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Game Preview #26: New Jersey Devils at Montreal Canadiens

Tonight begins a tough back-to-back for the New Jersey Devils. They’ll visit the Montreal Canadiens tonight, who have been great at home this season. This post previews the game and identifies the many players on Montreal.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Los Angeles Kings
Carey Price, the mighty goaltender for the Canadiens.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s just now about all playoff-eligible opponents for the rest of the way until 2017.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (12-7-6) at the Montreal Canadiens (17-6-3, SBN Blog: Habs Eyes on the Prize)

The Time: 7:30 PM

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+2; Radio – 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils returned home to host Vancouver. As with the last Devils-Vancouver game in Newark, it got violent. First, Taylor Hall scored in the first period. That wasn’t violent, it was a nice wrist shot. Late in the first period, Michael Chaput shoved Travis Zajac, which ended up with Zajac’s face plastered into the boards. Zajac left with what turned out to be a broken nose. He returned to the ice later in the second period with a full face shield having passed the concussion protocol. John Moore fought Chaput and ended up getting 2, 5, and 10 for it. The Devils coaches reacted with the kind of intensity that ends up with a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct. Vancouver ended the period with a 5-on-3 advantage. Early in the second, Daniel Sedin fired a one-timer in to convert said 5-on-3 and tie up the game. Later in the second, Taylor Hall lowered the boom on Philip Larsen behind Larsen’s net. Larsen’s head hit the ice and he lied motionless. Chaput started a melee right around the fallen Canuck as trainers rushed onto the ice and a stretcher came out. Larsen was stretchered off. The good news is that before he was taken to the hospital, he was aware of his surroundings and was able to use his extremities. Erik Gudbranson still wanted some kind of justice after that, so he went after Sergey Kalinin and then engaged in another melee that ended up sending him, Alexandre Burrows, and Devante Smith-Pelly to the box. That resulted in a Devils power play that Kyle Palmieri converted from a great cross-ice pass by Hall to make it 2-1. Past the halfway mark of the second period, Ben Lovejoy hammered a slapshot from above the left circle past a screening Palmieri and Jacob Markstrom. His first goal as a Devil made it 3-1. The Canucks would make the game interesting in the third period when Henrik Sedin took a loose puck off Andy Greene’s stick and roofed a shortside shot to make it 3-2. But the Canucks could not generate the scoring chances or even the puck luck to get that third goal. The Devils held on to win their first game in regulation since November 12. My recap is here.

The Last Canadiens Game: The Canadiens wrapped up a five game road trip in St. Louis on Tuesday night. With Carey Price getting the night off and their top center, Alex Galchenyuk, out due to injury, how would the Canadiens fare? It started off well. Paul Byron tipped in a power play goal midway through the first period to open the game’s scoring. Tomas Plekanec, who has been snakebit all season, scored his second of the season late in the second period to make it 2-0 for Montreal. It looked good early in the third, what with the Canadiens coming out strong and getting a power play. Then it fell apart. David Desharnais, moved up in the lineup to fill in for Galchenyuk, left the game with an injury. Paul Statsny scored shortly thereafter to get St. Louis on the board. With less than ten minutes left in regulation, Jaden Schwartz backhanded in an equalizer. The score held through the end of regulation. In overtime, St. Louis countered after a Montreal attack and Schwartz ended the game with a goal. The Canadiens lost 2-3 in OT. NamikoH at Habs Eyes on the Prize has this recap of the loss.

The Goal: Beware of the counter-attack; especially when rushing up ice. One of the big differences in the Devils’ performance against Vancouver compared to the last few weeks is that the Devils allowed few odd man rushes. Surprisingly, John Moore and Kyle Quincey did not get torched. Surprisingly, the Devils were able to pinch or have extra players join an odd man rush with the puck not being quickly turned over to the opposition. Surprisingly, the Devils were able to keep the Canucks from storming the slot at will. Those situations were more common in previous games; hence, they were surprises in that game. It will be imperative that the Devils manage this tonight. The Montreal Canadiens have not been a dominant possession or shooting team. But they have been dominant in generating scoring chances and they have the personnel to strike quickly when mistakes are made. It’s a reason why they have a positive goal differential. It’s a reason why it is not the end of their world that Galchenyuk and now Desharnais appear to be on the shelf. If the Devils can keep Montreal from catching them with numbers or finding seams for breakaways and 2-on-1s or just keep them from counter-attacks, then their odds of coming away from Montreal with something will be better.

The Odds of Coming Away from Montreal with Something: I don’t have an exact number. But I would think it would have to be low. Montreal is a stunning 12-1-1 at the Bell Center this season. Why?

Well, it’s not because they’re a good possession team. Say what you want about the NHL’s site, but I appreciate their use of Corsi (or SAT) percentages as it lists total, ahead, behind, tied, and close score situations. Montreal ends up in the lower third for total CF% in home games at 48.53%. Throw out blocks and it moves up to a more palatable 49.39%. That’s not so hot.

