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New Jersey Devils vs. Montreal Canadiens: Game Preview #78

Tonight begins the final month of meaningless games for the New Jersey Devils. They will host the Montreal Canadiens, a team driven by Carey Price but, as explained in this game preview, has more talent than just their goaltender.

The last Devils-Canadiens game didn't go so well...
The last Devils-Canadiens game didn't go so well...
Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Devils have the second best team even strength save percentage in the NHL at 93.6%.  Tonight's opponent is in first.  Oh, boy.

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-33-13) vs. the Montreal Canadiens (47-22-8; SBN Blog: Eyes on the Prize)

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils closed out the month of March in Columbus.  The performance against the Blue Jackets didn't seem that rough, but the Blue Jackets ramped up the attempts over time.  Still, the Devils made Sergei Bobrovsky work real hard - and actually beat him before Columbus could beat Cory Schneider.  A sizable beef gave the Devils a power play late in the first period.  The Devils' power play was going well and they got a goal from a one-timer by Mike Cammalleri.  A make-up call to close out the period would give the Blue Jackets an opportunity to equalize early in the second period. They would when Alexander Wennberg took a shot and Nick Foligno touched it off right in front.  A few minutes later, Mark Fraser jumped up on an offensive rush and took a legitimately good shot.  Bobrovsky's stop led to a long rebound, Fraser fell, and Brandon Dubinsky took off with it on a breakaway. Stefan Matteau slashed Dubinsky's stick before the shot, leading the referee to award Dubinsky a penalty shot. He scored to make it 1-2.  The Blue Jackets more than kept the Devils honest as time and hope for an equalizer were running out in regulation.  Especially when Patrik Elias took a penalty with a little over three minutes left in the game. But then a remarkable event occurred: Dainius Zubrus got a shorthanded breakaway.  And then he knocked a puck up in the air to Cammalleri, who batted it in just inside the net.  Talk about a surprising equalizer.  Alas, overtime was short lived as Jack Johnson flung a backhander in the slot to make it seven straight wins for Columbus and six straight winless games for New Jersey.  My recap of the loss is here.

The Last Canadiens Game: Montreal hosted Washington last night in a game that didn't feature a lot of shots but did feature a lot of goals.  After Montreal out-shot the Caps 6-2 in the first period, the scoring would begin in the second period when Jeff Petry just flung a puck past Braden Holtby after a power play ended.   About ten minutes later, Joel Ward led and finished a 2-on-1 rush to make it 1-1. Washington made it 1-2 when Alex Ovechkin put a sweet move on P.K. Subban and rifled a shot high past Carey Price to convert a power play.  Tom Gilbert quickly tied it up when he jumped up on a rush and put a shot past Holtby.   Montreal ended the period 3-2 with a goal by Lars Eller.   Power plays would feature much more in the third period.  Alex Ovechkin put in his own rebound to convert one past midway through the period.  Seconds later, Price cleared a puck over the glass.  Seconds after that, Ward tipped a blast by John Carlson to make it 3-4.  Minutes later, Montreal would tie it up with a bomb from the point by Subban, which was also a PPG.  The score stood and a shootout was necessary to decide it.  After the first three skaters were denied, Troy Brouwer scored for the Caps.  Max Pacioretty did not.  So the game ends with a 4-5 shootout loss for the Canadiens.  Matt Drake at Eyes on the Prize called it a game of denial and error in their quick recap of the game.

The Last Devils-Canadiens Game: Back on February 7, the Devils went into Montreal with quite a few recent wins under their belt at the time.  Maybe they were turning a proverbial corner. The Canadiens dragged the Devils back into the cold, harsh realm we call reality.  Mike Cammalleri got a tip on a Peter Harrold shot early on, but the first period was all about Keith Kinkaid keeping the score 1-0 despite Montreal out-shooting the Devils 14-3.  Eventually, the Canadiens would get their goals with three power play goals in the second period.  Dainius Zubrus got served with a double-minor for high-sticking and Montreal scored on both minors. First it was Andrei Markov. Then it was Lars Eller.  Late in the period, Tomas Plekanec made it 3-0 with a power play conversion.  All three PPGs were primarily assisted by P.K. Subban.  Early in the third period, the Devils made it a one-shot game thanks to Jacob Josefson putting up a backhander off Carey Price's glove and into the net.  Again, like the second period, the Canadiens would strike for three more goals. Plekanec scored and less than a minute later, Dale Wiese would score the first of his two goals.  Kinkaid was overwhelmed, the Devils got wrecked in possession and shots (23 shots taken, 44 allowed), and lost 2-6 to a superior team.  My recap of the loss is here. For the opposition's point of view, Justin Blades has this more jubilant recap at Eyes on the Prize.

