Happy New Year! Here's another top team in the Atlantic Division!
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (13-19-7) vs. the Montreal Canadiens (24-11-2; SBN Blog: Habs Eyes on the Prize)
The Last Devils Game: The Devils ended 2014 with a game in Detroit. The first period was scoreless, but Detroit controlled the majority of the play. The Devils put up a better fight in the second, actually matching the Red Wings attempt for attempt and almost shot for shot. New Jersey struck first with a goal out of seemingly nowhere from Joe Whitney. It was his first NHL goal. The Red Wings were playing like they were going to get one eventually and it wouldn't be long before they did. However, the goal was an accident. Darren Helm went for a wraparound, and Steve Bernier reached towards the post in an attempt to deny the actual wrap. Instead, his stick blade poked the puck up and past Cory Schneider for an equalizer. The third period featured Detroit really controlling the game as they out-shot the Devils 11-1. They got a go-ahead goal off a Henrik Zetterberg deflection and an insurance goal from Helm off a breakaway, where his great play was sandwiched between two bad plays by two Devils defenders, Marek Zidlicky and Eric Gelinas. The Devils weren't so much sitting back as much as they could not push back, and so their crummy effort ended with a deserved 1-3 loss. My recap of the loss is here.
The Last Canadiens Game: On Tuesday, Montreal visited Florida. The first period didn't feature much, but the second period sure lacked for defense. Montreal put up 20 shots to the Panthers' 14 in the second. Both Carey Price and Roberto Luongo got a real workout in that middle frame. They did well, but there would be a goal. Brendan Gallagher got a low shot that trickled through Luongo for the game's first goal, late in the second. Florida would respond like a team down one should in the third and heavily out-shot the Canadiens 14-4. They would get their equalizer too: the recently contract-extended Nick Bjugstad fired a hard one past Price in the slot within the final two minutes of the game. The game needed a shootout as overtime was not enough. P-A Parenteau provided the difference and so Montreal won their fourth straight game, 2-1 by a shootout. Andrew Berkshire has this recap at Habs Eyes on the Prize that is really a must-read with respect to Montreal's status as a team right now.
The Goal: Get active. Detroit is one of the best possession teams in the league and that was on full display on Wednesday night. They kept coming at the Devils in waves with red jerseys constantly on the puck and able to make plays happen. The Devils did a lot of chasing and/or standing around, particularly in their own end. While the team apparently still believes that a bunch of wins puts them back into the playoff picture, I think they should play otherwise. They should be willing to make a few more risks in terms of going after pucks, especially by the wingers on defense. I'm not saying they should take the Marek Zidlicky approach of weighing reward way more than risk, but their passiveness with respect to getting the puck back isn't going to help them unless the opposing team has been playing poorly and/or is wrecked by injuries. Montreal is neither. So go at them.
No Practices: Both teams had New Year's Day off, so it's unknown as to what the lineups will look like. So I will guess instead.
Both teams have a back-to-back set starting tonight and so I would think both teams will split the starts between their goalies. The Devils can go either way. Cory Schneider has been playing well as of late and Keith Kinkaid was very good in his three starts. Carey Price has been fantastic for Montreal this season given his even strength save percentage of 93.6%. He has been especially fantastic in December with an overall save percentage of 93.7%. Dustin Tokarski hasn't been too bad at 91.9% at evens either. As Montreal has a banged-up and struggling opponent in Pittsburgh on Saturday, it's not so easy to assume Price will get that game. But I think he will if only to respect the record, so I'll guess Kinkaid vs. Tokarski with Schneider getting the rivalry game against Philly. As usual, I stand to be totally incorrect.
As far as the skaters, well, whoever can actually play for the Devils will play at this point. Steve Bernier's injury remains unknown but I have no reason to believe he'll play tonight. This should mean Stefan Matteau will make his season debut as he was a healthy scratch the last two games. As much as I don't like seeing Mike Sislo getting over 16 minutes or Tim Sestito at all centering a line of Joe Whitney and Jordin Tootoo, I think Matteau's inclusion may be the only change to the lineup. With no practice, I doubt Martin Havlat will be ready to go and I don't think the sick players are all that healthy to come right back in and play the first of a back-to-back set.
