Devils rally to spoil Slafkovsky's Montreal debut with 2-1 pre-season win

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens grabbed an early lead but allowed two unanswered goals and fell to the New Jersey Devils 2-1 in their NHL pre-season opener on Monday night.

Despite the loss, head coach Martin St. Louis found positives with young players trying to push and impress the rebuilding team.

The prime example was Owen Beck, who centred the top line alongside Cole Caufield and Mike Hoffman due to Nick Suzuki’s injury. The 18-year-old left his impression with the Canadiens’ staff.

“He plays a very mature game, he doesn't play like an 18-year-old,” St. Louis said. “Obviously he was in tonight with Cole and (Hoffman) with (Suzuki) being hurt right now. It's an opportunity for him and I thought he took advantage of it.”

With the likes of Suzuki, Kirby Dach, Christian Dvorak and Jake Evans on the Habs’ centre depth, cracking the team's roster will be an uphill battle for Beck. The native of Port Hope, Ont., is aware of that but will try to climb the mountain during pre-season outings nonetheless.

“I don't think it's out of reach,” he said about making the Canadiens’ squad. “Obviously, it's very, very challenging. You know, I'm not by any means saying that it's gonna come easily but guys have made the team at 18, you know.

"Ryan O'Reilly is a great example. He’s the same pick as me in the draft and he made the team at 18 so I won't say it's out of reach, but it's a very, very challenging task.”

Juraj Slafkovsky played his first game in front of the Bell Centre crowd on the second line with Dach and Rem Pitlick. Home fans were ecstatic to finally see the Habs’ first top pick in the NHL draft since Doug Wickenheiser.

“They’re engaged physically, they’re both big guys, I thought they brought good energy,” St. Louis said of Slafkovsky and Dach. “They had offensive moments so it’s about continuing to do the reps and feeling better in a new environment.”

The Slovakian received a loud ovation with his first touch of the puck but stayed off the scoresheet, only picking up an interference penalty in the second period.

“Yeah, it was crazy,” Slafkovsky said about the crowd. “Every time the puck was close to the net they started cheering.”

During the first faceoff, Slafkovsky found himself shoulder-to-shoulder with countryman and former Hab Tomas Tatar, which was a special moment for the 18-year-old.

“It's great because there are not many Slovak players in the league, it just feels good to play against them and it feels nicer when you play against your own in (the NHL),” he said.

Asked if Tatar offered him any advice, Slafkovsky answered: “No, not much. He’s more of a funny guy.”

Caufield scored first for the Canadiens but Tatar and Graeme Clarke scored the Devils’ goals to register the victory.

“I thought the compete level was great,” said Devils head coach Lindy Ruff. “I thought we really skated well as a team, every line skated well. You look at the forward group, they’re tracking back and getting back.

“We created a lot of great turnovers and I’m probably disappointed with the lack of finish but we created some great turnovers.”

Jake Allen kept a clean sheet with 18 saves through 29 minutes of play. Cayden Primeau filled in for the second half of the game and stopped 11 of 13 shots.

McKenzie Blackwood allowed one goal and made 15 saves in just over 31 minutes of play. Nico Daws played the back end of the game and stopped all five shots fired his way.

Caufield took no time to get back where he left off and opened the scoring on the power play with a one-timer from Mike Hoffman’s pass in the first period. In the process, Pte. Claire, Que., native Mike Matheson picked up his first point as a Hab.

The Devils replied with a power-play goal of their own. Jesper Bratt found Tatar from the back of Montreal’s net and the Slovakian sniped the puck above Primeau’s glove.

Beck, who had raised eyebrows during the Prospects Challenge, continued to impress on the top line flanked with Caufield and Hoffman to his sides. The 2022 second-round pick hit the crossbar from the right faceoff circle in the third period trying to regain the lead.

The Devils took their first lead of the game at 14:03 of the third period. Clark tried his luck from the right faceoff circle but Primeau blocked the shot. The puck then bounced off of Clark’s skate and past the Canadiens’ netminder.

Montreal responded instantly when Michael Pezzetta redirected Matheson’s shot from the point but a Devils’ challenge ruled that there was an offside on the play.

NOTES: Nico Hischier played two periods and suffered cramps. The Devils' captain did not return to the game following the second intermission for precautionary measures.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 26, 2022.

Tristan D’Amours, The Canadian Press