The hottest team in the NHL, Boston Bruins, travel to Prudential Centre on Saturday to face-off against the cooling New Jersey Devils in each team's final game before a short Christmas break.
The Devils have competed with the Bruins for top place in the NHL standings since the very start of the season but, after recently losing six in a row, they have dropped to fourth overall (22-9-2) and lost hold of the Metropolitan Division lead to Carolina Hurricanes.
New Jersey now sit eight points behind the Bruins (26-4-2) in the race for the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best regular season team. Boston are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games and to Win The Presidents’ Trophy.
Much to their relief the Devils ended their six-game losing skid with a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday. Swedish forward Jesper Bratt scored twice to help New Jersey out of a scoring slump which had seen them score just 12 goals over the six defeats and concede 24.
The barren spell hasn't harmed the Devils' overall goalscoring figures too much after the likes of Bratt (12 goals, 21 assists), Jack Hughes (17 goals, 21 assists) and Nico Hischier (13 goals, 16 assists) helped them to such a good start.
New Jersey are averaging 3.39 goals per game (eighth in the NHL) and to the credit of goalie Vitek Vanecek and experienced coach Lindy Ruff's well-balanced structure have conceded just 2.52 average goals per game which is third best in the NHL.
Devils netminder Mackenzie Blackwood made 34 saves in the win over the Panthers in what was his first appearance since spraining his MCL in early November.
His return to fitness will be welcome news to the Devils who have had to rely on Vitek Vanecek to carry the load by playing 21 (19 starts) of their 32 games (12-4-2).
The 26-year-old was acquired by the Devils from the Washington Capitals in the off-season and, while he has provided a stability which hasn't been seen in New Jersey's goal for some time, a respite will certainly be helpful for a player who hasn’t surpassed 32 games in a single NHL season yet.
Vanecek, likely to get the start against the Bruins, has a .908 save percentage and 2.45 goals against average (GAA) and Blackwood is 5-2-0 with a .892 save percentage and 2.69 GAA.
The Devils can take heart from the fact that the game isn’t at Boston’s TD Garden where the Bruins are on a 20-game point streak of 18-0-2.
The Bruins are 8-4-0 on the road and while the Devils, 10-7-1 at home, will benefit from that advantage they still face a mammoth task of containing a team who ranks in the top three for goals scored (3.88), goals against (2.52), powerplay (29.5%) and penalty-kill (85.2%), plus holds the biggest goal differential (+55).
Coach Jim Montgomery has rightly received a lot of credit for Boston’s huge upturn in form this season, and a key to their significantly improved offense has been a focus on shot quantity over quality, particularly seeking to generate more attempts from defencemen.
It means that both Hampus Lindholm (four goals, 20 assists in 32 games) and Charlie McAvoy (two goals, 15 assists in 21 games) are close to a point-per-game, and Connor Clifton has also been a big beneficiary, beating his career best offensive numbers in just 31 games (three goals, eight assists).
Both Lindholm (+4000) and McAvoy (+2800) are in the running to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defencemen while the Devils have a candidate of their own in Dougie Hamilton () who has seven goals and 19 assists in 33 games.
The 53-year-old Montgomery was hired by the Bruins after Bruce Cassidy was surprisingly sacked in the off-season.
Cassidy had led the Bruins to the playoffs for six seasons straight but was not able to deliver the franchise a seventh Stanley Cup and first since 2011.
After a first-round exit to the Carolina Hurricanes last season, Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney turned to Montgomery, giving him a second chance as an NHL head coach after he was fired by Dallas Stars in 2020.
Open about his troubled past, Montgomery is more than making the most of his opportunity and is +275 to Win The Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year and to do what Cassidy couldn’t and end the season as Stanley Cup champions.
Montgomery is in competition for the award with Devils’ Ruff who at 62 is not only aiming to end New Jersey’s four-year absence from the playoffs () but take the ever-blossoming side on a deep run into the playoffs. They are +1300 to Win the Stanley Cup.
Ruff won the Jack Adams in 2006 when he was coach of the Buffalo Sabres where he stayed for a decade before moving on to coach Dallas Stars and now the Devils.