In the game's first forty minutes, the New Jersey Devils were on their way to give the fanbase - and themselves - a most excellent gift: a decisive win over a strong Washington Capitals team. OK, so the Capitals aren't doing all that well in the standings; but the Devils look to be in direct competition with them for a playoff spot. Plus, this is a Capitals team that won their last game in a solid fashion that features many players with dangerous amounts of talent. The Caps helped out a lot by not being in-sync; creating many wins in battles for the puck. The Devils even had some good fortune going their way with two shots that hit iron among other breaks. Still, the Devils were out-shooting, out-scoring, and out-playing the Capitals in the first two periods. The scored was a deserved 3-0.
Of course, no Devils fan who saw this game will recall all that. No, when talking about this game, the first thing that comes to mind is that the Devils blew this lead in the third period. It all started off innocently enough. The Capitals came out strong in the third period, a non-surprising result given how they played in the first two minutes. The Caps rang off five straight passes, two of them across the slot that found Brooks Laich all alone in front with Martin Brodeur in motion. This usually ends badly and so the Capitals got on the board. OK. So they got one goal. Not a big deal. It's not like they immediately built on it. They didn't get a shot on goal until their next goal.
With less than 8 minutes left to play, Alexander Semin blocks an attempted chip along the boards by Anton Volchenkov. No big deal, the Devils had several bodies back. Semin gets around Volchenkov and finds Jason Chimera alone at the net. That was a big deal. Chimera curled in like Zach Parise likes to do on the power play when he gets the puck down low. Unlike Parise, Chimea's jamming attempt worked as he put in his own rebound at point-blank range to make it 3-2. Concern definitely mounted; and the Caps decided to do more than just appreciate the goal. They worked to put up more shots.
It all came apart with 1:42 left to play. Yes, the Devils were in the midst of trying to escape with the win but couldn't hold the Caps back. Again, their adjusted unit of Laich, Semin, and Chimera struck. They pinned the Devils' third line back and a cross-ice pass found Semin down near the right corner. Again, no big deal. He curls around Karl Alzner and fires a shot that Brodeur saves. Laich gets to the rebound and makes a behind-the-back cross-slot pass. Given that Fayne was dealing with Semin and Salvador was trying to get to Laich; this meant Travis Zajac was responsible in the slot. Instead of trying to block the pass or getting to Chimera, he watches that puck go past him. Brodeur had no chance and Chimera had an easy equalizer.
While the Capitals out-shot the Devils 9-4 in that period and ultimately out-did them in Corsi given the Devils' team rating of -7, it's not like Washington threw caution to the wind and pounded New Jersey. This wasn't like the game against San Jose where the visitors just outclassed the opponents. The Capitals clawed their way into it eventually while the Devils simply faded at both ends of the rink. I can understand being out-shot since the Caps had nothing to lose at that point; but this was ridiculous hockey by the Devils. They got soft in the middle in their own end of the rink, and they paid the price. They forechecked to little avail and didn't test Michal Neuvirth enough after two periods of making him work real hard for his money. When they got a power play in the third, they wasted it. They got only one glorious chance to score, to really put the screws to Washington, on a 2-on-1 that yielded a miss by Zach Parise. Whatever breaks the Devils were getting in the first two periods; they didn't get them in the third period. More distressingly, they didn't work for them after the Capitals made it a one-goal game.
Fans were disgusted, surely the players and the coaches were as well. What should have been a regulation win turned into a point for each side in overtime. While the Devils came agonizingly close to winning it in OT - Anton Volchenkov of all people hit the post after jumping in on a play - it was not to be. The Devils did win the shootout, thanks to the usual suspects of Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, and Brodeur. In the big picture, they got two points and that's important. They did some good things in this game; again, they were great in the game's first 40 minutes. However, they were dreadful in the third period yet again this season. If the Devils want to give the fans a gift, then addressing third period play would be a great choice. They certainly need it.
As usual, I have more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's point of view, Kareem E. has this recap up at Japers' Rink.
The Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Time on Ice Shift Charts | The Time on Ice Head to Head Ice Time Charts | The Time on Ice Corsi Charts
The Game Highlights: Well, New Jersey's games are certainly interesting for a neutral to watch. No lead against them is really safe. No lead they have is really safe. 2011-12 Devils hockey - IT'S UP FOR GRABS. You & I may not like that, but it makes for entertaining game highlight videos.
