Today was a busy day for the New Jersey Devils fan. In the morning, the team traded Keith Kinkaid away for next to nothing. In the afternoon, the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline concluded with Marcus Johansson being sent to Boston for picks. Overall, you may think that Shero did a good bit of business in moving four pending UFAs for picks and a player. Tonight, you either went to the Rock or saw on TV or followed along online a Devils game against the Montreal Canadiens. In a game filled with broken plays, two regular Devils behind held out due to injury, two Devils getting injured in the game, dirty plays by the Canadiens, and plenty of efforts that point to the team displaying professional pride on Pride Night, the Devils prevailed over Montreal.
This was the fun kind of sloppy. Over time in the game, it was clear that Montreal was the better team. They heavily out-attempted and out-possessed the Devils in 5-on-5 play in the second and third periods. Total shots ended at 35-22 in favor of Montreal. The Devils had seven players who primarily were with Binghamton plus a couple other marginal players who have only become regulars this season due to injuries. On most nights, a playoff-caliber team like Montreal would get past a bad first period and just stomp their way back into the game.
Yet, the Devils would hit back for counter-attacks and catch the Canadiens by surprised with an odd-man rush multiple times (which mostly left a lot to be desired). Yet, the Devils would draw calls from Montreal to break things up. Yet, even when they were stuck in their own end, the defense did a legitimately good job around the crease. Yet, the Devils offense made a point of it to crash the net. (Hence, high-danger chances were 7-3 in NJ’s favor and chances in general were 15-13 in NJ’s favor despite being out-shot and out-attempted by a lot in 5-on-5 tonight.) Yet, the Devils skaters sold out for blocks, hustled for loose pucks, and tried to make plays instead of just being passive. It was impressive as sloppy and loose the puck control and passes often were.
Adding to it was that the Devils were shorthanded. Before the game, Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher were late scratches with injuries. During the game, two more Devils were put on the proverbial shelf. Miles Wood left the game in the first period with some kind of leg injury after getting stung by a Damon Severson shot during a power play. Early in the second period, called up John Quenneville left the game with an injury. The Devils were cut short to ten forwards for a majority of the game, leading to forwards like Travis Zajac (21:41) and Blake Coleman (25:45!) taking on a lot of extra shifts. It is hard for any team to handle this kind of misfortune, much less a team nothing to really play for. But the Devils rallied and tried to survive against Montreal.
And I do mean survive. Montreal definitely had some dirty moments. The good news is that Punchin’ Carey Price kept his hands to himself tonight. The bad news is that there could have been more Devils hurt. Andrew Shaw took a minor for a check to the head of Kyle Palmieri. Artturi Lehkonen tagged Coleman in the jaw with an elbow. He was called for it and Coleman did go to the locker room, although he did return to the game. Palmieri, who took a lot of punishment tonight, was hit knee-on-knee twice in two not-so-subtle plays. The first by Phillip Danault may have been more of an accident, but as Palmieri was facing forward after a forecheck, Danault crashed into him. There was no penalty. Near the end of the game, as the Devils iced the puck, Paul Byron directly took out Palmieri’s leg - which was called. Palmieri was hot about that one after the whistle (initially for icing) and after the game. I don’t blame him; it was an underhanded move. The Devils already have enough forwards too hurt to play, they do not need two more. At least they both were able to finish the game and refrained from doing something stupid in terms of revenge.
In a night where the performances were all over with guys skating hard but not necessarily acting smart, there was one player on the ice tonight who was consistently great: goaltender Cory Schneider. One of the most important tasks for the Devils for the remainder of this season is to evaluate their current goaltenders. The big question is whether Schneider is able to play like he did before 2018. Tonight was another piece of evidence to support that he definitely can. Schneider was excellent. While the Canadiens mustered up only 20 scoring chances out of 46 total shot attempts and 3 high-danger chances in all situations, Schneider has had games this season where those non-high-danger shots would beat him or something would go awry to hurt the team. Not tonight. Schneider handled the long shots and controlled his rebounds very well. He looked swift in scrambling and in moving laterally when that was necessary. He even handled the puck well on his stick. When the Canadiens did try to get close to the crease, he kept his composure and did his job. Tonight, Schneider was only beaten once; a shorthanded breakaway that was hardly soft. Schneider was a massive reason why the Devils were in the game at all - and why they won it.
