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Game Preview #16: New Jersey Devils at Montreal Canadiens

The New Jersey Devils and a nine-game winning streak will be in Quebec tonight to play the Montreal Canadiens. They are a team with one strong line and three straight wins. Learn more about the matchup for tonight’s game in this post.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Montreal Canadiens
Nick Suzuki continues to lead and produce on Montreal’s top line.
Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

This is the first game of another three-game road trip through Canada. This week, it is in Eastern Canada. Also, for the second straight game, it is a game where one team will continue a winning streak and the other will see it end.

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN, TSN2, RDS; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Montreal Canadiens (SBN Blog: Eyes on the Prize)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted Arizona on Saturday night to close out a week of home games. Both teams went into the game with winning streaks. Only one would prevail. After a sloppy start from the Devils, a series of passes from Nico Hischier to Fabian Zetterlund to Tomas Tatar right in front of Karel Vejmelka yielded a goal. Near the end of Brendan Smith’s second penalty of the period, Dylan Guenther attempted a pass across the top of the crease. Jonas Siegenthaler got onto his stomach to try and block it - only for the puck to hit up off his glove and drop into the net past Akira Schmid, making his first start of the season. The blooper made it 1-1. Jack Hughes was determined to change that. He charged into the zone on the next shift and fired a rocket to the top corner, which made Vejmelka look like he was a shooter tutor. The Devils led 2-1 and the Coyotes attacked the net in kind until the end of the first period. Were the Devils going to no longer throttle teams? Not yet. The second period much more in terms of shots, possession, and attack time from New Jersey. Ironically, the myriad of power plays the Devils kept getting did not help them much in that cause. And a second power play for Arizona yielded a second power play goal, this time from Clayton Keller, to tie up the game. But the 5-on-5 pressure would yield a breakthrough. It would come from Jesper Boqvist of all players. He scored his first of the season to make it 3-2. Despite some not-so-powerful power playing, the Devils would get a conversion in the second period. Dougie Hamilton hammered in a long shot through a lot of traffic to make it 4-2. Arizona kept trying to give the game to New Jersey in the third period with three third period penalties. But the Devils would not get that fifth goal. Arizona had a power play of their own and faltered; failed to get something going with the ENG; and the crowd was ecstatic at the final buzzer. Schmid won his first start of the season, Arizona had their winning streak snapped, and the Devils won their ninth game in a row, 4-2. I wrote up a recap of that game here.

The Last Canadiens Game: While the Devils hosted Arizona, Montreal hosted Pittsburgh on Saturday night. They went into the game with two straight wins. Would they make it three? It seemed that way after the first period. Josh Anderson scored early in the first period and they kept Pittsburgh to just four shots on net. It did not seem that way after the second period. Pittsburgh was out-shot 19-8 but Jeff Petry scored an early PPG to tie it up and Rickard Rakell made it 2-1 shortly after that. The third period, though, was wild. Cole Caufield scored his 9th of the season within the first minute of the period to tie it up. Evgeni Malkin re-took the lead a few minutes after that. Less than a minute after Malkin’s goal, Nick Suzuki scored his 10th of the season to tie it up again. Brock McGinn would put Pittsburgh up during a short even strength time period between penalties. When a shortened power play began for the Canadiens, Sean Monahan converted it to make it 4-4. Overtime was needed after that goal-fest of a third period. Kirby Dach set up Mike Hoffman for an overtime winning goal - his third straight game with a goal - to prevail 5-4. The Canadiens won their third game in a row and kept Pittsburgh from advancing in the Metropolitan Division standings. Andrea at Eyes on the Prize has this short recap of the game here.

The Goal: Contain Montreal’s top line of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Kirby Dach. This young line has been the most productive on Montreal by far this season. All three forwards are the only ones on Montreal with at least 10 points this season. Out of the 46 goals the team has scored, these three have 23 of them. As a line in 5-on-5 play, they have out-scored their opponents 10-4; a hefty margin even if they are conceding as many attempts as they take. This line needs to be the #1 priority for the Devils to try to defend against. That can mean pinning them back with their own offense. That can mean ensuring that defending players are communicating and adjusting to be in the right decision. Both really should be done. While the team should not necessarily let up on the other Canadiens, this is the one line that can and will cause problems. If Lindy Ruff and the coaching staff can get the Devils skaters to keep those three to a limited amount of offense, then that will help out tremendously in the effort to extend the winning streak to ten games.

