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Game 33 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals

If Monday's practice is any indication, the man on your right could be centering Ilya Kovalchuk and Mattias Tedenby.  If it happens, it's only more reason to chant Fire MacLean at the next home game. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
If Monday's practice is any indication, the man on your right could be centering Ilya Kovalchuk and Mattias Tedenby. If it happens, it's only more reason to chant Fire MacLean at the next home game. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
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The Time: 7:30 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - VERSUS; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-21-2) at the Washington Capitals (19-12-4)

The Last Devils Game: Game? The Devils didn't play a game.  They were just "there" while the Atlanta Thrashers beat them pillar to post for 60 minutes.  It wasn't just a 7-1 blowout loss, it was a 7-1 blowout loss that featured a hat trick by Eric BoultonHere's my recap of that game for those who are morbidly curious or weren't aware that the Devils got destroyed by that large of a margin.  P.S. John MacLean still is the head coach.

The Last Capitals Game: Washington was amid a horrid 8-game losing streak for much of the past 3 weeks. Then came Sunday's game against Ottawa.  The Capitals didn't sulk when things went awry, and when Mathieu Perreault put the team ahead 3-2 in the second, they held on to snap that string of futility.  Becca H has the recap of the 3-2 win at Japers' Rink, where Caps fans finally were able to say "finally, it's over."

The Last Devils-Capitals Game: Believe it or not, the Devils beat the Capitals 5-0. The Caps came into Newark (which isn't a swamp, J.P.) played an incredibly sloppy game, and the Devils made them pay the price over and over.  No, this didn't happen in a dream, it actually happened.  For proof, here's my recap of that rare victory, and Becca H's recap at Japers' Rink.

The Goal: Show that you learned something for once all season!  I don't know about you, but I am sick and tired to the point of expletives about hearing about yet another "embarrassing loss" and "unacceptable" performances from the players and coaches.  You don't have to convince me, Devils.  They have been certainly embarrassing and unacceptable. Yet, I'm hearing "sorry" without the all-important "this is what we're going to do about it."  These terrible losses keep happening because you - as in the players and coaches - have yet to recognize what failed and why after losses and, just as importantly, what worked and why after wins.  It's not about lineups, it's about tactics and tendencies. 

This is a Capitals team that finally broke their long losing streak and certainly hasn't forgotten about the 5-0 loss back on November 23, 2010.   If you, the Devils, do not display that you've learned why things went so bad against Nashville and Atlanta, then you will be slaughtered for a second straight game.  And you'll be saying the same things while some fans like me will just shake their head at your ignorance.

I have a few more thoughts about tonight's game.  For a Capitals-based take on the game, please visit Japers' Rink.

Let's talk about the Capitals for a bit. They lost 8 straight games prior to their win on Sunday night.  Yet, they are still   in first place in the Southeast Division, as of this writing at 9 PM on 12/20.   Apparently, being really good means you can have long slumps without having the bottom fall out.  Interesting.

Anyway, I point you to my preview of the last Devils-Capitals game to give you an understanding of how talented the Caps really are. Yeah, Alex Ovechkin has struggled with "only" 3 assists in his last 5 games.  Yeah, Alexander Semin has only 2 assists in his last 5 games along with nothing at all in his last 3 games.  Yeah,  Nicklas Backstrom only has 2 assists in his last 5 games. Yeah, Brooks Laich has only a goal and an assist in his last 5.  Yeah, many of the big names haven't produced all that much recently, particularly when it comes to goal scoring.  Now that the team finally got a win, everyone has a reason to feel a bit better, and that takes some of the pressure off those big name players. In short, they don't have to grip their sticks so tight and they're due for some better luck. 

Given that the Devils have stretches in seemingly every game where they struggle with basic concepts like clearing the puck or passing it to their own teammate, some of these guys could very well break out tonight. Even they don't, the unheralded guys like Perreault, Eric Fehr, and Mike Knuble can all certainly chip in.  The Capitals still average 2.91 goals per game and own a 20.8% power play conversion rate. Losing streak aside, a Capitals squad now with a reason to smile a little can certainly wreck havoc on a hapless Devils squad tonight.    It doesn't even have to be all that many goals.  After all, an opposing team only needs to pot a couple goals, maintain a lead through two periods, and they're pretty much on easy street to victory city based on what we've seen over and over this season.

Now, to the Devils. Tom Gulitti had quite a bit to report from practice this morning.  Martin Brodeur was announced as the starter, Matthew Corrente was called up to New Jersey, and John MacLean mixed up the forward lines to the following:

Forwards: Ilya Kovlachuk-Tim Sestito-Mattias Tedenby; Patrik Elias-Travis Zajac-Jamie Langenbrunner; Brian Rolston-Dainius Zubrus-Adam Mair. Rod Pelley-Jason Arnott-David Clarkson.

Initial reaction: John MacLean is a moron.  Tim Sestito on an offensive line? Jason Arnott, the one veteran forward shooting at a reasonable percentage, on a fourth line?  Does he not pay attention to the type of players he has or how they play in games? Does he not understand who could complement who?  Why is this guy not fired?

