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Game 34 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Washington Capitals

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (18-14-1) vs. the Washington Capitals (17-14-1)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Our Hated Rivals for the first time all season on Tuesday. The game started very well for the Devils. They were vastly superior in the first period and scored the game's first goal. Yet, they started to fade in the final 5-6 minutes of the second period and the Rangers equalized. Then the dreaded third period reared it's ugly head, as the Rangers scored an early goal, a much-later shorthanded goal, and an empty net goal to seal the 4-1 win. I wasn't happy and it showed in my recap of the game.

The Last Capitals Game: On that very same evening, the Capitals were hosting the Nashville Predators. It was Mike Knuble's 1,000 career game and the team certainly came out strong. Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom scored to give the Caps a two goal lead in the first period. The team never looked back. Nashville cut the lead to 1 early in the third period; but about half-way through, Alexander Semin made it 3-1; and a power play goal from Troy Brower a few minutes later made the score a decisive 4-1. So it stayed for a Capitals win. Becca H has a recap of the win over at Japers' Rink.

The Last Devils-Capitals Game: The Devils went to D.C. for the second half of a back-to-back set on November 12. It wasn't a high-shooting game as both teams got their shots blocked numerous times. The Capitals certainly started off the game well, going up 2-0 thanks to Troy Brouwer turning an Adam Henrique turnover into a goal and a blast from John Carlson that tipped off Jason Chimera. The Devils would fight back in the second period. Petr Sykora scored off a brilliant shot off a faceoff win and within the period's final two minutes, Ryan Carter re-directed a Bryce Salvador pass past Michal Neuvirth. A third period filled with scary moments turned out to be thunder with no lightning and so the game went beyond regulation. The Devils won in a shootout to get a 3-2 win. My recap of that game is here; for the opposing side, J.P. has this recap at his rink with no acrostic message.

The Goal: The team needs to tighten up completely on defense. That may be a strange goal considering the Devils are one of the stingiest teams in the NHL at 5-on-5 play with 26.9 SA/60 per Behind the Net. That's because the Devils are going to be short on defense this evening. Adam Larsson is in Sweden attending his grandmother's funeral and will not play tonight and on Monday at Carolina. Andy Greene has been out with a foot injury and is still a couple of weeks away from returning. Henrik Tallinder has had back spasms and has been out for the last 6 games. He didn't practice on Thursday according to this post by Tom Gulitti, so I wouldn't expect him to play tonight. That makes three defensemen who have played significant minutes for the team unavailable tonight. It would also mean that the best the Capitals forwards have to offer may have to go up against a makeshift top pairing of Salvador and Mark Fayne. While both defenders have been very good in recent games, it's not smart to put it all on their shoulders. The Devils forwards absolutely have to help the defense out consistently in their own end lest they want to roll the dice on the blueline having an awesome night, the goaltender having an awesome night, or the Capitals offense playing like garbage. This does not just mean backchecking, but also by being smart with the puck at the blueline and moving the puck forward safely to cut down on turnovers. If the Devils don't do this, it will be a very long Christmas Eve-eve at the Rock.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's point of view, please check out Japers' Rink.

While the blueline has taken a hit; Thursday's practice did bring some good news. Patrik Elias was healthy enough to return practice and will play tonight.

2011-12 - Patrik Elias 32 13 16 29 -3 12 5 1 2 77 16.9

Elias is the team's top scorer, he plays in all situations, and he usually achieves success in possession against tough competition. While the Devils weren't completely useless without him on Tuesday, it's always a positive to have the team's top forward return to action. I'm a little concerned that he's had a tough time from it, but he is returning from the flu. The worst case scenario from that standpoint is that Travis Zajac takes his minutes and Elias plays a lesser role. Either way, Elias will be active and that's a positive.

2011-12 - Alex Ovechkin 32 11 12 23 -8 14 2 0 1 124 8.9
2011-12 - Nicklas Backstrom 32 12 22 34 -5 20 3 0 3 81 14.8

One interesting question will be who he'll face tonight. According to this post by Katie Carrera at Capitals Insider (a Washington Post blog), recent head coach Dale Hunter balanced his top forward lines in Tuesday's game. One line featured Ovechkin, Brouwer, and Brooks Laich. The other featured Marcus Johansson, Backstrom, and Semin. According to Carrera's post from Thursday's practice, Dale Hunter is keeping these lines together for another game. This alone creates match-up problems for the Devils. Do you throw the Elias line and/or Fayne-Salvador against Laich's line; or do you draw them against Backstrom's line? Can the unit of Zach Parise, Adam Henrique, and Ilya Kovalchuk handle the other line? Backstrom does lead the team in scoring and has a superior on-ice Corsi rate; but Ovechkin leads the team in shots on goal. (And if that statline isn't "going," then I'm glad he's not "going.") Both ooze offensive skill and are very dangerous to play against. And the guys surrounding them on each line have been quite good at points this season. It's an open question whether it'll last (especially considering that third line of Laich, Chimera, and Joel Ward was facing the toughs); but it worked well enough to warrant another game. How should DeBoer match against them? I really don't know. I would hope DeBoer's gameplan allows for adjustments if the initial decision doesn't work.

