Montreal fans have to be looking forward to Friday’s match-up in Jersey because it pits their up-and-coming squad against one of the best in the business. For what seems like forever, the Devils have been at or near the top of the NHL in many, if not all aspects of an overall game. Here we’ll take a look at what they have, don’t have, and what Canadiens fans might expect on Friday night.
1. Marty Brodeur – where else do you start? There’s a reason he’s considered the best in the business and certainly the numbers don’t lie. With a gaudy 1.89 goals against average and a very respectable .921 save percentage, Brodeur ranks at or near the top in many goaltending categories. What many don’t realize is that he’s not strictly a butterfly keeper, but more of a hybrid, in that he keeps on his feet much more than your average Patrick Roy clone. This closes the upper reaches of the net far more often and is a significant part of the reason he’s such a tough guy to play against.
2. The trap. It’s the dirty word in hockey today, but nowhere in the league has it come closer to perfection in recent memory than in New Jersey. Each successive coach continues the same practices and therefore the continuity has been remarkable and the results impressive. Clogging up the middle of the ice causes the opposing teams to fight to get the puck through the neutral zone, let alone getting it deep. Now, put 18 skaters on the ice who are on exactly the same page and work the system to perfection and you see why they can be the most frustrating team in hockey to play.
3. Coaching. Present bench-boss Pat Burns is one of the best in the game and his recent Cup victory cements that position. He’s a no-nonsense guy and can be a tough task-master – prompting a recent spat that saw Igor Larionov walking out of practice. When he’s got the home ice advantage, Burns will use it to advantage to get those players on the ice that he deems necessary for the situation, and rarely is he out-coached in any manner.
4. Niedermayer / Rafalski. Defence isn’t the only thing that these two do so well. When you have two of the best puck-movers in the game on your back end, you can transition the puck and deftly turn a defensive situation into an attacking ploy in a moment’s notice. Good thing for the Habs big Stevens isn’t in the lineup as well, because despite his age, he’s an adept passer and intelligent player. But it’s not just the pass you have to watch for as both Niedermayer and Rafalski are wonderful skaters and can launch the attack on their own; a key to the game will be how the Habs can handle these two dangers.
5. Depth. This is a team that has four solid lines and while not every name is of the household variety, they all play that vaunted system extremely well. It’s not just the top two lines that need be watched, but all four. Each has enough talent to make things happen offensively and each has it’s own set of assets which makes it unique and dangerous. Now, with Stevens, Langenbrunner and Berglund out, they’ve lost a few keys, but it’s still impressive to see how they insert players who blend immediately.
6. Scoring. Now, despite having four solid lines, the Devils are having significant troubles putting the puck in the net. They have a mere two players who have breached the 10-goal mark, and though they have a few more that probably should be there, it’s interesting to note that the shooting percentage for many of their top forwards is below even the 10% mark. This, combined with Montreal’s own stellar goaltender, Jose Theodore, should provide plenty of opportunity for stealing victory.
7. Lack of heat. While the Habs are 6-1-1 in the last eight, including the impressive road win against the Flyers in Philly, the Devils are a mere 3-4-1 in the same stretch. Of note, they’ve only scored more than two times on two occasions during that stretch, and two of their three victories were by one goal margins at 2-1 and 1-0. In fact, during recent Devil games include a loss to the Pens by 4-2, a loss to the Hurricanes 2-1, a loss to the Lightning 4-1, and a humbling 4-0 loss to the Senators. And their victory against the pathetic Capitals had to be attained in overtime. This might be a solid time to face them.
8. Critical special teams. Surprisingly considering the lack of scoring on the team, the Devils are near the top of the league (11th) on the powerplay, with the unit firing at a 15.5% clip. The penalty kill, of course, is at the top of the league, but that’s not in the least surprising when it’s common knowledge your best defender on the PK is your goaltender – and the Devils have the best. Interesting to note, however, is that since the game in Calgary before Christmas, the Habs PK has been playing at virtually the same rate as has that of the Devils – lofty work indeed. And with the Habs PP on the continual rise, this in one section of intangibles that looks pleasing to the eye – on paper at least.
9. Home ice. This might be the final intangible here, and it’s another look that makes it look like it’ll be a very interesting game. The Devils are extremely good at home, but the Habs are surprisingly good on the road. After the last road game, it could conceivably be said that coach Julien has the boys understanding what it takes to win away from the confines of the Bell Centre. However walking into the Swamp is a stern test for any club, and one that will show the Canadiens’ mettle.
In other words, it should be a good game. The trap will certainly be on proud display, but if you can get past that and watch the actual details the coaches provide which are largely overlooked, you’ll probably see an intelligent game which is fascinating to watch. Of course, you should also see a wonderful duel between two of the best goaltenders in the game today.