The Goal: Don't get blown away by Montreal.  Seriously, whatever the Devils did in their last match-up needs to be avoided.  That means not taking costly penalties like double-minors for high-sticking. That means actually connecting on passes going forward. That means not expecting the goaltender to do it all and then do it all again. The Devils got their just desserts in their last meeting from their poor play.  They'll need to step it up just to keep it closer.  If only for the sake of pride and Keith Kinkaid.

The Bleu, Blanc, Et Pourcentage: Montreal has one of the best records in the league and they could very well win the Atlantic Division.  Yet, I think they're on a bubble that is eventually going to pop.  The team stats at War on Ice at even strength show that Montreal has the second worst Corsi For% among all playoff-bound teams in the NHL. Prior to the Islanders game, they're currently at 48.3% - right in between the possession non-powerhouses of Arizona and Edmonton.  If we adjust for score, they're at 48.6%.  You'd expect a team with such a strong record to not be out-attempted regularly, but the Canadiens are proving that wrong.  It'd be one thing if they were borderline, but no, they're quite below 50%. A handful of these teams seem to make it every season, and that's usually due to some sweet percentages.

For Montreal, the story isn't their shooting percentage. It's not bad at 7.7%.  They have some very talented players who can produce quite a bit and and have produced quite a bit this season.  The story is the save percentage.Again, they're #1 in the NHL in team even strength save percentage at an astounding 93.8%.  That's even better than New Jersey's save percentage. It's driven mostly by the amazing play of Carey Price. He's likely the frontrunner for the Vezina this season and he very well could (should?) win the Hart Trophy too.  His splits are astounding: just a bit below 89% on penalty kills and a 94.3% save percentage at evens.  As the Canadiens played last night, the Devils may catch a break and face Dustin Tokarski instead.  He has a more human-like 91.1% save percentage at evens though has a slightly better save percentage on the PK.  It would be beneficial for any opponent of Montreal's to not face Price, much less the Devils tonight.

Because of Price being awesome and Tokarski not dragging the team down, the Canadiens have out-scored their opponents in 5-on-5 play this season despite being out-shot and out-attempted.  This isn't to say they never give up a mess of goals, but more often or not, their goaltenders are keeping Montreal in a lot more games than they would be otherwise.  That's kind of like the Devils, come to think of it.  Unlike the Devils, though the Canadiens have much more talent in their eighteen skaters. They would be in more winnable situations anyhow; Price has just taken them to another level this season.  Their record reflects that level.

As fantastic as it is, goaltenders only stay amazing for so long.  Take Cory Schneider for example.  Schneider was rocking an overall save percentage over 94% for two straight months before falling to just under 93% in March, actually.  Schneider wasn't notably worse or hurt or anything like that.  Just some more breaks went against him and so a few more goals went in and so the percentage dipped.  It's really difficult to maintain such a high percentage for long.  Schneider's great and so is Price.  Yet, the 2014-15 Canadiens' success has lived largely on Price being stupendous. Should that fall down a bit over the next few weeks, Montreal's issues in possession may come to light and undercut any hopes of a deep playoff run.  And if he gets hurt, like Andrew Berkshire is worried about? Well, they're in real, real trouble.

More Than a Price, The Defense: Again, Montreal is not like the Devils where they have an awesome goaltender and not much else in terms of someone to rely on.  No, the Canadiens have some great skating players that can and will make life difficult for their opponents, including the Devils tonight.  Let's start from the back end and move forward.

On the Montreal blueline, there is a star named P.K. Subban.  He won the Norris Trophy in 2013 and he's among the best defensemen in the world.  Subban has everything you'd want in a two-way defenseman from speed to strength, from a heavy shot to a soft pair of hands, from a keen awareness of where the play is and going and where he is relative to that to an aggression to blow up opposing players to make things happen.  He is among league leaders in defensemen scoring with 15 goals, 42 assists, and 160 shots. He leads Montreal in ice time with an average of over 26 minutes per game. Per War on Ice, he takes on the tough competition at evens and he not only wins in possession in that regard, but he leads Montreal defensemen in CF%. Subban rules.