Let me take a step back first along with a deep breath. I'm fine with Brodeur starting against the Capitals.  I'm fine with Corrente being called up; the Devils will have 4 games in 7 days next week with little opportunity to practice even this week due to the holidays.  Having a spare defenseman isn't a bad idea and to have him up. MacLean even shows confidence in his defensive pairings, not making any changes from what he's used in recent games. That's fine, the defense doesn't need to be mixed up, they just need to use their brains for 60 minutes.

But the forward lines. I've looked at them so man times and they just make no sense.  I almost want to say John MacLean is trying to get fired at this point. Especially with the Sestito promotion. When talking to the press at length on Monday, as reported here by Gulitti, MacLean said that Tim Sestito can "skate as well and he can play good defense."  The 5-on-5 numbers at Behind the Net shows some mighty good decreases in goals and shots against per 60 when he's on the ice.  That comes with a giant 'but;' as he's faced really weak competition (second lowest ahead of Stephen Gionta) to accomplish that. He can play good defense against, well, other fourth liners.  Even then, the Corsi rate relative to quality of competition is decidedly negative, so he's usually forced to play defense anyway.  On a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Mattias Tedenby, he's going to see far better players line up against him.  Given he's been a solid AHLer until this season, I don't think it's a stretch to say that's a bad match-up waiting to happen.

I feel like I need to spell it out for MacLean.  Here's what I would do.  First, I'd keep Kovalchuk and Tedenby on the same line. The Devils are struggling to score 2 goals a game, I'm not exactly concerned about their defense.  Besides, it's not like David Clarkson and Brian Rolston have been doing well in their own end along with Tedenby anyway.  However, I'd have Travis Zajac center them.  That would put the best face-off taker on for offensive draws, Zajac can act as the playmaker, and he's got more experience playing against good players than Sestito when it comes to defense.  

Second, I'd put Jason Arnott back where he belongs: with Patrik Elias.  Elias fed Arnott for quite of few of his goals last month. With the team still struggling to score, I want guys who have been productive together to at least have that to go to.  As far as the right wing goes, you can go with Jamie Langenbrunner and hope someone lights a fire under him or even David Clarkson for a little beef.   Not that either the team captain or Clarkson deserves second line minutes, but having Elias back with Arnott makes it a more palatable group.

Third, Dainius Zubrus should go back to center on the third line if only to force Brian Rolston away from the two-way responsibilities that comes with the center position.  Rolston can go back to wing, with Clarkson or Langenbrunner on the other side.  While this line may still be a sore spot and somewhat slow, at least I would have put two forward lines ahead of them with some reasonable potential for offense. This group only has to play simple hockey for 12-14 minutes at evens.  I would hope Rolston-Zubrus-Clarkson/Langenbrunner can do that even for one night.

Fourth, Tim Sestito should be centering the fourth line since he is, get this, a fourth liner!  Have him, Adam Mair, and Rod Pelley come out against the weak competition and hope they have a decent night.  In a perfect world, I throw Sestito back to Albany and have Vladimir Zharkov called up to at least give the fourth line some puck control and speed (and to move him up the lines if he's doing well in-game).  But I don't live in a perfect world, I'm only trying to improve the lines from what mindlessness MacLean came up with in practice on Monday.

There. Four lines of forwards that make a bucket load of sense more than throwing Arnott down to limited minutes and putting Sestito way up. Four lines that doesn't immediately make Devils fans wretch or openly wonder if MacLean thinks before he puts these groups together.  Sure, a Kovalchuk-Zajac-Tedenby line may not work all that well; it's a much more reasonable combination compared to Kovalchuk-Sestito-Tedenby since it's three offensive players instead of two offensive wingers and a plugger/warm body at center.

Of course, MacLean could change things up prior to tonight's game and make much of the previous discussion moot.  There's nothing stopping him from not utilizing the lines he had in practice on Monday.   Well, I really hope he doesn't use those lines from Monday, because the Washington Capitals (and pretty much most other teams in the league) will probably decimate the lines from practice tonight.  In fact, MacLean is considering going with seven defensemen.  If he does, I would recommend scratching Sestito since Pelley and Mair can at least contribute on the PK amid a shortened fourth-line.  Sestito, in my view, is the odd man out.  Also, I would also recommend MacLean not to double-shift Kovalchuk with those two forwards since that hasn't worked all season and it's not going to suddenly work tonight in DC.  

Regardless of lines, the Devils need to at least show that they're learning from these experiences this season.  That they understand what tactics to try, what passes to attempt, and so forth.  Even if the Capitals beat on the Devils, which would extend the road losing streak to 9 games to end 2010 for road games, they at least need to understand why it happened and show that in their following game.  Even in the very-real possibility that it's a blowout, there has to be some learning involved. 32 games into the season, that hasn't been demonstrated on the ice.  Let's at least start tonight, Devils.  Stop telling us you feel bad for losing, and actually do something about it.

The Gamethread will be up later, closer to game time. In the meantime, please feel free to discuss today's game in the comments. If you want to post any news updates (or corrections via new information), then please do so in the comments with a link to the source. Lastly, thank you for reading. Please, let's go, Devils.