Young Canadiens shine with Samuel Montembeault in 3-2 win over Devils

Joshua Roy scores his first NHL goal, Juraj Slafkovsky gets his sixth of the season and Cole Caufield nets the game-winner for Habs.

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History was made at the 2022 NHL Draft when the Canadiens selected Juraj Slafkovsky with the No. 1 overall pick and then the New Jersey Devils took Simon Nemec with the second pick.

It marked the first time players from Slovakia were drafted with the first two picks.

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Wednesday night, Slafkovsky and Nemec — who are close friends — played against each other for the first time in the NHL. The Canadiens won 3-2 with Slafkovsky scoring a goal for the second straight game. It was his sixth goal of the season and five of them have come on the road. Slafkovsky now has 4-6-10 totals in the last 15 games.

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Joshua Roy scored his first NHL goal for the Canadiens and Cole Caufield got the game-winner. It marked the third straight game Caufield has scored and he now has a team-leading 14 goals, two more than Nick Suzuki. The Canadiens improved their record to 19-18-7 and they are 10-7-4 on the road.

Luke Hughes and Alexander Holtz scored for the Devils as their record fell to 22-17-3.

Goalie Samuel Montembeault made 28 saves for the win as the Devils outshot the Canadiens 30-25. Montembeault improved his record to 10-6-4 with a 2.85 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.

While Canadiens GM Kent Hughes said at his midseason news conference Monday that he wasn’t ready yet to anoint Montembeault as the No. 1 goalie, the fact the 27-year-old has started six of the last nine games speaks volumes. It looks now like Jake Allen and Cayden Primeau will split the backup starts for as long as this three-goalie system continues before Hughes can make a trade.

If Montembeault keeps playing the way he did against the Devils, the three-year, US$9.45-million contract extension Hughes signed him to on Dec. 1 will look like a great bargain. The combined value of that contract is less than the US$10.5 million injured Canadiens goalie Carey Price averages each season in his eight-year, US$84-million contract that still has two more seasons remaining with him on long-term injured reserve.

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Montembeault shut the Devils out through the first two periods, stopping all 22 shots he faced, while the Canadiens took a 2-0 lead. Slafkovsky scored at 12:48 of the first period on a beautiful setup from Caufield, who batted a pass out of mid-air from behind the net to Slafkovsky in front.

“It’s a pretty nasty play,” Slafkovsky told reporters in New Jersey after the game about Caufield’s pass. “He’s a special player and he can make plays like these. I’m just happy that I was in the right time and the right spot. I don’t even know how it went in, so don’t ask me about it.

“(The puck) was kind of bouncing and I just kind of whacked it and saw it in the back of the net,” Slafkovsky added.

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Roy scored at 14:45 of the second period, completing a beautiful two-on-one with Sean Monahan.

With 45 seconds left in the second period, Suzuki was given a four-minute penalty after accidentally high-sticking Kevin Bahl in the face and drawing blood. After the intermission, the Devils took advantage of a fresh sheet of ice, getting power-play goals from Hughes and Holtz in the first 1:38 of the third period.

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But Montembeault shut the door after that and Caufield scored the game-winner with 4:31 left on the clock, banging in the rebound off a shot by Jordan Harris. The Canadiens are now 11-0 this season when leading after two periods.

This was the 20th straight game Slafkovsky has played on the No. 1 line with Suzuki and Caufield and coach Martin St. Louis’s decision to put them together and leave them there is really starting to pay off as the Canadiens’ rebuilding process continues. Caufield has six goals in the last 10 games, while Suzuki has 4-11-15 totals in the last 16 games.

At age 23, Caufield was the oldest of the three goal-scorers against the Devils. Slafkovsky and Roy — who was playing in his third NHL game after getting called up from the AHL’s Laval Rocket — are both 20. It would be interesting to see what the Canadiens would look like now if they had injured forwards Kirby Dach and Alex Newhook — who are both 22 — in the lineup.

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Slafkovsky and Nemec had a chance to have dinner together Tuesday night. Nemec played last season with the AHL’s Utica Comets and he also started this season there before making his NHL debut on Dec. 1. The 19-year-old defenceman logged 21:53 of ice time against the Canadiens and had a minus-3 differential while picking up an assist

“He’s a great player offensively,” Slafkovsky told reporters in New Jersey Wednesday morning. “He can create a lot and he’s really smart, too. I’m sure his game will only grow because he has only like 20 games in the NHL, I think. He’ll only get better. I can’t wait to see him progress and it’s nice that you have someone you grew up with and can push each other to be better.”

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Slafkovsky headed into Wednesday night’s game with 82 games of NHL experience under his belt — the equivalent of one full season. He now has 10-17-27 totals in 83 games.

“It goes by fast,” Slafkovsky told reporters Wednesday morning. “I feel so much better, honestly. It’s only (82) games, but I can see the progress and I’m sure I will only grow and the next 82 will be even better.”

Game No. 83 was definitely a memorable one for Slafkovsky.

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