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Game Preview #41: New Jersey Devils at Montreal Canadiens

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The New Jersey Devils will close out their season series against the Montreal Canadiens tonight, who return home after a long, long road trip. This game preview highlights the December slump Montreal underwent and a Devils team that may change their lines.

The last time the Devils were in Montreal had a very pleasant ending.
The last time the Devils were in Montreal had a very pleasant ending.
Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Another season series ends tonight.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (20-15-5) at the Montreal Canadiens (22-16-3; SBN Blog: Eyes on the Prize)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted Detroit on Monday.  The two teams played an up-tempo, aggressively forechecking game in the first period.  Dylan Larkin got behind Damon Severson and was sprung for a breakaway by Brad Richards. Larkin beat Cory Schneider with a move to make it 0-1. And that would be that for goal scoring.  Despite the first period and the Devils taking an advantage in possession and shooting attempts, the Devils would not match their first period total of 12 shots in the following two periods.  Despite two power plays and being down one, the Devils could not get their attempts on target, much less in the net.  The Red Wings challenged them every other time they touched the puck. While their offense also suffered from it, they were up one and Petr Mrazek stopped what little got to him to preserve the score.  My recap of the disappointing one-goal shutout loss is here.

The Last Canadiens Game: Last night, the Canadiens ended an eight-game road trip in the city known for mummers: Philadelphia.  The game got off to a great start for the home team when Brayden Schenn got a breakaway and scored on Ben Scrivens at the 5:06 mark.  Alex Galchenyuk deflected a shot by Mark Barberio to tie it up later in the period. A fortunate score as the Canadiens were out-shot 4-12 by Philly.  The night did not get better for the visitors in the second period.  Shayne Gostisbehere scored on a slapshot and Wayne Simmonds re-directed a shot by said defenseman to convert a power play. It was 1-3 before the halfway mark of the game. Montreal would claw back a goal from a tip-in by Brendan Gallagher before the end of the third period. Would Montreal have hope of a comeback? If there was any, Sean Couturier dashed it with a third period goal.  Daniel Carr would revive hope with a quick shot that Michael Neuvirth stopped behind the goal line.  After review, the right call was made: it was a goal. With less than a minute left and the goalie already pulled, Montreal were then down just one again. Would there be a dramatic, late equalizer? No.  Montreal lost 3-4.  The quick recap by NamikoH at Eyes on the Prize was not a positive one for a not a positive effort by the visitors.

The Last Devils-Canadiens Game: On November 28, the Devils completed a home-and-home with Montreal in their house.  The first period was not so bad, but no damage was done until close to halfway through the second period.  Nathan Beaulieu took a shot that went off Alex Galchenyuk's body and beat Cory Schneider to make it 0-1. While the Devils were able to get shots at Mike Condon, Montreal had the puck more, pinned the Devils back more, and took more attempts and as many shots.  In the third period, Galchenyuk made it look grim for the Devils at the 8:50 mark. He converted a power play seconds after it began by smacking in a rebound from a Max Pacioretty shot.  Yet, the Devils would have hope.  Minutes later, Patrik Elias got a touch on Adam Larsson's shot through traffic to end Condon's shutout hopes.  After several minutes of the game looking like it was destined for a 1-2 final score, the Devils provided a second goal.  Within the final minute and Schneider out of the net, the Devils had a crucial faceoff in Montreal's end. Travis Zajac didn't win the faceoff cleanly, but Adam Henrique knocked the puck back to John Moore to get the Devils' possession. Moore sent it across to Kyle Palmieri, who blasted a one-timer through a screen by Henrique to make it 2-2.  In overtime, the Devils played with fire but burned Montreal when Andrei Markov went down low to go after a puck. Instead, Henrique got the puck and was off on a breakaway. He dropped the puck back to Moore, who took a shot and then put in his own rebound to win the game.  My recap of the 3-2 comeback win is here. For the opposition's perspective, Matt Drake had this recap at Eyes on the Prize.