How’s Montreal Doing?: Montreal was thought to be entering a re-build. Last season saw the team crater, fire their head coach and GM, and stick with interim-now-full time HC Martin St. Louis and name former player agent Kent Hughes (no relation to Jack or Luke) as GM. For an organization that has not missed the playoffs more than three seasons in a row, I admittedly struggle with the idea that ownership, media, and the fans would accept such an idea. But these are not the old days. It could be argued such a thing is needed to build a Montreal team to be contenders once again instead of just getting in and hoping for a Cinderella run through playing Toronto in the first round.

Of course, the 2022-23 Canadiens certainly do not look like a rebuilding team. At 8-6-1, they are sitting 17 points in a division that, prior to Monday’s games, has four other teams with 17 points out of 15 games - including the third-place Tampa Bay Lightnings. Whether they can maintain such a pace or the Atlantic Division can stay that tight remains to be seen. But the team is not mired in the bottom as you would expect most rebuilding teams. Their team stats are also not all terrible either. There is a real chance the Canadiens actually may be decent. Enough to have some believe the rebuild is ahead of schedule. Long time members of this site who remember 2014-15 may recall that kind of feeling. Then again, the Devils ownership and fanbase understood a rebuild will take time. Montreal, well, is Montreal so if they maintain their decent form through January, do not be shocked if there are calls for Kent Hughes to hammer the “GO FOR IT” button to attempt to make the playoffs. Again, Montreal is not a team that ever misses the playoffs for long stretches. I doubt Kent Hughes wants to be the first GM that does. If he makes it that far.

More relevant to tonight’s game, Montreal won their last three games. They came back in a third period goal-fest to beat Pittsburgh 5-4 in OT on Saturday with contributions aside from the Suzuki line. They beat Vancouver 5-2 featuring a goal created from a Caufield bodycheck last Wednesday and beat Detroit 3-2 through a shootout (goals from Caufield and Suzuki) last Tuesday. It is a run that followed a three game losing streak in the prior week. This is to say the Canadiens should be feeling good. They are at home, which is a plus with the last change and a 5-3-0 home record this season. I can agree that Montreal may be not as dangerous as Toronto or as tricky as a rematch in Ottawa could be. I will point out that as Montreal seems decent that the opponent deserves respect.

The Montreal Offense: Montreal’s top three scorers play on a line and have to be defended well. Caufield may be smaller but he is fierce and his shot is quite good. Suzuki is pretty much their Nico Hischier. Dach is flourishing as a winger to those two. Again, they have combined for 23 goals already and have a healthy lead over the rest of their teammates in terms of points. Curiously, they are all not the leaders in 5-on-5 on-ice rates among Montreal forwards per Natural Stat Trick (NST). Dach has fantastic numbers in 5-on-5. Suzuki is closer to where the team is as a whole and Caufield is a little deeper in the red. While their production has lagged, Mike Hoffman, Sean Monahan, the pointless Evgenni Dadonov, and the returning-from-suspension Juraj Slafkovsky have positive on-ice differentials for multiple stats beyond just goals. They are the standouts among Montreal’s depth. (And if Josh Anderson and Jonathan Drouin can step up, then Montreal would greatly appreciate it.) What that means is that the Devils cannot just defend the one line and call it a day. That is just asking for the depth that has just chipped in to, well, chip in and help the cause. Remember: Hoffman has a three-game goal streak and both he and Monahan were the scorers that turned Saturday’s game into a one that went to overtime and one that was a third straight win for Montreal.

That said, Montreal’s on-ice numbers in 5-on-5 per NST are kind of decent. Not great. Not positive across the board. Clearly a step up from the Arizonas and Philadelphias of the league, though. Montreal is at the top end of the bottom third of the league in terms of creating shot attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger chances. Due to the latter two stats, NST’s expected goals per 60 minutes for Montreal is a pretty low 2.34 xGF/60. However, Montreal is right in the middle of the NHL in terms of shots per 60 minutes. More importantly, their sticks are hot as Montreal’s team shooting percentage of 9.39% is in a tie for fourth best in the NHL in 5-on-5 hockey. Those two stats help drive Montreal’s actual goals per 60 minutes to 2.51 GF/60 - which is just inside (10th) of the top ten in the NHL prior to Monday’s games. In other words, this is a team that is scoring better than their team process suggests. If they can improve their processes - namely, generate more dangerous shots - before the shooting percentage drops off, then they can better maintain their offensive output. Again, this is a function of Montreal’s forward group attacking not just their top line.

