Game 53 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Montreal Canadiens

The Time: 3:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+(HD), CBC in Canada (Thanks joshd12); Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (18-30-4) at the Montreal Canadiens (30-18-5)

The Last Devils Game:  It was an odd one to watch.  All three Devils goals involved some excellent work by the Unseen Hand of Luck™; they were sloppy in their own end, particularly in picking up open guys for cross-ice looks; and managed to take the Florida Panthers in overtime.  Similar to the last Panthers game that went into overtime, Florida would only need one shot to win it.  Rostislav Olesz was the one to make it a 4-3 loss for New Jersey at the Rock. My recap of that game is here.

The Last Canadiens Game: At 2 PM on Saturday, Les Habs hosted Our Hated Rivals, the New York Rangers.  The Canadiens' PK was good, P.K. Subban was great, and Carey Price was the greatest one out on the ice. He stopped all 35 Rangers shots, including 19 in the third period to preserve a 1-0 lead.  Scott Gomez scored the only goal on a goaltender and Tomas Plekanec potted an empty netter to make it 2-0.  Kevin Mio has links and plenty of reactions to the win at Habs Inside/Out.

The Last Devils-Canadiens Game:  After a 4 day break, the New Jersey Devils went out on the ice in Newark and, to put it nicely, sucked.  The Canadiens gave them no mercy on December 2, scoring 5 straight goals - including 2 within the first 100 seconds of the game.  The lone bright spot was that Jason Arnott scored on a 5-on-3 power play in the third period so the Devils wouldn't be shutout.  The Devils lost 5-1 and it was horrible (and a sign of things to come in December for NJ).  My recap of the debacle is here, while Kevin van Steendelaar had ten questions about Montreal's seemingly easy win at Habs Eyes on the Prize.

The Goal: Keep your eyes open in your end - with and without the puck.  While there is much chatter about the Devils' power play, what really hurt New Jersey was their play in their own end.  Guys with the puck making a blind pass that ended up going to a Panther.  Teammates not communicating with each other on where they need to be.  Forwards coming in late down low when they should have been covering their man earlier.  Clearances going right to a waiting Panther at the point or in the neutral zone.  Stuff like this gives the other team another opportunity to attack at best and a goal against at worst.  While Martin Brodeur is pretty much money in Montreal, a gameplan centering around him bailing out every error by the Devils is likely to fail miserably.    Essentially, I want to see a tighter effort by the Devils in their own end. That will give them a better chance to win than if they get a PPG (though it would be nice).

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.  Please check out Habs Eyes on the Prize for Montreal analysis.

 

Even though I put it to the side for the goal, the Devils would help themselves with an improved power play.  In this post by Dave Hutchinson for NJ.com, the struggles are broken down fairly well. Since Jacques Lemaire was named the interim head coach, the Devils are 6-for-56 on all PP opportunities and 0-for-10 in their last 4 games.  The article notes that Lemaire uses 5 forwards like the team did under John MacLean. However, from what I've seen, the current PP isn't set up in an umbrella anymore.  It's returned to a more traditional position-based unit with Ilya Kovalchuk and Brian Rolston on points, with Andy Greene replacing Rolston on a second unit.  With the concerns about the power play stemming after Friday's overtime loss to Florida, as per this postgame post from Tom Gulitti, I openly wonder if we'll see a schematic change sooner rather than later.

 

While I would like to see a return to the umbrella with Travis Zajac distributing from up top and Kovalchuk moved to the right circle; I would be happier with just seeing PPs not get wasted so often.  Not scoring on a power play is one thing, but what really hurts is that the power play is not consistent in getting actual offense going with a man advantage.  This means shots. This means possession. This means just getting the puck into the zone long enough to actually set something up.  Yes, I know PK units consist of a team's best defensive players, and the Devils can't control them. Plus, the Devils have just faced two very good teams on PK back-to-back; the Rangers are eighth in the NHL with a 84.1% success rate and Florida is sixth with a 84.6% success rate. I'm aware of that. But again, I'm not asking for goals. I'm asking for some consistent pressure. The goals will eventually come once that's established.

Today's game will certainly not be easy for the New Jersey power play to get in some kind of rhythm.  Montreal has the seventh best PK unit in the league with a 84.5% success rate and they are coming off a performance where they and Carey Price held the Rangers to nothing in 4 power plays.   That said, it's not like the Canadiens will blow the Devils away with a man advantage given their recent performances.  As noted in this post-game post by Kevin Mio at Habs Inside/Out, the Canadiens are 0-for-21 on the power play in their last 4 games.  