I also hope the gameplan allows for someone to be aware of the guys at the points. Dennis Wideman and John Carlson have been quite prolific at both ends of the rink. Each has 5 goals and 16 assists; placing both behind Ovechkin and Backstrom in scoring on the team. Each are big minute players, as Wideman averages 23:43 per game and Carlson averages 22:56. They are #1 and #2 respectively in terms of average ice time. Each have more than 70 shots on net: 73 by Carlson, 71 by Wideman. Only 4 players have more shots on net: Laich, Chimera, Backstrom, and Ovechkin. Each are on different pairings, which again, can create problems for matchups. Carlson has been paired with Karl Alzner. According to this analysis by Neil Greenberg at Capitals Insider, they are doing the heavy-lifting when it comes to competition and zone starts. Wideman played with Dmitry Orlav the most last game, but he's also been known to pair with John Erskine, which has achieved more success. Keep an eye out on who Carlson and Alzner are targeting, as they'll give that particular Devils line some serious problems at both ends of the rink.

As a whole, the Washington Capitals are going to be a challenge for the Devils when it comes to possession. According to Behind the Net, they have a very good close-score Fenwick% at 52.30, ahead of the New Jersey Devils in the league, and an even better tied-score Fenwick% at 54.65%. The Caps have regularly out-shot their opponents by a lot this season when the game's tied. I have to re-iterate the goal: the Devils need to tighten up on defense because the Caps are going to "bring it on" based on what they have done this season.

2011-12 - Michal Neuvirth 14 758 5 6 1 39 3.09 363 324 .893 1
2011-12 - Martin Brodeur 19 1012 8 9 0 52 3.08 451 399 .885 0

What remains an open question for Washington is their goaltending. The Caps have a 5-on-5 save percentage of only 90.5%. Not that Devils fans should have a lot to laud; but no single goaltender has fully grabbed that #1 spot. Coach Hunter has already declared that Michal Neuvirth will get the start for Washington tonight. As Carerra noted in that post, this will be Neuvirth's fourth-straight start and the first such run of starts for either goaltender since October. While his season statline is ugly, Neuvirth has been playing quite well as of late. He has only allowed 3 goals out of 75 shots against in his last three starts. In the opposite end of the rink, Martin Brodeur will start for the Devils as noted at the end of this post by Tom Gulitti. He didn't play well on Tuesday and made a mistake that led to the eventual game-winning goal. Brodeur will have an opportunity for some redemption for himself, the team, and for those fans whose eyes are not already blinded by confirmation bias tonight.

Going back to the Devils skaters, while Elias will return, David Clarkson is now questionable with the flu per this post by Gulitti. He's day-to-day and it's going to depend on how fast the bug gets through his system. I hope he does play because his high shooting tendency can help keep the Caps honest when the third line is out there. With Travis Zajac facilitating the play, Clarkson could benefit moreso than Ryan Carter, an actual energy player more suited for fourth line duty. If Clarkson can't play, expect Carter to take his spot. The top two lines will still be called upon to lead the way on offense and in possession; so I wouldn't expect the Devils to be toast if Clarkson's too sick to play for a game or two. Still, it hurts the team at least somewhat because winning that match-up behind those two lines would really give New Jersey an edge and Clarkson would play a large role in making that happen.

With respect to special teams, well, the Devils' power play has been horrible while the penalty kill has been the exact opposite. Washington is more or less mediocre. In terms of success rates, the Caps are 15th in the NHL with a 17.2% success rate on their power play and 16th on the penalty kill with 82.5%. In terms of 5-on-4 situations at Behind the Net, the Caps are above average with 50.9 SF/60, though they've been a bit unfortunate with a shooting percentage of only 10.5. As for 4-on-5 situations, the Caps are about average with 50.3 SA/60 and a save percentage of 87.8%. On paper, one can look at the likes of Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom on a power play or Laich, Alzner, and Carlson on the PK and think, "This team should be killing it on special teams." But they're not. Do I want the Devils to chance it? Not in the slightest. Of course, above all else, don't turn the puck over on the power play. The Caps already have one SHG against the Devils this season, I don't want to see a second one tonight.

In summary, this going to be a difficult game. The Caps are a strong team and getting a result from them tonight would be a big positive. If only to ward them off in the standings. What do you think will happen tonight? What do you make of the Capitals now that they have a new head coach and have split up Ovechkin and Backstrom? Can the Devils match-up well with them? Do you think Neuvirth will stay hot or will the Devils light him up like he was Richard Bachman? Will the Devils not have a disastrous moment on the PP tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks for reading.