Canadiens to only 25 shots. Only in the third period did the Canadiens really demonstrate their superiority on the boxscore as they out-shot the Devils 8-4. In the two prior periods, the Devils and Canadiens matched them shot for shot despite the play-by-play on CKGM-AM (English radio stream for tonight's game via TSN) sounding like Montreal was doing more. Considering the Devils didn't have Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, or (I'm stretching a bit) Damien Brunner to help on offense, that's not quite so bad.
However, the details show that the Devils were the second best team on the ice. For starters, they had three potentially functional lines as the unit of Krys Barch, Tim Sestito, and Cam Janssen wasn't good to the surprise of no one at all with eyes or ears. The Devils iced the puck plenty more times than Montreal. It actually helped spell their doom as White won the faceoff after an icing and then got to the net prior The Devils came up lame in the third period with a mere four shots on net. Their first two power plays began with shorthanded opportunities for Montreal thanks in part to Eric Gelinas. Discipline was an issue for the Devils and that along with the penalty kill cost them twice. The Montreal power play was just about perfect on their first man advantage. After what seemed like 20 straight passes around the zone - thanks to Barry for telling me how constant passing is a good sign for a power play - Max Pacioretty bombed a shot from the high slot to open up the game's scoring. The second man advantage actually saw the Devils touch the puck and get a few clearances. But that work went up in smoke when P.K. Subban played Pacioretty into a breakaway - yes, a breakaway during a penalty kill - that he finished on a backhand. Maybe Martin Brodeur should have stopped it; but seriously, a one-on-one in a 4-on-5 situation is facepalm worthy. Overall, the Canadiens attempted more shots, they didn't have to get the puck away in panic, and while the final goal was fortunate to a point, the Devils faded from the game. Montreal deserved the win and they got it.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Habs Eyes on the Prize, there will be an opinion of sorts about the game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are some highlights from tonight's game:
Clarifying the Title: Here were the lines and pairings for the Devils tonight as I understood them:
Devils Forwards: Olesz-Henrique-Ryder, Zubrus-Josefson-Sislo, Matteau-Gionta-Bernier, Barch-Sestito-Janssen
Devils Defensemen: Larsson-Gelinas, Greene-Severson, Urbom-Fayne (I think the pairings changed in-game)
Montreal Forwards: Pacioretty-Desharnais-Briere, Bourque-Plekanec-Prust, Galchenyuk-Eller-Gallagher, Moen-Bournival-White
Montreal Defensemen: Subban-Gorges, Diaz-Markov, Tinordi-Bouillon
Again: Montreal brought out what could be their best possible roster, the Devils did not. It showed at times.
More Praise for the Home Team: Max Pacioretty was dynamite for the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge. He racked up seven shots out of ten attempts; six shots came before the halfway mark through the game. He scored two goals, both off great shots. The second saw him split Andy Greene and Damon Severson for a power play breakaway for a highlight-reel worthy score. Pacioretty torched Damon Severson personally in the third period for what could have been a hat trick attempt but he deferred at the crease and the play went away. As he should, since he's a very good NHL player and Severson's not even a pro - but he was the star of the night. Following shortly behind him, Subban was a stud again. He made killer passes, got stops in his own end, threw some good hits, and got three shots of his own on net in over 23 minutes of ice time.
Power Play...Praise? Yes, Some Praise: The Devils didn't do much with their first two power plays. The most threatening attacks on both were chances for Montreal. The third one was simply brilliant. The Devils kept the puck in Montreal's end for nearly the entire two minutes. Andy Greene and Adam Larsson were fantastic manning the points, keeping pucks in play and firing when able. Not all of the passes were good but the Devils skaters hustled to win pucks and keep it moving. Just after David Desharnais came out of the box, Larsson dropped a hammer from distance to then tie up the game 2-2. Anytime you can pin a team back with a man advantage is a successful power play. Larsson missed the conversion for the statsheet by two seconds but goals count the same anyway so it's all good.
Last season, I scoffed at the idea of Larsson playing an role on the power play. In this preseason, he's taken more initiative with the puck on offense, deciding to shoot plenty of times. It's not so silly of a thought now. Of course, the lineup plus Gelinas making errors may have necesitated Larsson doing more. If he can do it as part of a blueline full of his fellow NHLers, then I wouldn't be opposed to giving him some minutes on the man advantage in 2013-14.
Down & Not-So-Down Games: Leaving the fourth line of sadness aside, there were some poor performances by a number of Devils tonight. Gelinas not only had some poor plays with the puck but he slashed Brandon Gallagher away from the play that went uncalled. Gallagher was hurt on the play, I hope he's OK, but it was another negative in a night where he didn't have too many positives. Severson wasn't so solid and clearly looked like someone who's not quite a pro among pros. Stefan Matteau's most significant contribution tonight were two unnecessary penalties: a hook on Brandon Prust and a hold on Desharnais. While the Canadiens didn't convert either power play, it was time spent defending that didn't have to happen.
Adam Henrique looked good early on and racked up four shots early and I liked his control with the puck. But he didn't put up anything in the second or third periods save for a double-minor for roughing for a non-fight with Daniel Briere. Alas, Henrique was named third star of the game so what do I know? Also in the realm of "I'm not sure how to feel about this," there's Damon severson's performance. He didn't look good at all going up against Pacioretty. On the other hand, he played over 21 minutes so it's possible that Pacioretty - again, a very good NHLer - just made him look worse than he was overall.
I'd say Rostislav Olesz and an under-the-radar good game. I felt Olesz looked decent on a line with Ryder and Henrique. He didn't seem out of place and he drew penalties. He played in all situations tonight and nearly 20 minutes overall. He's been featured heavily in this preseason and it wouldn't surprise me if he's not just in the lineup to start the season, but is considered for a higher line if/when injury strikes. So far, the reclamation project is looking good.
So Was Marty Better Tonight?: I'd say so if only because he didn't give up a breakaway goal to a scrub. But seriously, Brodeur was the best player for the Devils in the first period. I can go either way on Pacioretty's second goal. I felt he committed too early but at the same time: a breakaway on a penalty kill. I think Desharnais' moving screen helped make Pacioretty's first goal happen and the third goal was off a deflection right in front. Not unlike Michael Ryder's goal, which was just an odd bounce that snuck past Carey Price. Brodeur could have been beaten earlier in the third period, but he was helped out by the iron. Subban found Gallagher all alone in front with a diagonal pass that caught Brodeur and the rest of the Devils skaters unaware. But the forward didn't get all of the shot so instead of beating a diving Brodeur, the puck hit the outside of the post. It wasn't a world-class performance, but at least it was better than his first preseason game. There's that.
Tomorrow: Since only five defensemen and five forwards stayed in New Jersey, some of tonight's players will play tomorrow in Philadelphia. Keep an eye out on who that is because if it's someone fighting for a forward spot, then it could be a sign of favor.
Now that you've read my take, I want to read yours. What did you think of tonight's game based on what you've read, heard, or (I'm not asking, so don't tell me how) seen from this game? Would you agree the Devils' put out a lesser squad and it's not so bad that Montreal's best pulled out of a tight one? What would you like to see tomorrow based on what happened tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the game in the comments. Thank you for reading.