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Game Preview #42: New Jersey Devils vs. Montreal Canadiens

After a tough three-game road trip, the Devils return to New Jersey to battle the scrappy Canadiens

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NHL: New Jersey Devils at Montreal Canadiens David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (22-16-3) vs. Montreal Canadiens (18-18-7)

The Time: 7:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN

Last Devils Game

The Devils finished off a three-game road trip with an afternoon game in Boston on Monday, falling to the Bruins 3-0. Nico Daws played very well in defeat, but the offense couldn’t back him up.

Last Canadiens Game

Montreal hosted the Colorado Avalanche on Monday, edging out the Avs by a 4-3 final score. Joel Armia scored with 4:10 left in regulation to lift the Habs to the win, snapping Montreal’s three-game losing streak in the process.

Last Devils-Canadiens Game

Way back on October 24th, the Devils travelled to Montreal and skated away with a comfortable 5-2 win. Tyler Toffoli was the story of that game, registering a hat trick against his former team.

More Lineup Changes To Come?

In case you needed a reminder, the Devils suffered yet another injury recently. Brendan Smith went for a hit on Charlie McAvoy in the first period of Monday’s game and injured his leg in the process. He left the game after that shift and did not return. As is tradition around these parts, the Devils refused to give us even a shred of info we didn’t already know about Smith’s injury:

The Devils did not practice yesterday, so we’ll have to wait for either morning skate today or warmups tonight to see if Smith will be ready to go or not. If Smith can’t suit up, it would appear that Cal Foote will be the next man up. Foote was signed in the offseason, and has yet to appear in a game for New Jersey this season. Obviously Smith has his shortcomings, but more injuries is the last thing this team needs. Get well soon, Brendan.

Reasons For Optimism

In an otherwise dismal performance on Monday, I counted three things that I could legitimately point to as a positive from that game.

We’ll start with the most obvious one: Nico Daws. The young man has had quite the last couple of games, stopping 36 of 37 shots in a win against the Florida Panthers on Saturday before saving 33 of 35 shots in the loss to Boston on Monday. That’s 69 saves on 72 shots, good for a .958 sv%. That number is a miracle compared to what the Devils have been getting from their goaltenders this season. Daws still has much to prove, but if he can stay hot for at least a little bit longer, that would go a long way toward helping New Jersey weather the injury storm they’re currently dealing with. I really hope Daws gets the start this evening.

The second positive is the play of the first line on Monday. Nico Hischier, Erik Haula, and Dawson Mercer played most of their minutes against the Bruins top pairing AND top line, which includes players like Charlie McAvoy, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand. Yet despite that brutal matchup, the Hischier line produced a 5-on-5 xGF% of 67.03 according to Natural Stat Trick. They obviously didn’t score, but that unit threatened all day long, especially Hischier who personally set up a few high danger chances. If they can do that against one of the toughest matchups in the league on the road, they should be able to dominate whoever they line up against tonight.

The third and final positive I saw was the play of Simon Nemec. The young blueliner just continues to really impress me. He’s not overly flashy like Luke Hughes, but while his contributions may be subtle they are no less important. He finished Monday’s game with a 5-on-5 xGF% of 51.78%, and again that was against an elite Boston team on the road. I expect Nemec to continue to impress tonight.

Montreal’s Leading Man

The Canadiens are not a particularly good team. They currently sit at fake .500 with a record of 18-18-7. Most around the hockey world expected them to be worse than this before the season though, so credit where it’s due for Montreal finding a way to grind out points.

Arguably the biggest reason for their surprising competency is the play of their captain, Nick Suzuki. The 24-year old leads the Habs with 37 points. Not amazing production, but certainly a very good season so far. However, despite pacing the club in points, it’s not his offense that drives most of Suzuki’s value. In a pretty surprising turn of events, Suzuki has morphed into one of the game’s elite shutdown centers, to the point where The Athletic ($) has him leading the Selke Trophy race at the season’s halfway mark. Among Canadiens with at least 100 minutes of ice time, Suzuki currently holds the lowest xGA/60 (2.35) on the Habs according to Natural Stat Trick, so it’s no wonder he’s getting a lot of love in the Selke race.

Suzuki may be paying a price for all that focus on defense though. In stark contrast to his xGA/60, again among Canadiens with at least 100 minutes played this season, Suzuki clocks in at 17th on the team in xGF/60 (2.43). Considering Suzuki leads all Montreal forwards in average time on ice this season with 21:11 per game, expect to see a lot of the Habs’ captain tonight. And given his statistical profile, expect to see a lot of low event hockey whenever he hops over the boards.

Montreal’s Supporting Cast

If we can expect to see a lot of Suzuki tonight, expect to see a metric ton of Mike Matheson. The 29-year old blueliner leads all Montreal skaters with a downright silly 25:15 ATOI this season. In all those minutes logged, Matheson has managed to produce six goals and 31 points in 43 games played.

That truckload of minutes have usually been spent in his own end, however, as Matheson enters tonight’s contest with a 5-on-5 xGF% of 44.34 per NST. That’s genuinely awful, and it begs the question why Montreal continues to give him a ton of minutes if he seemingly can’t handle the workload. In any case, if Matheson plays his usual 25-26 minutes tonight, that looks like a matchup the Devils can feast on.

Elsewhere, Cole Caufield leads the Canadiens with 13 goals (to go along with 18 assists) in 43 games played. Caufield is fourth on the team in xGF% at 5-on-5, which is good. But his xGF% is 49.76%, which is not so good. It’s certainly not awful, but Caufield isn’t driving play at all.

Montreal’s prized prospect, Juraj Slafkovsky, comes into this game with five goals and 16 points in 43 games played. The first overall pick in 2022, Slafkovsky was off to a disappointing rookie season before suffering a season-ending injury almost exactly one year ago. This season, his counting stats aren’t anything to write home about, and his advanced numbers are pretty mediocre as well. The Canadiens need to hope Slafkovsky is more of a late bloomer like Jack Hughes and less of a complete whiff like Nail Yakupov.

Between The Pipes

Sam Montembeault and Jake Allen have split the net fairly evenly over the first half of the season for Montreal, though Montembeault has a small edge in games played with 20 to Allen’s 15. It looks like the Devils will get Montembeault this evening though:

In his 20 games this season, Montembeault has a respectable .909 sv% with an equally respectable 2.89 GAA. Per Natural Stat Trick, Montembeault has saved 2.55 Goals Above Expected, which backs up the traditional stats to tell us that he’s having a pretty good season thus far. Montembeault did not face New Jersey in the October 24th game, so this will be the Devils’ first look at him this season.

And speaking of lineup decisions, here’s how the Canadiens lined up in their last game against the Avalanche:

I would imagine we see something similar tonight.

Your Take

What will you be expecting from tonight’s game? Who do you want to see step up? Who will you be watching on Montreal’s side? As always, thanks for reading!