Here comes the Atlantic Division leaders, who’ve hit some recent struggles.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (19-18-9) vs. Montreal Canadiens (27-13-6; SBN Blog: Eyes on the Prize)
The Time: 7:30 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils visited the Minnesota Wild to complete a four-game road trip. The Wild were, well, wild early on. They peppered Cory Schneider with pucks and he made nearly all of the saves. The only shot that beat him was a Jared Spurgeon power play goal where he gloved down a puck in mid-air and then batted the puck into the net while the puck was still in mid-air. Honestly, I wasn’t even mad about the GA. It was impressive. I was less than pleased in the second period when Taylor Hall turned the puck over trying to beat two Wild players with a pass. Instead, it led to Mikko Koivu passing the puck to Mikael Granlund who sprung Jason Zucker for a rush. Zucker torched Kyle Quincey and beat Schneider with a backhander he probably should have stopped. It was 0-2, but the Devils would find some hope. During a power play, Kyle Palmieri was at the right circle, he faked a shot, and passed it across to Pavel Zacha. Zacha’s shot hit off Palmieri’s stick and beat Devan Dubnyk for a goal. The score held until the third period. About 5:30 into the period, Hall protected a puck in the neutral zone from Ryan Suter and looked for a pass. He dropped a dime past Suter and two other Wild players to find Adam Henrique, who ripped a glorious shot past Dubnyk to make it 2-2. About four minutes later, Spurgeon fired a shot that Charlie Coyle blocked and Erik Haula put home the loose puck in mid-air to make it 2-3. Right after that, Michael Cammalleri fed Palmieri with a short pass to the left post and Palmieri slid it in past Dubnyk to make it 3-3. The Devils were holding steady against a very good Wild team. Late in the game, they would break through. While falling in the left corner, Blake Coleman found Beau Bennett entering the slot with a pass. Bennett used Suter as a screen and beat Dubnyk for his third goal of this season and to put the Devils up 4-3 with less than two and a half minutes left. The Devils played out the game magnificiently to make it a 3-0-1 road trip and a 4-3 win in Minnesota. Devin has the recap of the win here.
The Last Canadiens Game: On Wednesday, Montreal hosted Pittsburgh. The Penguins went off to a good start and their first period efforts were rewarded. Ian Cole finished an offensive rush for the Pens with a shot through traffic to make it 1-0 in the first. In the second period, the Penguins turned it up and expanded their lead. First, Chris Kunitz found Eric Fehr open in the slot to make it 2-0. Later in the second, Cameron Gaunce fired a long shot that Jake Guentzel tipped in front of Carey Price. The deflection went in to make it 3-0. Montreal’s Sven Andrighetto provided some hope with a wraparound less than a minute after Guentzel’s tip. But Matt Murray was not tested much all night long with only twenty shots against him. Olli Maatta scored his first of the season with an insurance goal in the third period to make it a 4-1 loss for Montreal, their second straight loss. JesseZhang77 at Habs Eyes on the Prize has this recap of the loss.
The Last Devils-Canadiens Game: On December 8, the Devils visited Montreal. This was not a good game for the Devils. The first period took forever as the first two goals of the game were subject to an official review and a coaches challenge. First, Philip Danault scored with traffic in Cory Schneider’s grill. That goal counted. Second, a shot by P.A. Parentreau went off Adam Henrique in front of Price and went past Price. That goal counted. Late in the period, Nick Lappin was backchecking against a Montreal 2-on-1. Schneider stopped the shot by Torrey Mitchell; the rebound went of Lappin’s leg and past Schneider. Then Jeff Petry knocked Kyle Palmieri into Carey Price and Price went to town on a defenseless Palmieri. That all happened in the first period. The following two periods was almost all-Montreal. Artturi Lehkonen put in a rebound in the second period to make it 3-1, Montreal, and the Devils responded with not a whole lot of anything. The third period was a special kind of steamrolling of the Devils as they were out-shot 24-7. That’s really hard to do! The beginning of the period featured Miles Wood missing a pass to Vernon Fiddler in the Devils’ zone, which led to Max Pacioretty firing that puck past Schneider. A few minutes later, Taylor Hall scored a nice-looking power play goal off a nice-looking pass by Adam Henrique. But that was just a respite from the rout the Canadiens put on the Devils. Mitchell scored off a wraparound later in the period to make the score a more decisive 5-2. That’s how it ended; the Devils were dominated. My recap of the bad loss is here. For the other side, here’s a recap by Stephen Demone at Habs Eyes on the Prize.