Of course, Schneider cannot score goals. The Devils did get some good opportunities on Price. The ones that beat him were fortunate and both came from the newcomer, Connor Carrick. A long shot from Carrick was deflected down and in between Price’s legs by Nathan Bastian for the first goal of the game. Early in the second period, a shot by Carrick created a rebound that Kurtis Gabriel potted home. The Devil who came closest to scoring that did not was when Kenny Agostino tried to break away from three Canadiens and was stopped by Price’s left toe in the crease. Bastian, Gabriel, Agostino - hardly the ones you’d expect to finish plays. At the same time, it seemed appropriate on this night that they would be the ones to make the difference on the scoresheet while Schneider stopped almost everything.
This night was a close game, an ugly one from multiple perspectives, and one that showed the team’s pride in themselves and something most fans can be proud about.
The Opposition Opinion: This is a quick recap at Habs Eyes on the Prize by Julian McKenzie. He highlights that Montreal’s slow start to the game hurt Montreal’s cause. Which I would agree. Montreal’s first period was not good. They had some moments and they finished the period very strong, but they just faltered a lot. There was plenty of missed passes, pucks turned over in bad spots, at least one whiff on a goal scoring opportunity, and caught out-manned in the neutral zone multiple times. Montreal definitely played better as the game went on but they could not solve Schneider and they still got in their own way a number of times.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Another Word for this Game - Spoiler: The Devils do not have anything to really play for this season. However, Montreal absolutely does. They opened the week holding onto the first wild card spot with 73 points. Pittsburgh and Carolina, who were not in the top three in the Metropolitan, were right behind them with 72 points. Montreal is not just in a playoff position; they are effectively in a battle to hold onto it. So holding this ‘L’ hurts quite a bit for the Canadiens. No matter how the game went, the Devils spoiled the Canadiens tonight. The Devils dealt their playoffs hopes a blow this evening. Both Pittsburgh and Carolina can jump them tomorrow with victories. With 19 games to go, Montreal can ill-afford to drop games to lottery-bound teams if they want to secure the playoffs.
The Debut of Carrick: Connor Carrick made his New Jersey Devils debut this evening and made a mostly good impression. Carrick was definitely filled with energy and not a lot of it was wasted. Carrick played 18 minutes with most of his 15:37 at even strength next to Mirco Mueller. The run of play, per Natural Stat Trick, was not good for most of the Devils. But Carrick was on the ice for 16 Devils attempts and 22 Montreal attempts, the most among other Devils for Devils attempts and second-most to Mueller for Montreal attempts. It was a high-event night for Carrick. Still, 16-22 is not a massive deficit. Further, when Carrick was on the ice, the Devils were out-shot 10-12 - also not a large differential.
Most of all, Carrick was on the ice and created both Devils goals tonight. His long shot was going to be on-target and Bastian did well to deflect it down. A shot by Carrick from the left point was stopped by Price and Gabriel was the first to it and he backhanded it home. Those are his first points as a Devil and both were legitimate primary assists created by his shot. I was encouraged to see him shooting; it looks like a good shot. The scorer credited him for three out of six attempts; I thought he had one or two more but that is OK. Defensively, Carrick was not a total tire-fire but he had some real issues. The shifts against Andrew Shaw, Max Domi, and Tomas Tatar went really badly. As in, when Domi and Carrick were on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 0-11. But the shifts against other Canadiens was more even. I can appreciate that Carrick did not take a penalty or take himself out of the play, but the run of play needed to be turned around in all of the matchups, not just all but one. I forgive most of it, though, since the Devils were shorthanded tonight and this was his first game with the team.
All the same, it was a successful debut and I would very much like to see more of Carrick. I think we will for the next few weeks.
Power Play Woes: Carrick was not good on the power play, though. The Devils as a whole were not good on the power play. The second unit was basically five dudes thrown together without much of a plan or an understanding of who would do what. The first unit had regulars like Zajac, Hischier, Severson, and Palmieri - and they were awful. The Devils had four full power plays and a 15-second one at the end of regulation. In those four full power plays, the Devils took four shots in total, gave up four shots, and conceded a goal. The Devils had one decent power play out of four and it was painful to see seemingly basic passes by Hischier get mishandled such that the puck left the zone, the team get pinned back in their third power play of the night, and both Zajac losing the puck and Severson getting out-skated by Byron for a shorthanded goal. If it was the slap-dash second unit getting smacked around by the Montreal penalty kill, then I would be a little more sympathetic. But the unit filled with nearly all NHL players was just completely out of sorts. This part of special teams was bad.
