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Game Preview #57: New Jersey Devils vs Montreal Canadiens

After coming from behind to beat the Winnipeg Jets upon returning home to the Rock, the Devils now welcome an injury-depleted Montreal Canadiens team to the Prudential Center. Learn more about tonight’s matchup in this Devils game preview.

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NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens
The Devils are up against the injury-riddled Canadiens
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils versus the Montreal Canadians. Habs SBN Blog: Eyes On The Prize

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN, TSN2, RDS

How are the Canadiens going generally?

The Canadiens were a bad team last year, ending up winning the draft lottery and picking (the-now-injured) Juraj Slafkovský. This year, they are a bad team, and are going to be in the high-end lottery-picture. Looking at the standings, they are bottom of the Atlantic, second-bottom in the Eastern Conference, and 26th in the NHL. Hardly inspiring stuff. MoneyPuck’s projections give them a whopping 0% chance of making the Playoffs. The Athletic are equally optimistic. More happily for Habs fans, The Athletic does have Montreal fourth in Connor Bedard probability, the second-highest of any team in the east after Columbus. With the coming draft being notoriously stacked at the top, I suspect Montreal fans likely aren’t too upset about the prospect of losing games down the stretch.

Per NaturalStattrick, the following are Montreal’s numbers in their last ten games compared to the entire season.

Last ten: 0.45 points percentage; 5-on-5 42.86% goals for percentage; 5-on-5 44.49 xG for percentage; power play 8.12 goals for per 60; penalty kill 9.56 goals against per 60.

Season: 0.446 points percentage; 5-on-5 44.78 goals for percentage; 5-on-5 44.07% xG for percentage; powerplay 5.88 goals for per 60; penalty kill 9.61 goals against per 60.

They are essentially playing as they have all year, other than having improved on the powerplay recently. Needless to say, this numbers aren’t great, being well-below average in all categories.

Regarding their roster, the Habs have the longest injury list I’ve ever seen. Various players have different expected return dates, but the following guys — who are all quality players —are all expected to miss the Devils game:

Chris Wideman, Kirby Dach, Juraj Slafkovský, Arber Xhekaj, Kaiden Guhle, Cole Caufield, Jake Evans, Sean Monahan, Joel Edmundson, Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron and Carey Price.

Erm, yeah, not fun. Now, obviously, the Habs are tanking, so it makes sense to leave guys out if they are suffering even from something minor. But the fact remains that the Devils will face a weakened weak side. What is surprising is that, as highlighted above, Montreal has posted similar numbers in their last ten games, with all of these injuries, to what they have done over the season. Admirable, certainly, that replacement guys have come in and performed, but probably unsustainable. Hopefully the Devils can instil some reality. The following depth chart from The Athletic shows the roster — including some of the aforementioned injured guys — the Canadiens have been running recently. I will be referring back to it in the coming sections.

The Habs Offence

Across the year, in terms of 5-on-5 per 60 rates, the Canadiens are 24th in goals for, 26th in corsi for, 27th in xG for, and 27th in high-danger chances for. Despite having cachet-name guys like Suzuki, Caufield, Dach, Hoffman, Dadonov, the-five-first-rounders-worthy Josh Anderson, the Habs haven’t got the offence this year that these names would make you expect.

The same, across the year, is same for the powerplay. They have the 4th worst powerplay in terms of conversion, scoring on 16.9% of opportunities. Per 60, they are 31st in goals for, 32nd in corsi for, 26th in xG for, and 28th in high-danger chances for. As mentioned above, their powerplay has been scoring at a better clip recently. Over the last ten games, these numbers are 13th, 16th, 13th and 11th. So the powerplay has been elevated to respectability recently, which the Devils should be aware of.

Per the depth chart above, captain Nick Suzuki has been the Canadiens’ best forward this year, of those actively on the roster. After being drafted by Vegas and traded to the Habs in the Max Pacioretty trade, Suzuki has developed into what many consider one of the better young defensive forwards in the game. In many ways, people have the same attitude towards him as they had towards Nico Hischier before he broke out as a star late last year and through this season. The way in which this attitude differs is that — given that he plays for a Canadien team in Montreal — people are higher on him than Nico. I have some thoughts about this. See the following graphics from HockeyViz and The Athletic.

Firstly, from the HockeyViz plot, we can see that — despite having high-end offensive skills in terms of finishing and setting — Suzuki’s individual impacts offensively have been horrible this year, contributing to 7% fewer expected goals than league average. That massive blue blob in front of the opponent’s net is not a great look. Similarly, he is giving up above-average expected goals against, and his own crease is a particularly welcoming area for his opponents.

On the other hand, The Athletic has Suzuki playing extremely hard minutes, with bad players, against good players (see the Ice Time and Usage +- metrics). He is on pace for respectable goal and assist totals, that will put him just below the top-10% of forwards, which is certainly not bad for a 23 year old. However, his offensive ratings is above average, but nothing spectacular, whilst his defensive impacts are horrendous, amongst the worst in the entire league.

All-in-all, then, Suzuki seems to have shown flashes this year (high finishing and setting), carrying a very heavy burden, captaining an atrocious team in a high-pressure market. But he has had a pretty poor season, being a liability defensively, and a hole offensively (HockeyViz). Suzuki will turn into a very good player, I’m sure, but, the defensive-forward claims are strange (although forwards do tend to improve defensively later than offencively) and, for my money, the Hischier comparisons are too much, with Nico evidently being a class above (note that they were drafted in the same year, Suzuki 12 spots later).