The Goal: Make those passes count. The Devils have not exactly been a strong defensive team in the new year. In their recent 3-0-1 road trip, they conceded 34, 32, 22, and 35 shots. That low number came from the weakest team on the trip, Vancouver. The other three teams were/are playoff teams and made the goaltender earn their pay. While the Devils’ goaltending has been excellent so far in 2017, the Devils help themselves by working not just to get zone exits, but exits with possession. There’s been an emphasis on looking for an outlet pass in the defensive zone and when that’s there, it can work. But it’s those passes over the blueline or making reads that end up in puck battles that need to be improved. Likewise, the Devils get into trouble when they commit bodies forward and a pass goes astray, putting them behind on a counter-attack right from get-go. Montreal has been a very strong possession team this season and can pin back the Devils. Turnovers can be costly, the Devils should seek to minimize them. To do that, the Devils will need to make sure their passes out of their own end and beyond are completed.
Atlantic Division Kings: While Price may not be so hot now, the Canadiens are to be respected. They are the leaders of the Atlantic Division, after all. They are also one of the best possession teams in the NHL. According to Corsica, here are their for-against splits in 5-on-5 play for shots and attempts. NHL ranks are in parentheses:
- CF/60 - 60.88 (3), CA/60 - 55.07 (15), CF% - 52.5% (3)
- SF/60 - 32.09 (4), SA/60 - 29.39 (19), SF% - 52.2% (4)
Basically, the Canadiens have been very good at generating offense and keeping their opponents from generating too much of their own. It speaks to how well they play in 5-on-5 situations. This is a strength that has driven their success to the top of their division.
If that was not enough, look at the percentages at Corsica. They have received very good goaltending - Price’s last seven games aside - with a 93.31% team save percentage. And they have received very good shooting with a team shooting percentage of 8.25%. This makes them very successful in 5-on-5 play. The team has been expected to score many goals and they have done so. They have been expected to allow relatively few goals and they have done so - again, last seven games of Price excepted.
A part of me thinks that it would take a lackluster, off night for Montreal or a great performance against them to beat the Canadiens. Unfortunately for the Devils, the Canadiens just had that night against Pittsburgh on Wednesday. From my perspective, they’ll have to try for just being great instead of hoping Montreal falls flat on their faces again.
The Recent Struggle in Net for Montreal: If there’s a recent issue, then it’s with recent games. Namely, in net. Carey Price has one of the best even strength save percentages in the NHL at 93.5%. However, since the new year, both goaltenders have not been so good or decent as those numbers suggest. Since January 1, Price has an even strength save percentage of 90% (153 saves out of 170) and a penalty kill save percentage of 77.8% (21 saves out of 27) in seven games. In fact, in his last five appearances he has conceded four, seven, four, one, and four goals each. (And the one game he won was that second four-goal game) It’s fair to say that he’s in a kind of a slump right now. While I would guess most of those goals would not necessarily be his fault, he hasn’t made as many of the tough stops as he has been doing for most of this season. It’s not fair but life and hockey are not fair; when the #1 goalie hits a slump, the team often suffers.
The Devils won’t get to see these struggles in person. Kyle Palmieri and other Devils can feel safer that they won’t see Carey Price tonight. Price won’t be punching anyone tonight. This is the first game of a back-to-back set for Montreal; Al Montoya will be starting this one according to Stu Cowan at Hockey Inside/Out.
Al Montoya in a Word: Average. Montoya’s even strength save percentage this season is 91.9%. His GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average) per Corsica is 0.21, which is just above the theoretical average league goaltender. He’s just a decent goalie. The part that isn’t decent is his penalty killing save percentage, which is quite low at 83.6%. (Not that Price’s has been all that hot either.) The Devils should feel good about putting four past the league’s top goaltender on Tuesday. They should be able to put something past Montoya provided they challenge him and put up plenty of shots.
The Expected Changes for Montreal: Of course, the problems are not just in net for Montreal. The team’s performance against Pittsburgh has led to a number of line changes. Cowan summarized them as follows from his Thursday post at Hockey Inside/Out:
[Philip] Danault was at centre between captain Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov, while [Alex] Galchenyuk dropped down to the No. 2 line between Sven Andrighetto and Andrew Shaw. The other lines had Tomas Plekanec between Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron, and Torrey Mitchell between Jacob De La Rose and Brian Flynn. Daniel Carr, who was a healthy scratch against the Penguins, was the odd man out.
Therrien also made adjustments on defence during Thursday’s practice, putting Nathan Beaulieu and Jeff Petry back together after splitting them up against the Penguins.