What has not been so functional has been Montreal’s power play. Sort of, at least. It could be warming up as they have a power play goal in each of their last two games. It did take them their first nine games to reach two power play goals as a team. In November, they have been more successful. Still, Montreal is 7-for-43 this season on man advantages and their overall success rate is 16.3%. That success rate ranks 27 out of 32. What is more is that their underlying numbers on man advantages are not that encouraging either according to NST. Montreal’s xGF/60 on power plays ranks 28th in the NHL at 5.73 xGF/60 and they are not beating the model by very much (a 5.98 GF/60). The Canadiens’ power play is shooting at 13.46% which is decent. However, they just do not create a lot on their power plays. That stated, I would still see it as a risk for New Jersey. Giving extra room for Caufield, Suzuki, Dach, Hoffman, Slafkovsky, and so forth is a bad idea. The Devils’ penalty kill has allowed at least one PPGA in every game this month except for one, too. The PK has made some impressive kills but they have been leaky in November. The Devils would be wise to stay disciplined to minimize the number of times they have to go shorthanded just to stop the leaking.

As for 5-on-5 play, again, the main goal is to try to limit the Suzuki line. With the Devils being on the road, this may be a tough ask. However, Lindy Ruff and the coaches were able to match John Marino with the other team’s top forwards in their last Canadian road trip with some consistency. They could try for that again. If it means Jonas Siegenthaler and Dougie Hamilton have to do it, then they can absolutely do it. I have faith in them. It is the third pairing that I hope is ready to perform between Damon Severson’s penchant for costly errors and Brendan Smith’s penchant for being physical to a fault (read: penalties). The good news is that Montreal is not necessarily an offensive machine and the Devils are more than capable of keeping teams at bay based on their season so far. The key will to keep that up while handling one line that has and will likely continue to do damage.

The Montreal Defense: As a team, Montreal’s defense is not bad in some regards in 5-on-5 hockey, but it could be much better in some key areas. In terms of allowing shot attempts and shots on goal, the Canadiens are around the league median per NST. A rate of about 56 attempts per 60 minutes and just over 29 shots per 60 minutes is not bad. The problem is that a good amount of those attempts are in dangerous locations. Montreal ranks in the bottom half of the NHL when it comes to allowing scoring chances (just over 31 per 60 minutes) and just outside the bottom five in high-danger chances (13.04 per 60 minutes). As a result, Montreal has in the NHL at 2.69 xGA/60 which is not great but not the worst. Since their goaltending is more or less OK instead of exceptional, their actual goals against rate is not much lower at 2.51 GA/60. Again, not bad but not amazing My read on this is that Montreal’s defense is not so much allowing a whole lot of volume from their opponents, but they are allowing them to get choice opportunities on a regular basis. If they can shore that up, then their defensive efforts will be more effective.

It does not help that some of their forwards are not exactly helping to shut things down based on their 5-on-5 on-ice rates. Look at them at NST. Suzuki and Caufield have high on-ice rates for chances against; Christian Dvorak and Anderson have even higher chance rates against; and somehow Jonathan Drouin on the ice means Montreal jumps up to allowing shots on net at a rate above 36 - a rate no other forward is touching in Montreal sweaters. The defense has been better with Dach, Brendan Gallagher, and Kake Evans on the ice - and especially good in the early games of Juraj Slafkovsky. But it is a mixed bag.

I needed to bring up the forwards because faulting the blueliners seems shortsighted. Montreal’s defense is really young. How young? Four rookies have been playing regularly on it: Kaiden Gule, Arber Xhekaj (it’s pronounced jack-eye), Jordan Harris, and Jonathan Kovacevic. Slafkovsky and the Canadiens have found out how hard the NHL can be for an 18-year old player. It is a different challenge with three under-23 year old defenders (Guhle, Harris, Xhekaj) and a waiver-claimed 25-year old (Kovacevic). Gulhe leads the blueliners in points with 7 but he is not a significant shooter by any means with just 15 shots on net. Montreal did get Joel Edmundson back from IR earlier this month, which adds some experience. Montreal did sign David Savard to bolster the blueline with another veteran. Chris Wideman had come out of the lineup for Edmundson, but was doing a job in the team’s depth. How is it all working out? Again, look at those on-ice rates.