His usual partner on defense is no slouch either. Andrei Markov has been an offensive producer throughout his long career. (Aside: According to Pat Hickey at Hockey Inside/Out, he's the team's nomination for the Masterton Trophy.)    He has settled well next to Subban such that the tough competition doesn't faze him.  While he has never been a prolific shooter, someone with 128 shots, nine goals, and 37 assists is nothing to ignore. Markov does have one more thing than Subban: more power play points, 23 to 19. Both are usually seen on the same unit and they can do quite a bit of damage.  They did quite a bit of damage in the last Devils-Canadiens game, in fact.  The Devils will have to be on full alert when they're out there.

The rest of their defense isn't as impressive. They acquired Jeff Petry from the depths of Edmonton in the hopes of making their blueline stronger.  While I think Petry is a good defenseman in his own right, it's hard to say he's been doing all that well.  According to War On Ice, Petry's dead last on the team in CF% with 42.3%.  Head coach Michel Therrien keeps giving Petry plenty of defensive zone starts against a good level of competition, so he may not be as hideous as a 42.3% CF suggests.  It does suggest that perhaps Petry's not in a position to really succeed.  His recent defensive partner per Left Wing Lock has been the hard-hitting Alexei Emelin.  Emelin can be good, but when he's off, he's vulnerable for being beaten.  The defense rounds out with the young Nathan Beaulieu that the Canadiens hope becomes somebody some day, the not as young but still fairly new Greg Pateryn that the Canadiens hope becomes somebody some day, and Tom Gilbert, who is he who he is.  Gilbert was in the lineup last night, so it's possible he'll be in again over Pateryn.

Montreal gives up about the same number of shots against per game on average as New Jersey.  Provided the Devils don't get demolished by Subban-Markov and no one else on the rest of the D looks to be amazing, New Jersey should be able to get opportunities to attack.  They just have to be able to survive Montreal's advances and move the puck effectively to create shooting situations.  As we know from this season, that's not at all guaranteed, expected, likely, or even possible in some stretches of a game.  If the Devils can't challenge the defense, then it's likely because they're behind the proverbial 8-Ball elsewhere and Montreal can make them suffer for it.

More Than a Price, The Offense: If you're new to following the Devils and wondering what Patrik Elias was like before he was 38 and suffered from back spasms, then you'll want to pay attention to Tomas Plekanec.  I don't write that because they're both Czech, I write that because they're very similar players.  Both are good in both ends of the rink, both are quite good on the puck, both can drive the play, and both are frequent producers while taking on better-than-average levels of competition.  OK, Plekanec is below 50% CF, but he's been facing the toughest competition while not getting the benefit of too many offensive zone starts.  Still, Plekanec - like Elias of not even too long ago - must be respected as he can lead a line while hitting up the scoresheet.  He scored twice in his last game against the Devils and he's tied with Subban for second on the team in points with 22 goals and 32 assists. Unlike Elias, Plekanec is a frequent shooter as he has 229 shots in 77 appearances. He will be one to watch.

The most dangerous one to watch will likely be on Plekanec's wing.  Max Pacioretty is the team's leading goal scorer, point scorer, and shooter with 37 goals, 30 assists, and 298 shots on net.  The winger now has three straight full NHL seasons of scoring at least thirty goals and he has an outside chance at cracking 40.  He's been included in all situations, as evidenced by his three shorthanded goals and seven power play goals.  He sees the other team's best defensemen and he comes out ahead in attempt differential.  The Devils have to make sure he isn't given too much space to shoot freely.  He's not Ovechkin or Stamkos, but he needs to be treated in a similar way.  The production he has so far this season justifies the attention he should get.

If that wasn't enough, the Devils will have to concern themselves with the play of Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, and David Desharnais.  Gallagher has set career highs for himself with 23 goals, 45 points, and 235 shots in his third NHL season.  He's not big, but he will get into spaces to fire away.  Galchenyuk has enjoyed a similarly successful third NHL season with 20 goals, 25 assists, and 153 shots on net.  Desharnais is not a 20-goal scorer, though it would be a really neat trick (read: super-high shooting percentage) if he did so given he has only 85 shots on net.  Still, he's got 13 goals and 33 assists; he's able to set others up to do the finishing.   These three younger forwards will be used in various spots in the lineup.