Let's Talk About the Good: Blowing a three-goal lead is never good. The flipside to that is that the Devils got three goals to begin with. Let's start there. Ilya Kovalchuk's slapshot on the power play found it's way through traffic and opened the game's scoring. Kovalchuk goes from the slot to the boards to keep a puck in play and feeds it to Zajac down low. Zajac sees Alex Urbom jumping up on the play and somehow dishes it past a diving Alex Ovechkin. Urbom takes it, makes a move that forces Neuvirth to dive out and over-commit, and gets around the goalie to fire it in. A beautiful goal to make it 2-0 only 2:37 after their first goal. Just after the halfway mark of the second period, The third begins with a similar board play success, Zach Parise winning a puck in the corner. He gets space away from John Carlson and threads a cross-ice pass to Matt Taormina at the point. He shoots and Adam Henrique tips it in at the crease. It's 3-0 and the Devils were just rolling.
It wasn't just the goals, mind you. The Devils out-shot the Capitals 14-7 in that period and could have had more than 3 goals. This came after a first period where the Devils out-shot the Capitals 9-6 (it should have been more as the Devils had more than 1 shot on their first power play in my view) and forced Neuvirth to get big early on. The Devils special teams were great. The power play was actually functional in the first two periods and ended up being a net-positive for the evening. The Caps PK just gave Kovalchuk space to shoot and that he did to some success. The penalty kill was dominant, out-shooting the Capitals' power play 2-1 and eating up time in all three zones. The Henrique line was storming the Capitals' top pairing of Alzner and Carlson; such that the two defenders finished -1 and +1 respectively by the end of the game. Kovalchuk put up 6 shots on net and Henrique had 3. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were held mostly in check.
The closest the Caps came to scoring was off a few moments in the second: Backstrom getting open during a bad line change and hitting the post; a shot off the crossbar off a re-directed puck, and a 2-on-1 with Urbom as the one after another bad change - that led to nothing because the pass bounced off the stick. The Devils were fortunate not to give up one, but the Caps weren't getting sustained pressure except for one of their last shifts in the second period. Martin Brodeur didn't have too many highlight saves in the first two periods; but he didn't have to make any. That's how good the Devils really were in the first 40 minutes; it's how good this team can be.
The Offensive Fade in the Third Period: When I said the Devils faded in the third period, I really meant it. Kovalchuk got no shots on net in the third. He could have had one but he correctly chose to pass the puck on a 2-on-1 that Parise really should have buried. Parise got one shot later on, batting a puck in mid-air right at Neuvirth. The Elias line got no shots on net in the third at all. The Zajac line only got one; and while it was a good play, Zajac couldn't get enough on it to fool Neuvirth. Volchenkov hit the post in the third period when he jumped up on the play (and did so again in OT). That's it. Those were your best chances by the Devils' offense in the third period. While the Devils may not have necessarily had to score with the lead, it would have been a big help to force Washington to defend more often and generate more opportunities. Even on the one power play they had, they got a measly one shot on net and spent way too much time in their own zone just trying to maintain control of the puck. That was a waste on an otherwise good night from the PP. Given how they lost pucks in the first two periods and allowed 23 shots in the first two periods from the Devils offense, there was much to gain by striking back. They didn't and it hurt them in the long run.
Defensively, I knew it was going to be a long period when Brodeur had to make a tough save on Troy Brouwer on a cross-ice pass and on Laich for the loose puck. It wouldn't be too long afterwards that Laich would score; but the save came off a play where Ovechkin rushes up ice and looks for a pass (sound familiar?) and makes a cross-ice one through traffic to Brouwer. The Devils had 3 guys back and somehow Ovechkin was able to make that pass. Don't mistake me, Ovechkin certainly has the skill; but bad things tend to happen when a team is able to make that pass. It came up again on their next shift, which led to their first goal. I already covered the goals against themselves prior to the jump; but I feel the Caps realized they could strike through the middle from that play on - and that's where they found success.
Controversial Opinion: I thought Martin Brodeur had a fine game tonight. Granted, the Caps didn't give him too much to do early on; but he kept everything calm and in control. Surely, three goals allowed in the third period certainly hurts on the box score and for his stats. Yet, Brodeur had no real chance on Laich's goal or Chimera's second goal. My controversial opinion - as if thinking Brodeur played well wasn't controversial enough - is that I don't think Chimera's first goal was soft. Here's a picture from the goal's video in the recap at NHL.com:
It's a 5-on-5 situation on the ice. Why does it look like Chimera has a force-field around him? (Also: why is Laich also open?)
Brodeur's certainly in position to make the stop on the attempt - and he did. Stick's on the ice, body's at the post, and his legs are down. It's the second attempt that beat him and it certainly couldn't be kicked out due to the proximity of Chimera (and several other bodies) and how he took that puck in to begin with. That's how the jam play works. You whack at it and hope it goes in. It did.
