Another busy week begins up in Quebec with another home-and-home series against a certain team that likes a certain goalie that we know and love.
The Time: 7:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the Devils hosted the Buffalo Sabres and went right to work against them. They controlled the neutral zone, denied the Sabres more often than not in their zone entries, and tilted the ice against Jhonas Entroth. Alas, the Devils couldn't find the back of the net. They found a crossbar, Enroth, and the back endboards among their many chances. The Sabres resembled a hockey team in the second period as they threatened to score on their second and third power plays in the period and the Devils' own passes and puck control became sloppy. Fortunately, Cory Schneider bailed the Devils out - even if he did force himself to make a last-second sliding stop off a giveaway. The third period returned to what we saw in the first period, with the same result: no goals for New Jersey despite their best efforts and very little offense from Buffalo. Overtime was necessary. The two teams moved up and down but couldn't find the opportunity until Steve Bernier carried the puck to the right circle. He had the space, he decided to take a chance, and he fired a wrister that cleanly beat Enroth and thrilled the Rock. The Devils won 1-0 in OT; my recap of the game is here.
The Last Canadiens Game: Montreal hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night and it didn't take long for the home team fans to get happy. Max Pacioretty got things going early with a power play goal less than a minute into the game. P.K. Subban continued to dominate and scored his first goal in a long while late in the first period for a 2-0 game. While Toronto tried to put up a fight, Montreal continued to pour on the scoring. Tomas Plekanec made it 3-0 with less than five minutes left in the second. Pacioretty put up a shorthanded goal minutes later to extend it to 4-0. The Maple Leafs would get on the board rather quickly. James van Reimsdyk scored not long after their power play didn't convert and Mason Raymond fired a backhander seconds later to make it 4-2. But Montreal kept the Maple Leafs honest in the third, Carey Price stood tall in net yet again, and they were able to hold on to win. Andrew Berkshire put this full recap together at Eyes on the Prize of the decisive victory.
A Sense of How the Canadiens Are: Normally, I tell you about the goal to this game, one aspect of the game I think the Devils need to do to win tonight among other points. Before I do that, I think it's worth understanding where the Canadiens are at the moment. They're 7-1-2 in their last ten games and they are feeling good. Mike Boone's post Leafs-win article at Hockey Inside/Out is a good and rather sunny look at Montreal. Please read that before you move on it.
The Goal: Make this game as ugly as possible. The Devils aren't likely going to match Montreal shot for shot or even attempt for attempt if the Canadiens are able to freewheel it on the ice. The Devils absolutely need to slow the tempo early on and make the neutral zone a real obstacle for the Canadiens. Montreal has plenty of scorers, an awesome defensive pairing that has brought a lot of offense to the table, and an amazing goaltender. By doing this, they can quell the first two of that trio. Hopefully, that should keep the game in reach for the Devils.
Like A Wall: Carey Price and Peter Budaj have been nothing short of sensational in net. Just look at their numbers. Both of them have even strength save percentages above 94%. 94%! Price's 94.6% is one of, if not the best, even strength save percentages in the league right now. Both Price and Budaj have been strong on penalty kills and only Price has had a shorthanded blemish. Despite all of the scoring the Canadiens have, they're not a great possession team (below 50% at even strength Corsi, just a bit above 50% Fenwick in close score 5-on-5) or even a high-percentage shooting team at even strength. They average over 30 shots per game against overall. It is a testament to how excellent Price and Budaj have been in net that Montreal has a solid goal differential at evens. Clearly a big reason why they're fighting for the top of the Atlantic right now.
What can the Devils possibly do against the probable start from Price? Continuing on from the goal, I'd suggest that they try and hit him with volume. Keep shots low in the hopes he's putting out rebounds and strike him. The Devils would be foolhardy to pass up looks on net for a riskier lateral move or just throw pucks into traffic and hope for the best. Test him early and if pucks are bouncing off of him, then the forwards need to crash the net more than get behind it for possession.
So Many Scorers: Adam Henrique scored his sixth goal on Friday night. He is second on the Devils in goals right now. The Canadiens have six forwards with at least six goals: Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, and Plekanec each have nine; Lars Eller has seven; and Alex Galchenyuk (benched for a significant part of the Toronto game) and Michael Bournival (missed the Toronto game) each have six. That should put some perspective on how deep Montreal's scoring has been at forward. Among them, the most dangerous are Plekanec and Pacioretty. Plekanec reminds me of Patrik Elias in that they play so much in all situations while producing points. Pacioretty is coming off a three-point night and even though he missed nine games, he's right behind Gallagher, who has 80 shots, with 76 shots on net. He just shoots and makes offense happen.
If those six weren't enough, they've been getting some contributions from former Devil Brian Gionta (four goals), Daniel Briere (five goals), Rene Bourque (five goals), and David Desharnais (only two goals, but five assists too). I just named ten forwards who have found the back of the net several times already for Montreal. Even if they throw a less useful player like Brandon Prust or George Parros out there, the Canadiens can damage a team in many different ways. The Devils cannot allow them loads of space to skate ahead and make plays happen. Again, they just about have to slow them down and even play more conservatively to keep their top players in front of them unless they want to hope the goalie can bail them out for sixty minutes.
