It's an exciting time of year. The Canadiens are near certain to make the playoffs. A comfortable third place in their division, the Habs are still in the conversation for a first place finish in the conference as well. Thoughts are not of finding a way to the playoffs, but how the team can maximize their chances when they get there.
Conversations, some now obsolete, centre around how Evander Kane might look in the top-six, or whether Antoine Vermette could be a valuable reinforcement. Before the playoffs begin, however, and even before the trade deadline arrives, the Canadiens have some serious problems to solve on the ice.
Two disheartening losses, to two of the league's worst squads, have left EOTP one loss away from changing our focus from Canadiens hockey to the cultural history of early Canada. With the surging Bruins looming on Sunday, the Habs are about to reach the end of what should have been a relaxing stretch of schedule, too.
Thankfully, the Habs get one more chance. On four days' rest, playing an opponent who played last night, Montreal will get their opportunity to relegate the events of earlier this week to no more than an ugly memory. To do that, they'll have to get past an opponent in a much worse position than they are.
How to Watch
Start time: 7:00 PM ET
In Canada (French): TVA
In Canada (English): City
In the Devils Region: MSG+
Elsewhere: NHL GameCenter, NHL Center Ice
Tale of the Tape
|48.5||Score-Adjusted Fenwick %||46.6|
|1.21||5v5 Goal Ratio||0.93|
Know Your Enemy
The New Jersey Devils did not set out to throw their season away. Building a team's offence around the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Mike Cammalleri, Michael Ryder, Patrik Elias, and Martin Havlat certainly doesn't come across as an act of foresight, but as the year progresses, it looks like the team will end up with a lost season.
Realizing that their playoff hopes were slipping away at Christmas time, the Devils' administrators made a move: they fired Peter Deboer. There's no doubt that the team was foundering at the time of his dismissal. Despite a veteran-laden lineup and excellent goaltending, the team was well below .500. Their playoff chances, as estimated by sportsclubstats, were a tentative-at-best 1%. Their shot differential did not hint at a turn-around, either, as their possession game had tumbled from around 52% Fenwick in early November to 46% by Boxing Day.
Sadly, not much has improved in Deboer's absence. The possession game has continued to decline, as their ten-game rolling average currently sits around 44%. A hot streak has pulled the team close to .500, but with the season two-thirds gone, time is running out to make up the ten-point gap separating East Rutherford from its first playoff berth since a Stanley Cup loss to the Los Angeles Kings in 2011-12.
With a strong top line and defensive pair, New Jersey can compete with Montreal in power-on-power situations. Their bottom-nine forwards, and second and third pairs, however, leave much to be desired. The New Jersey Devils are a far cry from the Coyotes and Sabres, but they still fall firmly into the group of teams that the Habs should be expected to beat.
Last Time Out
The Canadiens were fortunate to avoid one of the Devils more effective players, Cory Schneider, when they played to start the new year. Tonight, they'll have the same good fortune.
Lou Lamoriello will start Keith Kinkaid again this evening, giving the youngster the chance to earn just his third NHL win. While Schneider is an elite NHL goaltender, ranking amongst the likes of Henrik Lundqvist and Tuukka Rask in even strength save percentage, Kinkaid has played well in his minuscule sample. For context, his stat line looks not unlike that of the oft-heralded Martin Jones of the Kings, demonstrating that the Devils have received at least average production out of their back-up goaltender.
As is typical, however, the outcome of this game likely won't be determined solely by the play of the opposing team's goalie. The Canadiens have a slew of problems before the puck gets near the enemy crease, and sadly, 96 hours of practice and preparation probably isn't enough to solve them.
That said, the Habs are a better team than the squad that couldn't crack the Coyotes and Sabres. Tonight, we'll find out if their painful regression continues, or if the Canadiens can beat a team they should be able to.