Penalty Kill Woahs: On the flipside, I was very impressed with the penalty kill tonight. The Devils had eight minutes to kill and Andy Greene played seven of them. Damon Severson played mostly next to him followed by a few shifts of Mueller and fewer still of Santini. The forwards were led, in order, by Coleman, Rooney, Zajac, and Hischier. I can appreciate the coaches keeping relative newbies from the PK. Rooney is the only call-up of the bunch and the team has had him taking shorthanded situational shifts since his call up started. All in total: four shots allowed, one taken, zero goals, and cleaning up plenty of messes such that Schneider did not have to do it all himself. As the power play stunk like garbage on a hot day, the penalty kill was a refreshing scent of a breeze of a beach on a lovely Summer day.
A Message to Drew: Drew Stafford was involved in at least two two-on-ones tonight and he was the reason why they did not lead to shots on net. The first, with Zajac in the second period, had him pull off a spin move (!) and then force a pass to a then-covered-by-a-backchecker Zajac. The second was denied when he put a pass into Victor Mete’s body in the third period. Stafford is effectively playing for a contract so I want to help him out. Stafford, if you’re in an odd man situation and you’re not sure about what to do: Shoot the puck! You’re not bad at shooting it! Unless that passing lane is wide open, shoot! It wasn’t both times you tried to tonight! Shoot!
As an aside, when he was on the ice, the Devils out-shot Montreal 7-3 in 5-on-5 play. No Devil saw a shot differential more than +1 tonight. So someone was shooting when Stafford was out there. But there could have been more - and maybe even a goal. Alas.
The Proper Debut of McLeod: Michael McLeod’s first NHL game was barely five minutes long. He played much more tonight and so I see this as his real debut. I really liked his speed, there were some shifts where he showed he can move real quickly in bursts. I did not like his holding penalty; he practically hugged Domi. He showed some snarl, which I’m not a huge fan of since snarl doesn’t score goals or make plays, in dealing with Domi. Since he is Tie’s son, I imagine he brings out the snarl in a lot of people. Anyway, McLeod was really good on faceoffs. Not that faceoffs are a major factor, but he went 9-for-13 tonight at the dot. Only Hischier won more draws and even so McLeod won a larger percentage of his. The run of play was not so ugly when McLeod was on the ice; the Devils were only out-attempted 11-13 and out-shot 7-8 when he was on the ice in 5-on-5. I would have liked to have seen McLeod shoot more, but it was a more encouraging debut than just five minutes and change of not much.
A Surprisingly Not So Good Game: Two minor penalties, some miscues on the puck, some really poor passes on the power play, and getting beaten on in the run of play. Nico Hischier is normally better than this. Everyone has an off night; this was one of Hischier’s from what I saw.
Congratulations: Bastian’s deflection was his first ever NHL goal. Congratulations to him. I believe Gabriel’s game winning goal was also his first. Congratulations to him as well. These kind of moments help make a late February game in a lost season seem more memorable. I also appreciated their jubilant reactions. You score goals, celebrate. That’s what you do.
Also congratulations to the Devils. They beat the Canadiens in all three games against them this season. Once again: they spoiled Montreal all season long.
One Last Thought: Furthering the point that the Montreal had more volume than quality, 10 of their 35 shots on net came from two defensemen: Brett Kulak and Mike Reilly. They did well, sure; but when they are the shot leaders for the team and not someone like Jonathan Drouin (he was close), Jesperi Kotkaniemi, or Brendan Gallagher, it is telling. The Devils can legitimately say the kept Montreal to the outside and it helped to a degree tonight.
Your Take: The Devils picked up a close, ugly, and pride-filled win over Montreal tonight. What’s your take on the victory? What did you appreciate from it? Who did you think played really well other than Schneider? Who really struggled out there? Why do you think the Canadiens struggled so much to start in this game? Is it a good thing that the Devils defense gave up attempts but not many changes in 5-on-5? What in the world were those power plays? What can the Devils learn from this game before their Wednesday night game against Calgary? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to CJ for being on the site’s Twitter account, @AAtJerseyBlog, during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and followed along with the site through another NHL Trade Deadline day. My thoughts about the deadline as a whole are here; please read and comment about that there. Please only comment about this game here. Thank you for reading.