In looking at each defender at NST, it appears to me that opponents have largely enjoyed playing against Guhle and Savard in general; and racked up plenty of scoring chances against Xhekaj, Wideman, and Edmundson. Statistically, Kovacevic and Harris have looked the best but they are just two defensemen. I can see the logic: this is a blueline that Montreal hopes to grow and develop. There are signs of progress; especially with Harris’ and Kovacevic’s starts so far. Still, it is a flawed group because, again, opponents have been lighting up Montreal for scoring and high-danger scoring chances. They do have four rookies but this was their choice. And now they get to face the league leaders in generating those kinds of chances in 5-on-5 in New Jersey. Enjoy, Montreal, enjoy.

What about the penalty kill? Montreal has been good on the surface. Their team is around league median for being shorthanded per game (3.47 times per game) and their success rate of 80.8% ranks 13th in the NHL prior to Monday’s games per The Candiens have killed 42 out of 52 shorthanded situations and scored one shorthanded goal. Montreal’s goaltenders have been quite good when down a man (or two). The team’s save percentage of 90% is one of the best in the NHL. They need that because Montreal has allowed a lot when shorthanded. Enough to generate the highest expected goals against rate in the NHL at 10.12 xGA/60. As they do in 5-on-5, the Montreal penalty killers allow very high rates of scoring chances and high-danger chances against. They also allow very high rates of attempts and shots on net against too. This bodes well for a New Jersey power play that, while consistent at getting conversions as of late, has been inconsistent at generating offense with an extra skater. Should Montreal end up taking calls tonight, then the Devils’ power play should be able to create a lot against them. If they cannot, then I think Andrew Brunette and the power play units may need to consider retooling something. Montreal has been that bad behind their goaltenders bailing out their penalty kill to a good rate of success.

Going back to 5-on-5, I really like New Jersey’s chances to generate, well, chances. Montreal may have one scoring line that can do damage. The Devils have two scoring lines, a fourth line that has been productive, and a third line that finally got a goal in their last game. During this nine-game winning streak, different units have stepped up to tilt the ice, create offense, and finish plays. This has caused a heap of match-up issues for opponents on the road or at the Rock. Martin St. Louis, his staff, and his players are going to be the next ones to deal with it. Provided the Devils are able to maintain possession, make good passes in stride, and not fire shots into trees because they saw a forest, then I like the Devils’ chances at breaking down this defense. What of the goaltenders, though?

The Montreal Goaltenders: As a whole, Montreal’s goaltending has ben OK. Their team save percentage in 5-on-5 is 91.45% per Natural Stat Trick, which just behind the league median by less than 0.2%. Their team save percentage in penalty killing situations is a very high 90%. That is a top-five percentage in a category where 86% is more or less OK. Montreal has a definitive #1 and #2 goaltender combination, only for the #2 guy has the gaudier statline.

The #2 guy is Sam Montembeault. He has had five starts this season with an overall save percentage of 93% and a penalty killing save percentage of 90% per Which are both fantastic. His 5-on-5 save percentage per NST is an equally fantastic 93.8%. Montembeault has not given up more than three goals in any of his five appearances. He did backstop Montreal’s 5-2 win over Vancouver last week. That was in the second half of a back-to-back. With previous games against Winnipeg, Buffalo (before their losing streak), Pittsburgh, and Washington, he is clearly getting games when the #1 guy needs a rest or to avoid overloading him. While the population size is small, as an outsider, I would have to think he deserves more minutes. Which will probably not be tonight this is not a back-to-back situation for Montreal and the #1 guy played (and won against) Pittsburgh two days ago.

The #1 guy is Jake Allen. Allen has played in 10 games, all starts, and his save percentages have not been as fantastic. Or solid. I guess halfway decent is appropriate. While he has not allowed too many goals above expected in 5-on-5, his 90.1% save percentage in 5-on-5 situations per NST is not going to impress anyone. It just is not impressive. His penalty kill save percentage of 89.8% per is quite impressive. Allen has been much more volatile in the net. Whereas his backup has not conceded more than three goals in any game, Allen has been beaten for 4+ goals four times out of his ten starts - with two of those happening in this very month. Montreal did win two of those games, but it is evidence that Allen could be cracked. As Allen has been the main starter, I would expect him to start tonight’s game.

