The Montreal Canadiens faced off against the New Jersey Devils yesterday afternoon at the Bell Centre.
The Devils have had the Canadiens' number for the last decade or so and although Jersey is having their worst season in years, they have turned the corner lately, going 8-1-2 in their previous 11 games. As such, the streaking Canadiens needed to be wary of their opponents, especially since Montreal was playing their second game in as many days.
Unfortunately, the Canadiens did not come ready to play, at least not for the first 10 minutes or so. As such, the Habs were always one step behind the play as the Devils employed an aggressive forecheck, putting constant pressure on the Canadiens defenders and taking away their time and space.
With the Devils squeezing the Canadiens and physically manhandling them, the Canadiens had several early turnovers leading to Devils' scoring chances.
Danius Zubrus opened the scoring for the Devils, jumping on a Hall Gill turnover on the door step and slipping the puck between Carey Price's pads for a 1-0 lead.
Jersey then increased their lead to two when Ilya Kovalchuk deflected a Colin White shot from the point past Price 4:04 into the first.
But it was in the second period that the Devils really poured it on, outshooting Montreal 14-5 and going into the third with a 3-1 lead. Once again, were it not for Price's stellar play the outcome could have been much worse.
Despite sleeping through most of the game, the Canadiens came to life in the third as Jersey sat back in their defensive shell, but were ultimately unable to capitalize on their chances.
Kovalchuk would add his second goal of the game into an empty net and that was all she wrote. Montreal was ultimately not able to overcome New Jersey's early first and second period goals and they were handed their first loss in four games.
Final score: Devils 4, Habs 1
Habs' scorers: P.K. Subban (6)
Devils' scorers: Danius Zubrus (10), Ilya Kovalchuk (16, 17), Travis Zajac (9)
Three stars: 1. Ilya Kovalchuk, 2. P.K. Subban, 3. Travis Zajac
1. Hall Gill and P.K. Subban had a rough start.
The Habs' top defensive duo were on the ice for both first period Devils' goals and on both plays their weak defensive zone coverage and turnovers led directly to the opposition's markers.
Credit has to go to the Devils however, as their aggressive forecheck made Subban, Gill and Scott Gomez panic with the puck. While Gill ultimately turned the puck over, it was Gomez's miscue that led to the goal.
Getting the puck behind the net, Gomez skated into the corner only to turn and send the puck back behind the net rather than trying to clear it out of the zone. This meant that the puck went back into traffic and, as Gill tried to evade his checker, he instead turned it over to him.
I think the turnovers were more a result of hard work by the Devils than lapses by the Canadiens but still, Montreal has to start stronger than that.
Gill and Subban settled down after the goals, playing key roles on the back end and racking up 19:27 and 24:48 of ice time, respectively.
Unfortunately, they both finished the night at a minus-two and that, ladies and gentlemen, was the game right there.
2. Max Pacioretty looks like a man on a mission.
Pacioretty was driving to the net with conviction again yesterday, and his presence in the Habs lineup continues to be a boon for Montreal.
In the first period, with the Devils mostly dominating play, Pacioretty grabbed the puck at the Jersey blue line, out-skated the Devils defender and cut to the front of the net. Brian Gionta was also driving to the net and Pacioretty's play drew the focus to him, leaving Gionta open.
While there was no rebound for Gionta to put into the empty net, Pacioretty's play led to a Henrik Tallinder hooking penalty on Gionta, giving the Habs their first power play of the game.
And while the Canadiens were unable to score on the PP, the play shows why it is so important for players to go to the net. No player on the Canadiens roster has either the speed, skill or inclination to go to the net with as much conviction as Pacioretty does.
When Pacioretty was drafted by the Canadiens in 2007, head of amateur scouting, Trevor Timmins, said that he thought he had found a true power forward. That hardnosed, scoring player that all teams covet but who is extremely hard to draft or trade for.
Pacioretty is not yet putting up the numbers a la John Leclair, but so far he seems to be fitting the mold that Timmins had hoped for.
3. Carey Price once again gave his team a chance to win.
It is becoming a regular occurrence that the Canadiens don't necessarily have the best starts to games. This isn't true all the time, but often enough that it is bothersome to Habs' fans.
Yesterday, as has been the case on many occasions this season, Price was the only player on the Canadiens that came to play in the first.
Despite letting in two first period goals—both the results of defensive zone turnovers from his teammates—Price stood tall, making several key saves while the Devils were completely outplaying the Habs in the first period.
Price's strong play continued in the second as the Habs were being outshot 14-5. Despite having put three past the Canadiens' netminder, Price was the only reason why Montreal still had a chance to get back in this one.
Actually, given the hermetic defensive system that the Devils play when leading, it was perhaps a long shot for Montreal to come back in this one. That being said, without Price, this one could have been a blowout before the third period even started.
4. The Habs were out-muscled by the Devils.
For the first time since their 5-2 loss to the Flyers, size made a big difference.
From the start of the game, the Devils not only outworked the Habs but also out-muscled them.
Players like Danius Zubrus, Colin White, Jason Arnott and even Ilya Kovalchuk, hit and pushed around the Canadiens every chance they got. The aggressive Devils set the tone early in the match with their physical play, clearly putting a bit of a scare in the Habs players.
All of a sudden, you started seeing the Canadiens go into the corners with their sticks rather than their shoulders, unwilling to take the hit to make the play.
It was this kind of soft play that caused Gomez to panic with the puck, throwing it behind the net to Subban and Gill, leading to the Devils' first goal.
As well as the Canadiens have been playing since the end of December, they still clearly need some thump in their lineup. Pacioretty's improved play is a good start, but adding a player like Jason Arnott or even R.J. Umberger would go a long way towards helping the Habs in the physicality department.
5. The Devils are back.
With 42 points in the standings and 29 games left to play in the season it seems highly unlikely that the Devils will make the playoffs this season.
That being said, after an abysmal first half of the season that saw them fire their coach and re-hire Jacques Lemaire, they look like they have found their game again.
What we saw last night was the once again hermetically-defensive Devils with a strong Martin Brodeur in the net—although he left the game due to injury after the first period in favour of Johan Hedberg—surrounded by a strong defensive system.
New Jersey's success has always come from their system and under former coach John MacLean, it seemed like they either got away from that system or stopped playing for their coach.
As much as it is painful for Habs' fans to see their team continuously lose to the Devils, I think having a strong New Jersey team is a good thing for the league.
These guys should be back on top of things next season.
Standings and Next Game
The loss moves Montreal's record to 30-19-5, with 65 points in the standings, still in sole possession of sixth overall in the East.
The standings stay unchanged for Montreal, who missed an opportunity to tie the Bruins with 67 points in the standings.
Montreal is three points behind the Capitals with an equal amount of games played, has a three-point lead on the Rangers with one game in hand, and is seven points ahead of both Carolina and Atlanta, with the 'Canes holding one game in hand and the Thrashers having played one more than Montreal.
The Habs now have two days off before taking on the Bruins on Wednesday and the Islanders on Thursday. With the Bruins holding a two-point lead on the Canadiens for tops in the Northeast, Wednesday's game is sure to have a playoff-like atmosphere.
New Sunday Shinny Podcast
In this week's Sunday Shinny Gary Whittaker, Nick Murdocco, Kamal Panesar and Amanda Stein discuss the following:
-review of the win against the Rangers
-discuss if a trade with Ottawa involved Kovalev, would you do it?
-preview game against the Devils
Click play below to listen in (listing time 40:55):