Beyond them, there aren't any big scorers but there are two useful names among the depth players.  Lars Eller and Dale Wiese have chipped in more than just a couple goals; they can do some damage from their bottom six.  If you recall, they combined for half of the goals Montreal scored on New Jersey back on February 7.  With Brandon Prust potentially present on their wing, they can do some physical damage too.

Gallagher has been seen with Plekanec and Pacioretty, making for a high-shooting first line.  That should draw Andy Greene and Adam Larsson at a minimum.  They may get the designated checking line led by, who else, Patrik Elias. Desharnais has been centering Galchenyuk and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, who hasn't been the secondary scoring winger that perhaps Montreal thought he would be.  Still, it's a threatening second line and whoever gets them - I guess Travis Zajac's line? - will need to be on their toes.  Should the Devils succeed in these two match-ups, the game becomes

Lastly, while the Montreal power play hasn't been lights-out great this season, they burned the Devils on February 7.  The Devils should make a point of it to not hand them power plays if they can help it.  It helped them tie up their game against Washington just last night, for example.

More Than a Price, The Fans: With this being a Friday night, expect more than just a handful of Montreal fans to be at The Rock.  In a way, they're like the Rangers faithful. They're willing to throw tons of money at a team and talk up a lot of stuff for a franchise that hasn't won anything from Lord Stanley since the 1990s (and they won't this year) and still celebrates the past with elaborate shows and displays.  For all I know, they have an alumnus of that 1993 team that gets rather weepy at every one of these ceremonies too.  Yes, both have had better seasons than the Devils, but that doesn't mean one can't get a dig in or two on Canada's Rangers.  It's a lost season for New Jersey anyway, so you might as well have at it. (I downgraded Toronto to Canada's Flyers.)

Regarding New Jersey: My game previews do focus on the opposition and usually for good reason as much of the focus should be on who the opponents are and what they're about.  That said, there are two important lineup changes for the Devils tonight.  Both were reported in this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice on Thursday:

First, Keith Kinkaid will start tonight's game.  He got shelled in the last Devils-Montreal game. It wasn't his fault the guys in front of him decided to take bad penalties, be poor in coverage, and move the puck with abysmal effectiveness.  As noted in the goal, the Devils skaters in general have to perform much better than they did when they were last in Montreal.  I am assuming Kinkaid will be fine in net again, but that's because he's been solid for the most part when called upon to play.  This news should mean Cory Schneider gets the start against Our Hated Rivals on Saturday.

Second, Stephen Gionta was ruled out for this game with a lower back injury. I do recall Gionta just falling down and was very slow to get up in the third period against Columbus.  Perhaps that's when it happened?  Maybe, maybe not. Either way, he's out tonight.  Filling in the roster spot will be Reid Boucher, the other AHL call-up the Devils have had for about a week or so.  Those who wanted him in the lineup are getting what they wanted.

The co-coaches smartly shifted two of the lines in response to this.  Per Gulitti's report of the Devils' lines in Thursday's practice, Boucher was skating with Scott Gomez and Steve Bernier.  Adam Henrique was moved to play with Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus.  As the co-coaches have been using Elias' line as a checking line over the past two weeks or so, Henrique would be a good replacement - improvement? - for Gionta in such a role.  As they'll likely go up against Pacioretty, Plekanec, and Gallagher, that's a justifiable move.  I wouldn't trust Boucher against tough competition.  With Gomez and Bernier, he can be given opportunities to succeed.

Those are the only changes to be made. I would've swapped Peter Harrold in for Mark Fraser, but I've written that enough recently to know that it's a hope that will continue to go unanswered for reasons unknown.

Lastly: While I think the Canadiens should be able to handle the Devils, I'm going to laugh a lot and write about it in the recap if Andrew Berkshire or someone else at Eyes on the Prize posts about how a Canadien is putting on a "defensive clinic" on an opponent that would go on to not only score two goals but torch the guy putting on the so-called clinic in the process.  Even if the Devils lose, I will do this because humble pie is really tasty.

Your Take: The Devils will begin their final back-to-back set of games this season and this is the penultimate home game of this lost 2014-15 season.  What will happen? Probably a loss. Hopefully not a blowout loss.  Perhaps you think otherwise - will the Devils be able to put up a better performance than their last game against Montreal?  Maybe even better than their last game in general?  Can the Devils get past Montreal's second and third pairings to get pucks to (I hope) Tokarksi? Will the re-configured checking line be able to match up well against Plekanec's line?  How about the Zajac line against the second unit?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.