But they’re not winning games by owning the puck. They’re doing it with some superior 5-on-5 percentages. Their 8.6% shooting percentage at home is a top-ten percentage. What’s amazing is their save percentage: 96.2% at home in 5-on-5 play. Carey Price and Al Montoya have effectively built a wall at the Bell Center. Even when things go bad for Montreal, they’re keeping it from going bad on the scoreboard. Will these sorts of percentages last? Perhaps not. Although I think Price-Montoya will likely keep the Sv% high to keep Montreal in games when the shooting fades. For this game, it

They’re also taking care of business on special teams in Montreal. Their home power play success rate is 24%, a top-ten percentage in the NHL. That comes from going 12 for 50; the Canadiens have done well to draw many calls to get opportunities to succeed or at least for the opposition to defend. The Devils’ road penalty kill – which has been quite successful – will get a test tonight. Speaking of, here’s a quick look at the PK. The Canadiens have a home success rate of 87%, which is also a top-ten percentage in the NHL. With 54 shorthanded opportunities, the Canadiens are unfortunately often shorthanded as much as they are up a man. But they have only allowed 7 power play goals at home so it has not been damaging. While the Devils broke Nashville’s perfect home PK run last week and the PP has been more functional as of late, it’ll be a challenge for the Devils’ to break through for a goal. Their 5-for-44 road PP success rate is what it is for a reason. Special teams have been a net positive for Montreal at home. That supports the 5-on-5 play.

Lastly, while the Canadiens are on the wrong half of 50% in terms of Corsi, they’re on the right side of it in terms of scoring chances. Per Corsica, they have a scoring chance for percentage of 52.71% at home. While this puts them around the league median in that regard, it does mean that the Canadiens have been able to come up with more dangerous shots than the opposition. This goes back to what I wrote in the goal. The Canadiens have the personnel to counter attack when the opposition loses possession, especially right as they’re going to enter their zone or shortly after the entry. These counter-attacks can lead to odd man rushes and occasional breakaways, which are usually scoring chances – and can be goals. No, they’re not a league powerhouse in this stat. They have come out ahead at home and they’ll try to do so tonight.

Altogether, while the Montreal Canadiens are not exactly the world’s greatest team at home, a lot has been in their favor and that results in a 12-1-1 team. That makes it hard for any visitor to come in and leave with points. The Devils will have a big challenge tonight.

The Mighty Price: The goaltenders get their own section because they’ve been that good for Montreal. It would be easy to pin last season’s Montreal team freefall on the loss of Carey Price. It would also be correct to a degree. Price is arguably one of the best goaltenders in the world, if not the best right now. Price has an astonishing 95.6% even strength save percentage, which is one of the best in the NHL. Price also has a very solid 87.9% save percentage for Montreal penalty kills. In eighteen appearances, Price has been beaten only 33 times. While the Devils have faced another goaltender with a stupefying high even strength save percentage and even scored some goals on him (Crawford), facing Price would be very difficult. I would think he’d be the starter as Montoya played in St. Louis. A rested and ready Price alone could keep New Jersey from coming away with something tonight.

Replacing Subban is an All-Star: The big trade for Montreal, P.K. Subban for Shea Webber, resulted in thousands of words, thoughts, responses, and emotions. No, Weber may not be as good as Subban for as long as Subban can be good. For now, Weber has been amazing for Montreal. Weber has been a force at both ends. The Devils will see a lot of him if only because he plays an average of over 26 minutes per game. The Devils will see a lot of rubber coming from him as he leads the blueline with 66 shots on net. The Devils penalty killers will have to be particularly wary of Weber as he has seven power play goals and ten power play points – Weber leads Montreal in both categories. And Weber has a total of eight goals and ten assists to be tied for the lead among Montreal defensemen in points and tied for fifth in the league among all defensemen. So it may not last forever. The long term doesn’t matter for this game. Weber is a monster now and the Devils will have to deal with that monster. Based on Left Wing Lock’s pairings from their most recent game, the Devils should try to focus more attention to Alexei Emelin’s side of the ice instead of trying to challenge Weber.

While Weber is a threat on one pairing, the other pairing of Jeff Petry and Andrei Markov should not be discounted. The veteran Markov remains as productive as ever with two goals and sixteen assists, with seven of those sixteen assists coming on the power play. Petry has not been as productive but he has been effective enough to make that pairing work. The two have been clearly in the green in terms of CF% in 5-on-5 play. While the Weber-Emelin pairing is just around 50%, Petry-Markov has been around 52%. They can help the puck go forward to support the offense even though neither are shooting the puck and making plays nearly as much as Weber. This makes for a solid top four that helps Montreal in both ends of the rink. The third pairing should see a return of Nathan Beaulieu as per this post by Stu Cowan at Hockey Inside/Out. It will take some smart decisions to break this blueline down. Of course, even if the Devils are able to do that, there will be Price, denying them what they want.