Super Special Teams: All of those forwards I just named have something else in common: they each have at least one power play goal. Montreal has a top ten shooting rate on power plays and their success rate of 24% is the third highest in the league. The Canadiens can wreck a team on their power play. While they are one of the best PK teams in the league, the Devils struggled with Buffalo's power play on Saturday night at times. Hopefully, they'll be sharper tonight. They may have to be. Should the Devils take some unnecessary calls, you better believe they'll make the penalty kill pay if they make stops whenever possible. Ideally, the Devils will have to be very disciplined tonight but that's easier said than done - especially with Marek Zidlicky out on the ice.
Even if the Devils get the better end of calls, it may not result in much. That's usually because the Devils are the worst team in the league at generating shots on power plays. They struggle to break out of their own end and make two to three passes to gain the zone, much less get set up for shots on net. Montreal has one of the best penalty killing units in the league. They are a top ten team in terms of fewest shots allowed and their success rate of 85.3% is the fourth best in the league. They even have four shorthanded goals scored, which suggests that they can apply high pressure successfully. The Devils' pointmen on the power play will have to be careful. Of course, even if the Devils do manage to get in the zone, getting pucks in the net will remain a challenge because Price has been just superb in shorthanded situations this season.
Overall, the Devils would be wise to keep this game at 5-on-5. It'll be enough of a challenge to play against Montreal. They do not need to give their special teams a chance to show off how good they have been in 2013-14.
Stud Pairing: P.K. Subban is arguably one of the best defensemen in the league. He's Montreal's best skater by far. He plays tough minutes, he leads the team in shots with 87, and he's their leader in points with four goals and 19 assists. I almost want to suggest that a winger keep an eye on him every time he's out there when Montreal has the puck. Subban has been an absolute force at both ends. He's one of the two active Montreal defensemen with a positive Corsi percentage per Extra Skater. The other is his partner Andrei Markov. What a difference a healthy Markov makes. He's been active on offense with 50 shots, two goals, and fifteen assists. He's averaged over 25 minutes per game, most of them with Subban and mostly against difficult competition. The Devils will see a lot of them tonight and it's going to a massive challenge to go at them.
Fortunately, the other Montreal defensemen have not been nearly as impressive. The pairings that do not include Subban or Markov are not positive possession players. They even include Douglas Murray from time to time. I would think that the Devils just need to accept that Subban-Markov are going to be great so therefore they have go right at the other four. I want the Devils to be more aggressive at Alexei Emelin, Josh Gorges, Murray, Raphel Diaz, and whoever else could be on their blueline. Force them to be as good as Subban-Markov probably will be. The Canadiens, again, give up a significant number of shots per game so it can be done. Hopefully, the Devils will be able to do so.
Where I Justify an Odd Call Up: On Saturday night, Ryan Carter got knocked out by Marcus Foligno in a fight. He will not travel with the team. So on Sunday, Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice that the team called up Tim Sestito from Albany. At first glance, this seems like a bad decision. Sestito brings little of consequence to the table. He wasn't doing a whole lot in the AHL and we've seen him enough times in the NHL to know he won't do much at this level. Why him and not someone else?
Well, consider what drove the decision. Carter is a gritty "energy" bottom-six winger. As well as Joe Whitney, Scott Timmins, and Reid Boucher have done so far, they don't appear to fit that role. Stefan Matteau, who would have been my choice, has got into a groove right now and perhaps it isn't the best time to interrupt that. Sestito can come in, fill in the ten or so minutes Carter would otherwise play, and if he can do it without getting destroyed, then that's all he has to do. As much as I want to see the lines from Friday's Carolina game, that's not possible. Even if Damien Brunner stays in the lineup, the team has now has three forwards for two spots. Between Mattias Tedenby, Cam Janssen, and Tim Sestito, I'll suffer Tedenby and Sestito. This way Tedenby isn't asked to do what Carter does because he really isn't suited for it and Peter DeBoer doesn't have to shorten his bench to eleven forwards almost immediately. It's not a great situation but it is what it is. Besides, the Devils' top forwards will have to carry the night even if Carter was healthy. The fourth line won't likely win or lose this game.
Do Better, Brunner: Brunner was benched for the whole third period against Buffalo. I can't pick out a specific reason why but I would guess DeBoer wasn't pleased with his performance in the second period. He didn't seem all that upset about it according to this post-game article by Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Perhaps he knows what he did wrong? I hope so if only so he can correct it. The Devils would be better off if they didn't have to rely on Jaromir Jagr, Dainius Zubrus, and Travis Zajac for over 23 minutes in a second straight game. I'd love to have them play well and they probably will since they've been great together. But with a busy week of games, I don't think it's wise to completely lean on them. So do better, Brunner, for the benefit of you and the team.
Another Homecoming: Martin Brodeur will start tonight's game as per Gulitti. Brodeur has had some fantastic nights in Montreal. He may need to have another one tonight for the Devils to have a chance. He didn't do well on Wednesday against Carolina. If he can avoid getting beaten easily short-side, then I think he'll rebound. But will he be utterly great? I don't know. Giving up a lot of rushes and open looks to anyone against any goalie is a bad idea. Again, all the more reason for the Devils to make this game ugly and low-event as possible so Montreal doesn't get as many opportunities as they could.
Your Take: What do you expect to happen tonight? How do you see the Canadiens right now? Who do you think has to be great for New Jersey tonight? Will the Devils shock Montreal? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.