Black Friday could very well end up Blue, White, and Red tonight.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (11-9-1) vs. the Montreal Canadiens (17-4-2; SBN Blog: Eyes on the Prize)
The Last Devils Game: Just before Thanksgiving, the Devils hosted Columbus. The first period was akin to eating a lemon for the Devils fan. The Blue Jackets swarmed it up early and fairly often while the Devils struggled to string two passes together or demonstrate any decent ideas on offense. As impressive as Cory Schneider was early, he could not stop a close shot by William Karlsson off a feed (or a shot) by Nick Foligno. He at least ensured the deficit would only be one goal as the Blue Jackets out-shot the Devils, 14-4. The second period was nearly the exact opposite. After a wasted double-minor, the Devils were the attackers and were dominant through most of the period. The Devils nearly matched the Blue Jackets in shots before they even registered their first one on net in the period. They also tied it up, when Mike Cammalleri fed Adam Henrique for a lovely shot. Alas, the Blue Jackets had two good shifts in the second, and as they pinned back the Devils, Matt Calvert stashed in a goal to make it 1-2. The third period was more tentative until the game was tied it up when Adam Henrique slammed in a puck during a delayed penalty call. Except, no, they did not. The referees conferenced and proclaimed that there should have been a whistle earlier on the play, so they wiped out the goal. The Devils owned the rest of the game's offense but could not beat Sergei Bobrovsky a third time. The Devils ended up losing, 1-2; here's my recap.
The Last Canadiens Game: While the Devils and the Blue Jackets were playing a close game, the Canadiens were in Manhattan taking on the Rangers. This was very much a big game in that both teams led their respective divisions. However, this was not at all a close one. It started that way as the first period featured only one goal: Sven Andrighetto backhanding a rebound past Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers had a bit more of the ice in their favor, but that would come after going down two goals in the second period. That was due to an early score by Devante Smith-Pelly. The Rangers would cut the deficit to one thanks to a late power play goal by Rick Nash. Carey Price was replaced after the second period due to an injury; Mike Condon entered the net. Would the Rangers take advantage of the switch? Not only did they not do that, they had no time to think about it. Smith-Pelly scored again within the first minute of the third and about a minute later, Alex Galchenyuk made it 4-1 with a high shot from a sharp angle. Just past the nine-minute mark, Max Pacioretty converted a power play to make it 5-1. Montreal cruised to another victory; here's a recap of the rout by Andrew Zadarnowski at Eyes on the Prize.
The Goal: Don't get cocky, don't get lazy, and don't concede the puck unnecessarily. While this is a good thing to do in any game, the Canadiens have the firepower to make a team suffer regardless of the match-up. Montreal has been productive in all positions and nearly from all roles. I'd go as far as to say they're the best team in Eastern Conference right now. When you play the best, all you can do is try to stick to what works for you and not give them anything easy to pick apart. The Canadiens may still overcome it because, well, they're very good. For the Devils to get something out this one, then they have to do it by making it difficult for Montreal. That starts with how they control the puck.
This Montreal Team is Very Good: It is Thanksgiving evening as I write this preview. Here are some of their team stats at NHL.com at the moment. The Canadiens have the best record in the NHL. They have scored 83 goals, the most goals in the NHL right now. They have a goals per game average of 3.61 - also the league's best. They have conceded only 50 goals at a rate of 2.17 goals against per game; those rank sixth and fourth in the league, respectively. Their power play conversion rate is 24.4%, which is currently the third highest in the NHL. Their penalty kill success rate is the second highest in the NHL at 86.4%. They are tied for third in the NHL in shots per game at 31.2. At least they're ranked only tied for eleventh in fewest shots allowed per game at 28.9. All of these alone should convince you that their record is more than justified.