A big reason why this could be a low scoring game in general are the goaltenders.  As reported by @All_Habs and Arpon Basu of CTV via Twitter, Montreal head coach Jacques Martin has confirmed that Carey Price will be starting in net this afternoon (thanks to Kevin for the latter tweet).  Price picked up his fifth shutout of the season on Saturday afternoon against Our Hated Rivals as he stopped all 35 shots against.  It was just another very good game in what is turning out to be a very good season for Price.


GP MIN W L GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2010-11 -Carey Price 47 2790 26 16 107 2.30 1379 1272 .922 5

In addition to facing a very successful goaltender this season, the Devils could deal with a stronger blueline than what the Rangers had to face.  James Wisniewski didn't play on Saturday due to illness, but if he comes back, that only gives Montreal some more attack from the back end.   In the 15 games he's played for Montreal, he already picked up 2 goals and 11 assists.   That would boost a blueline that boasts the current rookie sensation in Montreal, P.K. Subban (5 G, 17 A, 21:22 TOI/G) and the steady Roman Hamrlik (4 G, 17 A, 22:05 TOI/G).  As a team, they average 30.1 shots against per game, the fifteenth best rate in the league, but their excellent PK rate belies the fact that they know how to clamp down when necessary.

The Montreal offense is without Michael Cammalleri (13 G, 18 A), who is out with a shoulder injury, and he is definitely missed. The Canadiens have only averaged 2.57 goals per game, the 24th best average in the league.  His finishing would be welcomed on a team that shoots plenty; the Canadiens boast the fifth best shots for per game average in the league with 32.7 per game.  Believe it or not, Montreal currently has a shooting percentage of 6.8% at 5-on-5 according to Behind the Net.  This is the third worst shooting percentage at 5-on-5 and just 0.2% ahead of New Jersey, who are also no longer dead last in this stat - thanks Ottawa.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG SOG PCT
2010 - Tomas Plekanec 51 17 25 42 13 42 3 0 3 150 ddd

Still, the Canadiens have a few forwards who can make New Jersey's day miserable if given the chance. Tomas Plekanec is the team's leading scorer and a significant offensive talent on his own.  Sometimes I see him and my gut reaction is to wonder if Patrik Elias is wearing his jersey.  Andrei Kostitsyn has enjoyed a fine season so far with 13 goals and 16 assists. Then there are the two former Devils.  Scott Gomez (7 G, 20 A) may not have big numbers to justify his salary this season, but he's still an excellent playmaker and just smooth on the breakout. Brian Gionta has been a shot machine for Montreal, leading the team with 204 shots on goal (sixth in the league) and 19 goals.  He'll definitely make his mark, hopefully on Martin Brodeur's pads.

In case you didn't know, Martin Brodeur will be the starter for New Jersey.   This was confirmed by Gulitti and Hutchinson on Saturday afternoon. Between Price's season and his recent shutout and Brodeur's career against Montreal, we could be in for a barnburner of a goaltender's duel.   Because I never get tired of pointing it out, here's Brodeur's career season stats against the Canadiens:


GP MIN W L T GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
Career vs. Montreal - Martin Brodeur 60 3627 39 16 5 106 1.75 1576
1470 .933 9

The above is why Montreal fans are always at least a little nervous when New Jersey is the opponent regardless of record.  Montreal is Brodeur's city, after all.

As far as the rest of the Devils, expect a similar lineup to what Lemaire used on Thursday and Friday.  Colin White was the only one to not practice on Saturday, but he should be fine according to Hutchinson's report.  I would like to see Mark Fraser back in the lineup and paired with Andy Greene instead of Anssi Salmela.  The duo weren't that good against Florida, they were responsible for the Panthers' first goal against, and they - along with the third line of Vladimir Zharkov, Jason Arnott, and Mattias Tedenby - got housed in scoring chances according to Derek Zona's count at Litter Box Cats.   Plus, the two are both two-way defensemen.  Switching out Salmela with Fraser gives that pairing more balance along with more of a physical presence.

All the same, this goes back to what I believe is the main goal for the Devils: they need to be strong in their own end.  Just because Brodeur has been brilliant throughout his career in Montreal, giving many supporters ulcers when he steps in between the pipes, lamenting "Oh, not again! Not him again! He always does this to us! Always!," does not mean he can be left out to dry.  Hedberg bailed them out plenty of times against Florida on Friday, to expect the same is to expect too much.

That's my take on this Sunday's game.  Expect the weekly Atlantic Division snapshot in the morning and a Gamethread closer to gametime.  A new Talking Red will also be recorded on Sunday.  In the meantime for all of this, please feel free to discuss today's game in the comments. If you want to post any news updates (or corrections or what-have-you), then please do so in the comments with a link to the source.  Thank you for reading. Let's go, Devils.

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