The Goal: Make the opportunities count - especially on the power play. What else could the team's main goal be tonight? Especially after how they lost to Detroit?  They did out-attempt and out-possess Detroit, but the shot and scoring difference was exactly one between the two teams.  Many potential situations to get offense going went away due to a missed shot, a blocked shot, or just a poor decision.  Worst of all were the power plays, which yielded no shots at all. That has to be better, Cammalleri or no Cammalleri.  Montreal isn't as low-event as Detroit. I doubt they will just settle for tightly defending the Devils and attacking ever so often if (when?) they get a lead tonight. Therefore, it is imperative that the Devils make better decisions on the puck and take that extra second to set their shot. That's more productive than trying to pick a window, hit the far post at a tough angle, or just fire something from long distance with little hope of getting where it needs to go.

No Cammalleri: Tom Gulitti confirmed yesterday at Fire & Ice that Mike Cammalleri did not make the trip to Montreal. The hope is that he'll be ready by the end of the week.  After Friday's home game, the team does embark on a four game road trip that lasts all next week. Considering how important Cammalleri has been to the team's offense and how the lines look without him, I hope he'll be ready by then.

Speaking of the lines, it's not apparent what they will be for the night.  According to this post by Gulitti, John Hynes had the following to say when discussing the bottom six:

"We need some guys when they're in those scoring areas to get there or drive the bus," Hynes said. "Let's get some scoring chances and get in there and assist the other guys that have been driving the bus for a while. I think if you look at (Stephen) Gionta's line right now, they're doing that. They're providing scoring chances, they're scoring goals for us at key times. That was a big goal for them in the Dallas game. And we need that from some other players."

...

Although they're still playing around 12 or 13 minutes per game, Hynes has actually used them [Gionta's line] more than the line of [Stefan] Matteau, Sergey Kalinin and [Mike] Sislo and did not disagree with the assessment that Gionta's line is his third line right now.

"That's a fair assessment," Hynes said. "They're getting the ice time that they deserve and they're having an impact on the game. And the guys that aren't getting that type of ice time or their minutes have dropped, we need to have more or we'll make more changes."

Hynes said it is a "possibility" that he will make lineup changes for Wednesday's game, but did not get into specifics.

The earlier part of the post focused on Adam Henrique and his ten-game goalless streak.  He's another one that could be described by Hynes' quotes.  Ditto for Jiri Tlusty, who hasn't produced much all season, and Lee Stempniak, who hasn't produced much away from Cammalleri.  From what I read, I wouldn't be surprised if there's some mixing of players in the hopes of "getting guys going." I suspect this will be the case until Cammalleri is healthy enough to play.  Then they can try the original lines again to see if a return to the former status quo is possible.

I wonder if this would apply for defensemen as well? The Splitting Up Andy Greene and Adam Larsson Experiment hasn't exactly wowed the team.  With Montreal coming in with a dangerous top line of Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, and Brendan Gallagher, tonight may be a good night to get 5-6 back together. Preferably against that unit.

The Canadiens That Won't Play: Three notable Canadiens will not suit up tonight. The first is goaltender Carey Price. He has been out for a while. With Ben Scrivens starting against Philadelphia last night, the Devils should face Mike Condon again tonight. With a 91.8% save percentage at even strength and a 86.9% save percentage on penalty kills this season, Condon hasn't been too bad or too good.  Price is a very good goaltender, I can see why the Habs faithful would want him back soon.

The second notable Canadien is Tom Gilbert.  Like Price, he's been out of action with a lower body injury.  Like Price, he was playing rather well in Montreal.  Unlike Price, his injury isn't as significant and he's only missed five games so far.  Further, he's not as essential to the blueline as Price would be to the crease.  According to Marc Dumont's review of the Montreal Canadien defenseman halfway through the season, Gilbert has done well but he's been used as a third pairing defender.  As nice as it is to have a good third pairing, it's only just that: a third pairing.  Montreal will still lean heavily on P.K. Subban as much as opponents will fear his excellent two-way game. He still has one goal prior to the Philly game, but with twenty-six assists and 107 shots, he's not not contributing.