Here's some more stats to further convince you of Montreal's quality. According to War on Ice, the Canadiens have a Corsi For percentage of 52%, an even strength goal differential of +15, and a PDO of 102.2 at even strength. That CF% ranks ninth, the differential ranks second, and the PDO is a function of shooting above the league median and their goaltenders playing well above it. If we adjust for score, then Montreal's CF% jumps to 53.3% for a sixth-place ranking in the NHL. What this means is that they are a legitimately good team. They're not just riding percentages; they've played good hockey night-in, night-out. Their power play may be boosted by it as they are shooting at just under 18% - also per War on Ice - with the man advantage and not really shooting a lot. And the great goaltending has certainly helped the PK; though they have allowed a relatively lower rate of shots than most teams per War on Ice. Still, even if the special teams take a hit, the Canadiens aren't going to fall too hard.
Lastly, they just blew out the other team in the East with a record comparable to them. They didn't just beat them. They didn't just get by them. They smacked them hard in the mouth with a 5-1 result. Between the numbers, their record, and their most recent game, Montreal should be seen as a very difficult opponent for anyone - much less the Devils.
Big Injuries, Big Depth: Generally, losing one of your top scorers and your starting goaltender to injury is a big deal. Brendan Gallagher blocked a shot by Johnny Boychuk a few games ago and he's now out for six weeks (link goes to Chris Peter's article at CBS Sports about the injury featuring an auto-playing video). At the time of his injury, Gallagher was tied for the team lead in points on Montreal with nine goals, ten assists, and 70 shots on net per NHL.com (he's now fourth). He was very much a part of the team's core in their top six, playing in a lot in tough situations - and coming out well with it per War on Ice. Carey Price left the Rangers game with an injury. Per the CBC, he's out for at least a week with a lower body injury. So he's definitely out for this weekend. Price has been astonishing with a 93.6% save percentage at evens and a 91.1% save percentage on the penalty kill per NHL.com. If you recall how Schneider played the second half of last season, then that's about the level Price has been performing in this season. Even if he's only out for a week, it's still a significant loss.
That said, if there's any team that can survive those absences, then it's 2015-16 Montreal Canadiens. Their forwards still consist of a lot of weapons. The current-leading scorer on Montreal is Tomas Plekanec with seven goals and twelve assists to go with 49 shots. If you ever wonder what Patrik Elias was like when he was younger, then watch Plekanec. I don't just write that because they're Czech, I write that because they both are consistently quite good at whatever it is they do in games. He has centered Max Pacioretty (12 goals, 10 assists, 83 shots) and Gallagher. With the injury to Gallagher, Devante Smith-Pelly was moved up. Smith-Pelly was just a bottom-six forward chipping in points; his first game with Plekanec and Pacioretty yielded two goals against Henrik Lundqvist. Both Pacioretty and Plekanec are very good on their own; that they kept on going without Gallagher speaks to their quality.
Beyond that unit, the team will still have to be concerned with the likes of David Desharnais, Tomas Fleischmann, Dale Weise, Alex Galchenyuk, and Lars Eller. Desharnais and Fleischmann are both a few points behind Gallagher in points but it won't be long before they surpass them. Both have seven goals and have been shooting fairly well; Fleischmann has been a particularly good pick-up for Montreal. Weise has been more prolific at shooting and at scoring on his line with those two forwards. He's got 54 shots and nine goals already. Galchenyuk has four goals and eleven assists as he's been moved around the lineup. Eller may only have eight points, but six of them were goals. Those two can make up for a more interesting third line. The fourth line isn't so impressive but ignoring Brian Flynn and Paul Byron aren't choices I would make.
And those are just the forwards. The defense is a big reason for Montreal's offense. P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov are as dangerous of a pairing on a power play or on an attacking shift as you'll find. They may only have three goals between them, but they're still firing away. Subban has eighteen assists and Markov has fifteen, so they're helping out somebody finishing off plays. Jeff Petry has been excellent next to Alexei Emelin and he's been a source of offense with fifty shots, three goals, and six assists. While Montreal would certainly love to have Gallagher not injured, the offense has not and will not die without him.