I suspect we will see these changes from practice to at least start tonight’s game. That line of Danault, Pacioretty, and Radulov would be the most dangerous one on paper. Just look at Montreal’s skaters by scoring. Pacioretty is the team’s leading scorer and shooter with twenty goals, seventeen assists, and 144 shots. Radulov is behind him with ten goals, twenty-two assists, and 90 shots. While Galchenyuk has been more productive in fewer games than Danault, Danault hasn’t been too shabby with nine goals, fifteen assists, and 70 shots. Given that all three players have a CF% above 53% according to Corsica, they’ll keep the play going forward provided Danault fits with those two. And that’s all that is needed for Pacioretty and Radulov to threaten the Devils tonight.
By the by, don’t sleep too much on Paul Byron. He’s Montreal’s leading forward in CF% at 57%. Byron is also fourth on the team in points with twenty-seven and second only to Pacioretty in goals with thirteen. He’s been quite good; he could cause some damage if the Devils’ matchup against his unit doesn’t win most of their shifts.
An Opportunity for a Power Play Trying to Get Its Groove Back: The Devils’ power play has often been an exercise in frustration, failure, and flinging time away. But on their recent road trip, they did score two power play goals that were from good, functional efforts. Granted, two goals out of their last nine situations isn’t exactly headline worthy, it is progress for this Devils team.
Tonight is an opportunity for more progress. Not only is it another game, the penalty kill has been a sore spot for Montreal this season. Their overall success rate is 79.1%, which ranks 23rd in the NHL. On the road, it’s been worse. Their road success rate is 73.5%, which is the 28th best in the NHL. Or the third worst in the league. Why is it bad? According to Corsica’s 4-on-5 stats, Montreal is near the league median in SA/60 but they have the fifth worst save percentage. In other words, the goaltending has not been so strong and since goals have been allowed, that limits the shots they face. The Canadiens can be pleased about not allowing a power play goal in their last two games, which ended a six game run of allowing at least one. All the same, this is something the Devils should aim to succeed at. Making sure their power play units execute passes properly, gain Montreal’s zone with possession, and making plays based on what the defense is allowing instead of forcing the issue should yield goals. And those goals can make the difference for tonight’s game.
Any Changes for New Jersey?: While the team practiced on Thursday, there was no real news or confirmation of any lineup. This is the first game of a back-to-back set for the Devils. I expect that Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid will split the starts. With tomorrow’s game being against a rival division opponent, I wouldn’t mind Kinkaid getting tonight’s game. Both have been so good as of late that it doesn’t matter who starts first all that much.
As for the lineup, Chris Ryan of NJ.com did note on Twitter that Vernon Fiddler practiced while Andy Greene and John Moore (!) skated on their own. That Fiddler was in practice is a clue that he may be closer of the three to returning to action. The Devils did not make any roster moves on Thursday; they’ll need to make one to activate Fiddler so he can play. It’s possible they wait until after the weekend to do so, though. Given the team’s recent play, I would not be surprised if the lines and defensive pairings remain the same. If so, that Blake Coleman would stay in the lineup and Karl Stollery and Steve Santini would remain as a pairing. Make of that what you will; the skaters did play two good periods against Minnesota on Tuesday (the first period, eh, not so much). Keep an eye out on what the Devils do with their roster in light of any changes to the lineup.
I will especially keep an eye out for Taylor Hall. His amazing pass to Adam Henrique on Tuesday was his fourth straight game with a point. Hall has been a reliable producer and shooter all season. I’m hoping he can extend his point streak to five games tonight.
One Last Thought: Shea Weber will be leading Montreal’s defense tonight. Weber has been quite productive for the Habs. He’s one of two defensemen in the league with at least ten goals (Weber has ten); the other is the point machine that is Brent Burns. Weber is third on the team with twenty-eight points and he has 110 shots on net. Weber will attack. Weber will also defend. Given his large amount of minutes and usage against difficult competition, he’s still around 51% CF% per Corsica. The point is that he’s still a great defender and so will be a great challenge tonight. Fortunately, the Devils will have the last change tonight so they can work around him if they can. They should try to do so.
Your Take: The Devils will return to the Rock and host Montreal, who is a difficult opponent. But the Devils returned from a road trip filled with mostly challenging opponents, so perhaps they can get a result tonight. Or at least play better than they did in their game back in December. What do you think will happen tonight? Who on the Canadiens concerns you the most? Who on the Devils do you think will have a great game tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.