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Game Preview #66: New Jersey Devils vs. Montreal Canadiens

The Devils are coming off of a tough loss last night in DC. Can they bounce back against a Habs team that has played better since making a coaching change?

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Montreal Canadiens
The Devils lit up the Habs the last time these teams met
Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (23-37-5, 51 points) host the Montreal Canadiens (18-37-10, 46 points). SB Nation Blog: Habs Eyes on the Prize

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG, MSG+2, ESPN+. RADIO - Devils Hockey Network (Access through NHL.com or the SiriusXM app)

The last Devils game

The Devils lost the front end of a back-to-back when they fell by a score of 4-3 to the Washington Capitals last night in our nation’s capital.

Nico Daws wasn’t particularly sharp in this game, stopping only 18 of the 22 shots he saw and getting outdueled by Vitek Vanecek. Ty Smith struggled in his return to the lineup, as his turnover in the offensive zone led to the Tom Wilson goal and his hooking penalty in the third ultimately resulted in the Alex Ovechkin power play goal. Washington took advantage of a delayed penalty to get the equalizer goal early in the third penalty, and a failed defensive zone clear (highlighted by a puck fed up along the boards that got by Dawson Mercer, a sequence he would probably like back) led to a Nicklas Backstrom goal on the night he was honored for reaching the 1000 career point milestone. Chris did a really good job in his recap breaking down these self-inflicted errors in a game the Devils could’ve won, but didn’t.

The last Canadiens game

The Habs defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs last night by a score of 4-2 despite Toronto having a 3x advantage in shots on goal (51-17).

After Auston Matthews scored his 47th goal of the season, Montreal came back with two goals in the second period, including Cole Caufield’s 14th of the season. William Nylander tied the game in the third period with a power play goal, but Paul Byron broke the tie with 2:28 to go in regulation. Christian Dvorak chipped in with an empty netter to ice the game, as Jake Allen made 49 saves in the winning effort.

The last Devils-Habs game

The Devils and Habs last met up on February 8th, with the visiting Devils coming away with a 7-1 win over Montreal to snap a seven game losing streak.

John had the recap from this game and this one was probably most notable for a lot of unexpected performances. For starters, the Devils supporting cast actually stepped up with Jack Hughes and Dougie Hamilton absent from the lineup, for a change. Michael McLeod scored twice. Jesper Boqvist had perhaps his best game as a pro with a goal and an assist and dominated from a possession standpoint. Pavel Zacha and Tomas Tatar padded their counting stats a bit in the third. Neither one has really built on that, although if I had to pick, Tatar has moreso than the now-injured Zacha. Perhaps most surprisingly, Jon Gillies was pretty good in net, stopping all but one of the 31 shots on goal he faced.

Apparently, this loss to the Devils was the final straw for the Habs, who fired Dominique Ducharme the following day and named Martin St. Louis as the interim head coach. Montreal has been better under St. Louis, posting an 10-7-3 record to pass Arizona for 31st place and just be really bad as opposed to historically bad. Strange, since I was told you can’t possibly fire a coach mid-season because who can you possibly get that can do any better.....

Tonight’s Lineups?

The Devils lineup last night in Washington was as follows.

If it were me, I would park Ty Smith on the bench after last night’s performance. The Devils reportedly quietly demoted Kevin Bahl back to the AHL, but that wouldn’t stop me from giving Smith a little tough love after another rough performance. I’ll take Colton White or Kevin Bahl or 10 minutes of Mason Geertsen or pretty much anyone else at this point.

I didn’t have an issue going to Nico Daws last night, but I wouldn’t go right back to him on the back end of a back-to-back with his recent struggles. If Lindy Ruff does, it’ll be pretty telling of what he thinks about Jon Gillies at this point. It’s been a rough go for Daws of late, who is now at .851 over his last five outings, was at -1.66 goals saved above expected last night, and is now below .900 on the season.

The Canadiens skated the following lineup last night.

Supporting Cast Struggles

The Devils haven’t nearly gotten enough offense from their supporting cast, which is part of the reason why this team is where they are in the standings.

How much have the bottom six forwards struggled?

  • Tomas Tatar - 4 goals, 5 assists in his last 29 games
  • Andreas Johnsson - 2 goals, 7 assists in his last 27 games
  • Jesper Boqvist - 5 goals, 5 assists in his last 28 games
  • Jimmy Vesey - 1 goal, 3 assists in his last 28 games
  • Nathan Bastian - 3 goals, zero assists in his last 25 games
  • Michael McLeod - 4 goals, 3 assists in his last 31 games

If you want to argue that some of these guys don’t really matter in the long-term, that’s certainly a take, you’re entitled to your opinion, and I don’t necessarily disagree with you. I don’t consider any of the above players must-keeps going forward. The problem is that they’re here now, in the lineup now, and contributing little to nothing now. It would be nice if some of these players showed over the final 17 games of this season that they could be part of the solution long-term.

Keys To The Game

No player has benefitted more from the mid-season coaching change in Montreal than Cole Caufield, who has tallied 13 goals and 11 assists in 20 games. Shayna Goldman noted that he’s doing a better job getting to the slot under the new staff, so the Devils would be wise to deny him those looks between the dots and keep him to the outside.

With Jake Allen being bombarded by the Leafs last night, I’d expect Sam Montembeault to get the start in net. Montembeault has not been great this year with an .895 save percentage, and his numbers haven’t really ticked up too much since the coaching change.

Montreal sold off several notable pieces at the trade deadline, trading away Ben Chiarot, Brett Kulak, Artturi Lehkonen, and some goaltender named Andrew Hammond. They also got out in front of the market by trading Tyler Toffoli early. The lineup in the tweet I posted above isn’t very good and is now depleted. They have a struggling goaltender in net to boot, so I need to see the Devils Top Six step up in a big way. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t see big nights by Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Nico Hischier.

Final Thoughts

What do you think about tonight’s matchup? Can the Devils get a win against the Habs? What are the keys to the game for you? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!