As far as goaltending goes, Price's backup Mike Condon hasn't been just sitting on the bench, wearing a baseball cap, and reacting to Price making all kinds of saves. Condon has made twelve appearances this season and has posted very good save percentages. Per NHL.com, he's at 93.2% at evens and 88.9% on the PK. Those are very good numbers in their own right and it speaks to Price's excellence that he's above those values. Per Mike Morreale at NHL.com, Condon will start this game. Do not think that just because he's a backup to Price that the Devils will make him look great. He's been looking pretty great already. Dustin Tokarski has been called up as Condon's backup. Provided Condon holds it down, they'll be fine. Provided the Canadiens' defense remains strong and their attack stays potent, then they'll be fine if they won't. They're that good of a team.
Being without Gallagher and Price does make the game a little easier in theory for the Devils, but it remains as a great challenge.
The Problem Again is Matchups: This is based on what I've seen of Montreal's lines against New York from Left Wing Lock. With Plekanec leading one unit, Desharnais leading another, and Galchenyuk leading a third, it'll be crucial for the Devils' top nine to try to be competitive with them. That first period against Columbus was so bad because the Henrique line got wrecked. The Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson lines The team's general puck movement was better beyond that first period, but as the Henrique unit performed better, the Devils were able to turn the tide of the game. Of course, being able to do well against their forwards isn't enough. Running into Subban-Markov, Petry-Emelin, or Nathan Beaulieu and Tom Gilbert behind them is definitely no easy walk in the park. And with Condon playing so well, even the last line of defense isn't a gimmie. Yet, if the Devils are going to struggle in how they place their match-ups, then it's all moot. And that's a reason why Montreal has such a great record, few teams can manage it when most of their skaters are having decent or better nights.
Three Roster Questions: As yesterday was Thanksgiving, the Devils did not practice. There are a few questions that will have to wait for answers until later today. First, who starts in net for the Devils? It's a back-to-back so I'd like to think Schneider and Keith Kinkaid will split them. I'd rather have Schneider get the home game with Kinkaid getting the runback as I think the Devils will have a better chance at home with the last change. They should amplify it by having the better goalie in net.
Second, does David Schlemko return to the lineup and if so, for who on defense? Schlemko missed the last two games with a lower body injury. He did participate in Wednesday's skate so he may be close to returning. While Eric Gelinas' usage has been relatively limited, the play of John Moore and Damon Severson in recent games has left a lot to be desired. It's an open question as to who should come out for Schlemko, provided he's able to come back.
Third, does Jiri Tlusty get back into the lineup? He has been a healthy scratch in the last two games. As Mike pointed out on Wednesday, he has struggled so far this season. I still think he is one of New Jersey's best twelve forwards. I think he's still better than any of the fourth liners and Stefan Matteau. As he plays left wing, his options are limited as far as who he can replace - and I wouldn't make it Patrik Elias as he's still has to get some rust off. With Montreal being rather deep at forward despite recent injuries, I don't see a need for Bobby Farnham and Jordin Tootoo acting as energy guys. I'd switch out Farnham for Tlusty and see what happens.
One Last Game-Related Thought: Expect a lot of visiting fans tonight. Montreal fans definitely travel and with this being a Friday night game, plenty of C's with little H's in them will be present. They will be loud and proud for the best team in the Eastern Conference. As they should, why would you travel just to be quiet? At least they'll provide a big chunk of tonight's revenue at the gate. This isn't a cheap game.
One Last Thought: Tonight is the Devils' annual coat drive. Bring a coat to the game so someone who needs one can have one as Winter approaches. Here are the details at the Devils' official website.
Your Take: The Devils will get a very difficult opponent back-to-back, starting at the Rock tonight. Do you think the Devils have a real chance of winning this one? If so, how? Who do you think needs to have a good game for the Devils to get some points tonight? How would you approach this game if you were John Hynes? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.