I would like the Devils’ chances against Allen. The Devils put four goals on 26 shots past Karel Vejmelka, who was coming off a shutout amid a three-game heater that powered Arizona’s winning streak that New Jersey ended. If the Devils can do that to him, then Allen should not really bother the squad in theory. I would more concerned if Montreal put in Montembeault with his superior statline. Of course, as with any goaltender, the key is to pound the net and keep doing so even if they make some good saves early on. Given how poor Montreal has been this season with allowing scoring chances and high danger chances in 5-on-5, the Devils should be able to get in close and make Allen really earn tonight’s portion of his $3.75 million salary.

Any Devils-Specific Notes: The Devils made some moves ahead of tonight’s game. On Sunday, the team officially demoted Nico Daws back to Utica. The Devils called up Daws to back up Akira Schmid as to give Vitek Vanecek a game off to fully recover after leaving the Ottawa game early as a precaution. He was just with New Jersey for coverage purposes. His demotion means that Vitek Vanecek should be available for this trip; and the team did confirm yesterday that he is on the trip to Canada. He did practice yesterday as per Amanda Stein. All signs are looking good for Vanecek returning to action real soon. Perhaps even tonight.

There is an argument to be made to have Schmid start this game. He did well against Arizona on Saturday. As challenging as that Suzuki line is, Montreal’s forwards may be the “easiest” of the three teams on this trip. Toronto has oodles of talent and can generate a lot of offense. Ottawa is a rematch and they have two lines of a consistent scoring threat compared to Montreal’s one. If the Devils want Vanecek to get one more night off to fully recover, then starting Schmid would make sense. On the other hand, the same logic can be used to justify starting Vanecek. He will need to play to make sure he is 100% in form. It is better to do that in Montreal than in Toronto on Thursday night. I am good either way, but if I had to lean towards one of the options, then I would go with Vanecek. Especially if the plan is for him to play the next four games.

The other move made has been within the lineup. During the win over Arizona, Lindy Ruff swapped Erik Haula and Yegor Sharangovich. Haula has done everything but score a goal this season. Sharangovich has not exactly flourished on a third line that has not flourished either. With Sharangovich’s past success with Jack Hughes and Haula being able to center the line and slide Dawson Mercer to wing, Ruff made the change on Saturday night. It seemed to work out in the run of play. It now appears that may be part of how the Devils start tonight’s game. According to Stein, that change was utilized in Monday’s practice. Which I am encouraged to see. I think it is a sensible swap of players. I think it deserves some games to see how it works out. Yes, Jack Hughes is not nearly as good as Haula to take faceoffs. That may mean something in a specific situation, but Hughes and Jesper Bratt have been so good at winning pucks and maintaining possession that an increase in faceoff losses will not make much of a difference. Should both help Sharangovich score (and vice versa), then it really will not. Likewise, Haula may not get as many offensive opportunities but he has been crushing it in 5-on-5 and that third line could use some of that. Allowing Mercer to play more at wing may also help him out as well. We shall see how it goes, but I do appreciate this move being given more than a period plus to work out.

I also appreciate the move being made at all. As much as Ruff prefers to not change anything with a winning team, I do not think that makes a lot of sense. In a sport as chaotic and loaded with variation as hockey, a winning performance does not mean it cannot be improved upon. There has been few games where the Devils absolutely rocked their opponents for 60 minutes during this nine-game run. There have been some concerns popping up such as the third line not generating much consistently, a power play that could be generating more offense aside from a conversion, and a penalty kill that has given up a goal or two in all but one game this month. Adjustments are what helps good teams stay good. I highly doubt that swapping Sharangovich and Haula to start the game is going to be what causes this nine-game run to end - or what causes it to be a ten-game run going into Toronto. To that end, I would certainly not mind Kevin Bahl going in for Brendan Smith, who took two penalties in the first period against Arizona. But as that change was not made in practice, I am not holding my breath.

One Last Thought: I do not have a to say about mascots. N.J. is good at what he does. And he is about a million times better than whatever this is. He will appear tonight along with some more cash grab jerseys “Reverse Retros.” But I also think Gritty sucks and people seemingly immune to irony love him so what do I know? I am not in the target audience anyway.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils begin their second Canadian trip of the month in Quebec tonight. What do you think of this match-up? Can the Devils handle the Suzuki line or at least limit their damage? Who else on Montreal concerns you other than that line? What do you expect from the Devils tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this matchup (e.g. any lineup announcements, game day news, etc.) in the comments. Thank you for reading.