I know Martin Brodeur made a mistake against the Rangers, and I know his save percentage is low, and I know he's 39 and I know he's not what he used to be. Does that mean every goal against is suddenly his fault? Does that mean this is more egregious than Zajac missing that fatal pass to Chimera or the Devils skaters getting discombobulated such that Laich's wide open in front of the net? I don't think so. Just my viewpoint.
Sheltered: Alex Urbom certainly was protected tonight. He played the fewest amount of time on defense with only 12:29. It was necessary because having him on the ice against the likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and so forth would only spell disaster. It worked out well. He was the team's top possession player at +8, his most common matchup was against offensively-challenged bottom six forward on Washington (Matt Hendricks, Joel Ward, and Jeff Halpern), and he even scored a very pretty goal. I'd say he had a good night, his tripping penalty aside.
Unsheltered: At the opposite end of the spectrum, Bryce Salvador has really upped his game. He played the most minutes on the Devils both overall with 26:50 and at even strength with 22:28. He and Mark Fayne went up against Ovechkin, Laich, and Brouwer the most and didn't get wrecked. OK, Fayne was a -8 in Corsi but Salvador was a -4. They're not good numbers, but given that Ovechkin is always a difficult assignment, I'm not too torn up by it. Plus, I suspect that may have came after Dale Hunter switched his lines in the third peroid to get Ovechkin with Backstrom and Laich with Semin and Chimera. In any case, I like what I saw from #24 and I hope he can continue this pace even when Henrik Tallinder gets back.
Come Back Soon Tallinder: Kurtis Foster played 19:13 of even strength ice time tonight and he got beaten on repeatedly given his Corsi of -8. And I almost want to say he got caught going around the net instead of sticking with Chimera. Please come back soon Tallinder.
Wear a Visor: Just as a play was whistled offside, John Erskine shot the puck. It deflected off of David Clarkson's stick and hit Anton Volchenkov right in the face. One of the lucky breaks the Devils got in the second period came when Anton Volchenkov was able to get up, go to the bench under his own power, and be able to play. The reason: Volchenkov's visor. Not that the puck didn't hurt, but the visor helped prevent the puck from causing any bleeding or damage. Volchenkov put on a visor after a shot to the face in a game against the Capitals last season caused a broken nose, a concussion, and whiplash. While a visor isn't going to provide complete protection from such incidents, it's going to provide a lot more than no visor at all. If you're a hockey player at any level, then please wear a visor or some other kind of facial protection.
Zajac, Zajac, Zajac: Zajac picked up his first assist of the season tonight. That's good. Zajac was a big reason why the Capitals scored their equalizer late in the third. That's (really) bad. Zajac went 6-for-9 on faceoffs. That's good. He got destroyed in Corsi with a team-low -10. That's bad. Zajac got a shot on net in the third period. That's good. It was only one of four shots on net by the team in the third. That's bad. The most common forwards Zajac played against were Semin, Backstrom, and Chimera - who are each difficult to deal with in their own way. And the most common defensemen were Erskine and Dmitry Orlav. And Zajac (and Mattias Tedenby and David Clarkson) lost badly to these players and more in terms of possession. That's, well, bad. In short, it wasn't a very good night for #19.
Is He Alexei Morozov in Disguise: Jason Chimera was a huge thorn in the side of the Devils tonight. He scored two goals as part of Washington's comeback, led his team with 5 shots on net, and finished a +5 in Corsi thanks to his efforts with Semin (+8) and Laich (+2). Chimera had a goal apiece in the last two Devils-Capitals games, too. Is he a Devil-killer? Well, maybe this season. Last season he did have 2 goals in 4 games against New Jersey; but those 6 goals out of 26 shots on net are his only points against the Devils in his career. No, he's not the next Morozov, but he's someone who should be targeted on March 2, 2012.
Shootout Magic: I know it's not going to last forever, but the Devils' shootout performance was nearly perfect. Therefore, it's worth noting. Kovalchuk froze Neuvirth completely on his goal. Parise beat Neuvirth with his dekes, but he raised the shot too high like he was Alex Ovechkin tonight. Elias, who had no shots or attempts all game, didn't miss his high shot in sealing the win. Brodeur's glove was massive. It may have thrown Backstrom off, who put his shot out wide; and it absolutely robbed Ovechkin. It may not be the ideal way to win, but it got the Devils a second point in spite of their horrible third period.
That's my take on tonight's game. What's your opinion about tonight's win? Are you more disgusted and angry with the third period blowout? Or are you considering the entire picture? Perhaps you're just glad they won at all? What specifically would you have liked to have seen the Devils do differently tonight? Will the Devils get third periods right in the future? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you to everyone who commented and read along in the Gamethread. Thank you to everyone who followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading; and have a Merry Christmas.