Still Potent: The Canadiens will be without Alex Galchenyuk, their top center and leading scorer in terms of goals (9) and points (23). They will be without David Desharnais, who has plenty of talent despite not producing much. (Only 23 shots? Really?). Both are out for six to eight weeks per TSN. But there are still many Montreal forwards that the Devils will have to worry about.

First and foremost, the team still boasts Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher on the wings. They are number one and two on the team in shots with 73 and 69, respectively. While their shooting percentages aren’t high, Pacioretty has seven goals and eighteen points while Gallagher has five goals and fourteen points. They both have been able to drive the play forward and on separate lines. They will have to be aware of that.

Second, they are enjoying the revival of Alexander Radulov. Radulov always had loads of offensive talent. But he went off to the KHL after his relationship in Nashville went up in flames in 2012. And that was after it flamed out after 2008. Radulov dominated the KHL and the 30-year old was offered a deal by Montreal. So far, he has 48 shots, five goals, sixteen assists, and a 51.2% CF% in 24 games. So far, that deal clearly has worked out for the Canadiens. He was skating with Pacioretty in the St. Louis game, which will make for a dynamic duo regardless of who centers both. He will be a threat tonight.

Third, the Canadiens have received plenty of help in depth. Paul Byron has been super-hot with a 25% shooting percentage; he has eight goals on 31 shots on net. Andrew Shaw has brought the beef as well as six goals and eleven points. Phillip Danault has contributed five goals and four assists. Those three have been positive in terms of CF% and they have helped make Montreal a deeper team up front. Stopping Pacioretty, Radulov, and Gallagher will not be enough tonight.

Fourth and lastly, there is still Tomas Plekanec. I think very highly of Plekanec. He plays a lot like Patrik Elias and I don’t write that because he’s Czech. Plekanec has been a positive driver in both ends of the rink for Montreal for many years, similar to what Elias did for New Jersey. This season has been rough for Plekanec. He went goalless in his first eleven games. After scoring his first, he went goalless for another thirteen games. Plekanec had a strong night in St. Louis, scoring a goal to break that second streak and picking up an assist. With Desharnais leaving the game early, he centered Pacioretty and Radulov. If Galchenyuk and Desharnais are both out for tonight, then do not be surprised if Plekanec stays with those two. If nothing else, all Plekanec has to do is help out on defense (which he does well at) and facilitate the play to two of Montreal’s most talented wingers. He can do that and, if given time with them, the points will come. Consider him an ‘X-factor’ for this game.

The Split is On: With the Devils playing host to St. Louis tomorrow, the Devils will split their goaltenders. According to Andrew Gross at Fire & Ice yesterday, the plan is to have Cory Schneider start tonight and Keith Kinkaid start against the Blues. Neither is really favorable to either goalie. Schneider gets a team that has been fantastic at home; Kinkaid gets a high-scoring Blues squad. Flipping it doesn’t really make it better. So it is what it is. I thought Schneider played well against Vancouver; we’ll see how he does tonight.

No Zacha Yet: Gross also reported yesterday that Pavel Zacha will not travel with the team. So he’s not playing tonight. It remains to be seen who will be the healthy scratch at forward. I suspect it’ll be Jacob Josefson again. We’ll see.

What I Want to see Out of New Jersey: While he made a big impact in the game, I was disappointed to see Hall only take two shots on net. I want more attempts and shots from the team’s top forward. The Devils will need him to make plays, sure, but I want him to keep firing away. Let’s get that point streak going. I’d also like to see a more commanding game from Andy Greene. He got stuck in his own end more than the other Devils against Vancouver. On the road, he may not get the most difficult matchups every shift, so I’m hopeful he’s able to take advantage and help move the play more forward. And speaking of difficult matchups, this should be an interesting one for Michael Cammalleri, Kyle Palmieri, Hall, and P.A. Parenteau. They are the wingers on New Jersey’s top six, I think two of them will have to deal with Pacioretty and Radulov among the other dangerous wingers on the Canadiens. I hope they’re able to keep tabs on them on defense and be able to make the opposition play defense of their own. Lastly, should New Jersey end up with a lead in the third, I would like to see the Devils attack more in general to keep the opposition honest and perhaps get that insurance goal. I know, asking for a multiple goal lead late for the New Jersey is akin to asking for a giant bag of with a dollar sign on it these days. But it would be good to press for it instead of just trying to hold on. After a regulation win on Tuesday, I’d like to think that would be a good “first in a while” thing to achieve.

One Last Thought: The Devils’ Toy Drive is tomorrow! Bring new, unwrapped toys to the Rock and help the kids!

Your Take: The Devils will have a difficult opponent in Montreal tonight. Do you think the Devils can be the third team this season to take points away from Montreal? Who on Montreal worries you the most? Who on the Devils has to have a good game tonight? Please leave your thoughts and other opinions about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.