Montreal's in better shape in terms of injuries and they did win their last game, so I think the combinations they used against Florida will stay in place. According to Left Wing Lock, that means P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov will be their first pairing of defensive excellence. Subban brings it at both minutes with heavy minutes to go with eight goals, fifteen assists, and seventy shots on net. Markov has a very fine shot and makes even finer passes; he has five goals and fourteen assists. Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, and Alex Galchenyuk could cause plenty of headaches for the Devils. Pacioretty leads the team in goals (14), shots (127), and points (28). Galchenyuk is behind him in points with ten goals and fifteen assists and Gallagher has contributed eleven goals and nine assists. Tomas Plekanec gets to show that he's Elias-esque between David Desharnais and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau. Plekanec himself has ten goals, thirteen assists, and 100 shots on net. The production from Desharnais, five goals and fifteen assists, and Parenteaum, six goals and nine assists, are nothing to sneeze at either. Those are the top threats from the Canadiens and they will likely be featured tonight.
Pretty Good on the Outside, Not So on the Inside: On the surface, Montreal looks real good. They're two points behind Tampa Bay for the Atlantic Division lead with two games in hand. They're 7-3-0 in their last ten games. They won four straight. It definitely doesn't look good for the Devils. However, a closer look suggests the good times aren't going to last for Montreal.
You really should read Berkshire's recap of the Montreal-Florida game. He details that the Canadiens have been getting by with the play of their goaltenders, namely Carey Price, and by shooting at a very high percentage. Price is legitimately good but few goalies are going to maintain overall save percentages above 93% for long. Teams also do not keep shooting at 12% in all situations either. Berkshire noted that the team struggled with creating shots and exiting their zone - two issues that Devils fans should absolutely be familiar with this season. In fact, the Devils and the Canadiens have the same Corsi% at even strength, 49.4%, according to War on Ice. This all does not bode well for Montreal and that's why Berkshire took such a stance after Montreal's fourth straight win.
This isn't to say that Montreal is really on the same level as the Devils or that the Devils should on the same level as Montreal. Montreal clearly has more talent. They have one of the best defensemen in the world in Subban, his partner is healthy and can be an offensive threat on his own, and they have a very good top-six set of forwards with some threats in their bottom six (e.g. Lars Eller, who has eight goals and six assists). But they're not a top team that looks like one because the breaks and the saves have largely gone their way. I don't expect New Jersey to be the team to break either, but I would be surprised if Montreal is in the same position by March 1.
Attack This Pairing: According to War on Ice, Alexei Emelin and Tom Gilbert are at the bottom of CF% among Montreal defensemen. They both play together and they get used against better-than-decent competition and usually in their own end of the rink. Since they have suffered so much and the coaches keep them together, I think it would be best for one of the Devils' lines to try and pick on them. This would require that line to, you know, show up to attack since that didn't happen against Detroit. But if they can do that, then I would feel somewhat more confident about the Devils' chances. They would still have to beat the goaltender, which is a problem in of itself, but after a game where the Devils put up only 13 shots, some progress has to be made there.
Continue This Pairing: During the Detroit game, Andy Greene got more shifts with Adam Larsson. Such that Greene-Larsson had more ice time than Greene-Harrold. Not that either pairing did well against Detroit - or that the Devils in general did well against Detroit - but it gives me some hope for the future. Harrold is acceptable deeper in a lineup, but not on the first pairing playing against the competition first pairings regularly see. Larsson may not be fully ready for that either, but he was at least doing well deeper in the lineup before getting the mumps. That may be a sign he can do bigger things. With Damon Severson still out, there's no really good option next to Greene. So I would try Larsson as Harrold quickly showed that he isn't that guy. The coaches appear to think the same based on his usage on Wednesday. I hope that continues and that it does well enough to keep together for the next few weeks.
Montreal Can Do One Half of Special Teams Well: That's the penalty killing side. As Price and Tokarksi have been excellent in net, the Canadiens haven't been beaten much by power plays. Their success rate is at 86%, which is the fifth best in the league prior to Thursday's games. They're on the wrong end of the times shorthanded list, but it hasn't been a massive problem as they've only conceded 18 power play goals this season. They've only given up one PPG in their last eight games, so they have been strong as of late. The Devils and their further reliance on the 1-3-1 is an interesting look - and one that should not include Peter Harrold going forward - but I wouldn't hold my breath on it breaking the game wide open.
Power plays, on the other hand, have not gone well for Montreal this season. You'd think with the amount of talent they have, they'd be more threatening. Instead, their success rate is only 14.7% and they are next to last in terms of power play opportunities (Boston has been in fewer advantages). That said, they have a few PPGs in their last eight games; four, to be precise. However, they have had none in their last three games. The Devils should avoid the silly penalties they took in the Detroit game but it should not be too nerve-wracking if/when they get called for a foul.
Your Take: It's two teams that get out-shot regularly, but one that has more talent, been riding the percentages, and has been hotter recently. But stranger things have happened in hockey. Do you think the Devils will be able to get a result tonight? What would you like to see them do with their lineup? What do you think of Montreal as a team in general, will they keep fighting for the Atlantic Division crown or will they regress? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.