The third notable Canadien out tonight is Dale Weise.  According to Stu Cowan of the Montreal Gazette at Hockey Inside/Out, Weise had suffered an upper body injury after taking contact from Kevan Miller and than hit by a shot.  The injury will keep Weise out for two to three weeks.  While not a world-beater, Weise was doing well as a supporting forward with eleven goals, twenty points, and ninety-three shots.  Not bad for someone who averages less than fifteen minutes per game. Justin Blades had plenty of good things to say about Weise in his midseason review of Montreal Canadien forwards, noting his positive penalty differential as well.  His absence means Montreal is a little less impressive beyond the first line.  That said, they still have plenty of players who can make the Devils' life difficult should the first line suffer.

About That First Line: Brendan Gallagher came back for the Winter Classic after missing the two Devils games and all of December.  He put up a goal and an assist, which continues his pace of a near-point-per-game season (21 in 23 games, prior to Tuesday's game). He joined Montreal's top two scorers for this game.  Plekanec is second only to Subban for the team lead in assists with 22; he's got thirty points and ninety shots.  If you're wondering how Patrik Elias played when he was younger, then watch Plekanec closely.  Pacioretty is the team's leading goalscorer, pointscorer, and shooter with 16, 31, and 157, respectively.  He's a dynamite offensive forward that creates opportunities and often finishes them.  Gallagher with these two can make for a potent combination and it'll be one the Devils will have to be especially careful against tonight.  Again, Gallagher didn't play in the previous two Devils games and he's been productive enough before and just after his absence to his injury to think he could have made an impact.

The Suffering Since November 28: While the Devils hope that it's not a good night for Gallagher, Plekanec, and Pacioretty, let's take a step back and realize that Montreal has suffered since Moore disappointed the Montreal home crowd on November 28.  They have suffered badly in December, winning a mere three out of fourteen games. That 5-1 win over Boston in the 2016 Winter Classic wasn't just a rout of a rival, which always feels good. It helped quell a freefall in the standings where the Canadiens went from owners of the Atlantic to being just one of the teams.

What's more is that the offense really dried up in that month.  In December, the Canadiens scored more than two goals exactly twice all month. They won those games and those were 3-1 and 4-3 wins against Ottawa and Tampa Bay, respectively.  In their other twelve games, they were held to two goals or fewer - being shutout only once.  While avoiding goose eggs is a good thing, just ending up with one goal more often than not can lead to a lot of 'L's.  Condon can only do so much; even a healthy Price would have been able to do so much.

Just check out the team's scoring between the last Devils game and yesterday's game against Philly at NHL.com.While you'll see familiar names like Subban, Plekanec, Pacioretty, and Alex Galchenyuk leading the way at the top, the numbers themselves aren't so impressive.  Only Galchenyuk has averaged more than a half of point per game in that stretch. The leading goal scorer was Paul Byron with five, followed by Pacioretty and Daniel Carr with four each.  As good as it is to get production from limited-use players like Byron and Carr, it rings a bit hollow when most of the guys who play more minutes put up a fewer goals.

Since smacking Boston down on New Year's Day, there's a reason to believe the slump of December will pass.  Another being that Montreal is too talented to be that poor for that long.  The Devils will have to be careful.  Cory Schneider, who will start tonight, will surely do his best.  Let's hope Palmieri and  Travis Zajac continue to perform to an acceptable level as well as hope that Lee Stempniak, Adam Henrique, and the remaining cast of skaters pick it up.  It is possible that they can put together a solid, all-around game. We saw it recently against Dallas.  On the road against a Montreal team that also needs points and are finally coming home after playing eight straight on the road and the night before? It'll be a bit trickier.

One Last Thought: I'm going to cross my fingers that Damon Severson doesn't make a costly giveaway that Schneider bails him out of tonight.  That one against Joakim Andersson on Monday was that bad.

Your Take: The Devils will close out another season series tonight in Montreal. Will the Devils be able to bounce back from a 0-1 loss on Monday? Will they be able to attack well for more than a period? Even without Cammalleri again?  Can the Devils keep the Plekanec line at bay?  Will the Devils avoid being a stepping stone for Montreal to get out of their slump? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.