The Habs Defence

Across the season, these are Montreal’s 5-on-5 rates, per 60: 26th in goals against, 25th in corsi against, 31st in xG against, 31st in high-danger chances against. Simply put, they are a very bad defensive team. A small positive is that they give up fewer goals than their chance-allowance would suggest, where they are arguably the worst defensive team in the league (not quite, however, as Anaheim are 32nd in both xG against and high-danger chances against). But they are still 26th. Nothing to be afraid of, here. Hopefully the Devils can keep the offence rolling, put some goals on the board.

Their penalty kill on the season is 28th, where they concede on 26.3% of penalties taken. Per 60, they are 26th in goals against, 32nd in corsi against, 30th in xG against, 29th in high-danger chances against. Again, pretty drab. The following HockeyViz graphic shows where Montreal are giving up shots short-handed:

All that brown in the crease and on the flanks is, eh, encouraging. I’m hoping to see Jack fly down that right-hand side and rifle one (or several) in, as we’ve seen him do so many times. For a Devils powerplay that has stuttered somewhat of late, with 1 goal on 10 opportunities in their last five games, this extremely moveable object comes at an ideal time.

Personnel-wise, the Habs backend is weak, to say the least. Other than Mike Matheson, there is not much to write home about (and thus not much to write about here). Take a look at Matheson’s player card from The Athletic.

On a very bad team, playing against strong opposition — see his high usage — Matheson has had an excellent season, being a top-twenty percentile defenseman. Defensively he isn’t great (better than his teammates, but that is a very low bar), but offensively he is elite, and has even been unlucky this year, or rather, has not had the sequencing luck of other top-end defensemen: his xGoals is top-5 percent, but his actual goals is only top-10 percent. (Note that Matheson has only played 19 games this year, so the 11 goal/xG number is a projection based on his play in those 19 games). When he is on the ice, the Devils defence better be aware of what he is doing: he loves to join the attack, and gets a large amount of shots close to the net (HockeyViz):

Otherwise, the Canadiens defence is bad, and the Devils should demonstrate that.

The Habs Goaltending

Per Amanda Stein:

From HockeyReference, the 26-year-old Montembeault is a fine, league-average goaltender this year. His 0.906 save percentage equals league average, whilst his quality starts percentage of 54.2% is a touch above league average. Similarly, his goals saved above average is 0.4, which is, again, essentially average. Interestingly, MoneyPuck has him at four goals saved above expected: a curious goaltending insight, where saving above expected is saving at average this year, meaning that the average goalie is actually saving above expected.

Also via MoneyPuck, of the 47 goalies to play at least 20 games, for unblocked shot attempt save percentage at different danger levels in all situations, Montembeault is 6th for low danger, 33rd for medium danger, and 14th for high danger. More than usual, then, the Devils should try to avoid low-danger shots, and should get the puck to more threatening areas. It’s hard to say what the pattern is in this plot, from HockeyViz:

On the one hand, the slot is a dangerous area, and Montembeault is conceding there. On the other hand, he concedes above average from the blue-line, on shots which are low-danger. I guess the moral of the story is that the Devils should force the puck into the middle of the ice for looks which have a better likelihood of going in. Overall, Montembeault is league average incarnate, so nothing really for the Devils to be worried about, especially given how they handled Hellebuyck the other night against the Jets.

Devils-Specific Considerations

Lindy Likes What He Sees

The main point I got out from Lindy’s post-game comments was his thoughts on the new lines. Since Jack Hughes got back in against Pittsburgh, the Devils have been rolling the same top-9:




Lindy liked the lineup, liked what he saw from the different lines, and said that this is that time of year — going into the postseason — where you want to build chemistry on lines. He said that with chemistry on multiple lines, with many lines that can score, that makes you a much more dangerous team. By the sound of things, then, Lindy is going to be going with this combination for the next little bit, until something needs to be changed. I see this as a good thing. All three lines can score, and the first and third lines are legitimate shut-down units. There is a lot of potential here, so good to hear that Lindy is committed to trying it out.

Hot and Hotter

The Devils are 7-2-1 in their last 10. This hot record has them tied for the third-best points percentage over that stretch. The two teams who are better? The Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers...

The playoff race in the Metro is turning out to be the fiercest in the league, with these three teams being second, third and fifth in the overall standings. Depending on your mileage of whether the Devils can catch the Hurricanes, or how important playoff seeding is, it is important to keep winning games, to not take the foot off the break. Against a Montreal team with little going for them — a recently luke-warm powerplay and an average goalie in net being the highlights, all else spelling imminent doom — the Devils have to come out and get the two points. I fully expect them to.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about tonight’s matchup? Are the Canadiens as bad as I make them out to be? What are your thoughts on Nick Suzuki? An inferior (or superior!?) Nico or something else? Who on the Habs are you afraid of? Personally, Josh Anderson has been in so many trade rumours linked to the Devils that it would be surprising to me if he didn’t embrace that irony and score. Will this be a high-scoring game or not? Vanacek to play well in net? 5-on-5 or special teams to be the difference-maker? Let me know what you think in the comments below, and thank you for reading.