The New Jersey Devils have been terrible at scoring goals this season. This is not news. The Devils have averaged They were bad under John MacLean and, while improved, not all that great under Jacques Lemaire. Even as recently as this past Monday, the team had the worst shooting percentage in the league despite it improving over the last two times I looked at it. Despite having some great nights in terms of getting shots and controlling puck possession, the Devils are just not a prolific goal-scoring team this season. The myriad of one-goal games they were involved in for most of the last month and a half emphasizes this.
When you put it that way, it's some kind of a feat that the Washington Capitals became the first team to shutout the Devils in 2011. The last time the Devils were shutout in a loss, it was on November 26, 2010 in a 2-0 loss to the Islanders. (Related Aside: Incidentally, the 3-goal loss was the first time Devils lost by 3 or more goals since the 6-3 defeat in Carolina's house on January 1, 2011.)
Still, a 3-0 loss is nothing to be pleased over. Don't mistake my tone for acceptance or contentment. I'm disappointed with the loss. Who wouldn't be? The Devils were coming off a loss where the goalie stood on his head, they were to play a recently hot team in front of a hot sell out crowd at the Rock, and the night itself - Retro Night - was heavily promoted. Of course a goose-egg result would be disappointing.
However, this game was much like Thursday's 3-1 loss to Ottawa. I'm half-tempted to just say "Read that recap again, replace all the Sens references to Caps references - most notably Curtis McElhinney's name with Michal Neuvirth's," and this recap is done. I won't do that, but the Devils did not play a horrible game. I'll explain further after the jump. For a Capitals' based take on tonight's game, please check out this recap by Kareem E. at Japers' Rink.
The Game Highlights: I hope you like Michal Neuvirth saves because there sure are a lot of them in this highlight video from NHL.com.
An Underrated Positive: Before delving into the major points of tonight's game, let me congratulate the Devils on taking no penalties tonight. This was important because seeing Ovechkin on a unit where they have an extra man is frightening enough even if their 16.7% conversion rate isn't all that good. To not let them have an advantage is the best penalty kill.
Now that I got that out of the way, let's hit a main point:
No Excuses, Neuvirth Was Superb: Fully consistent to what I said about Curtis McElhinney last night, Michal Neuvirth played a great game. He faced 33 shots on net, he faced various kinds of shots ranging from multiple one-timers in the high slot to short shots down low to deflection attempts to shots from bad angles to shots from the points to an Ilya Kovalchuk breakaway. Neuvirth stopped them all and didn't panic when the Devils repeatedly overwhelmed the Capitals defense.
I know it sucks that the Devils have run into a goaltender who brought his A+ game yet again, but that's how it is. Goaltending talent is a buyer's market for a reason. There's a glut of talent available and so very few teams have horrid goaltending. Even then, in the population size of one game, even a no-namer or a guy who's been bad can pull off a great night. It sucks, but it happens and there's not really much more to explain than that.
I would avoid making excuses like the Devils didn't have the right quality of their shots (whatever that means - and if you can prove that on a larger scale, there's $150 waiting for you), or the Devils didn't crash the net enough, that Neuvirth saw everything, or the Caps wanted to get heavily out shot knowing their goalie can bail them out and fall into some kind of trap. They are essentially rationalizations. They may make you feel good about what happened, but it's not really provable and it's not really truthful.
What is truth is that Neuvirth played a fantastic game in spite of the guys in front of him. You want to fault someone for the loss, the first, second, and third choices are Michal Neuvirth - which is a compliment to how he did tonight.
Devils Dominated in Shots & Possession: I'm familiar with the concept of score effects and with the Capitals leading throughout the game, it really should be no surprise that the Devils outshot their opposition. However, the Devils did it by a margin of 2.75 to 1. The total shot count was 33 to 12. The total number of attempts was 50-21. New Jersey. It was 30-11 at even strength, which is both a testament to how the Devils played at 5-on-5 and how miserable they were at 5-on-4 (more on that later). There was no question as to who controlled the puck and the majority of the play.
Here's an example of the Devils' dominance with the puck at both ends of the rink. The Devils held Alexander Ovechkin to no shots on net tonight. That's right. The league leader in shots with 332 was held to a big, fat 0 in the SOG category. He made one attempt and missed the net. The only Cap who had several shots on net was Mike Knuble. Given that Washington, as a team, averages 31.2 shots per game, keeping them to 12 is simply wonderful.
And then there's the Corsi. The Devils finished the night at a +23 in Corsi. That's fantastic. Unlike the Ottawa game, the Devils weren't blocked a whole lot and their Fenwick was even better at +25. Everyone on New Jersey was positive (+1 to +16). Everyone on Washington was negative (-3 to -12). Again, there was no question as to who controlled the puck and the majority of the play.
Like the Ottawa game, one Devil line really sparkled. It was the Zajac line last night, tonight it was the Elias line. Brian Rolston led all skaters with a +16 in Corsi to go with his 5 shots on net, 2 attempts blocked, and 3 misses. Patrik Elias put up 3 shots on net and even won over 50% of his draws (9-for-16) and finished with a +14. Dainius Zubrus powered his way through to a +11 with 3 shots on net and 2 misses of his own. And they were trashing Washington's top line the most out of the matchups they saw. The line of Alex Ovechkin (-8), Marcus Johansson (-9), and Mike Knuble (-9) was often where you would want that line to be: in their own end defending. I'm sure the Caps' opposition will want to review this game on tape to see what the Devils did to contain the Capitals for the better part of 60 minutes.
One more thing about the Washington line that the Elias line dominated. Those three put together 5 shots on net (comparison purpose: the Elias line combined for 11) more than any other unit by Washington tonight. That really speaks poorly to what the other 9 forwards did on offense. Even worse about the defense, though 33 shots on net says it all. Especially since the Zajac line and the Josefson line didn't really have great nights - yet both still finished positive in Corsi.
The Three Errors: If you were to tell me before tonight's game that the Devils would put up over 30 shots on net, hold the Capitals to less than 15, and dominate possession, then I would have been real happy. That's what you would want a team to do to win - control the puck, fire away, and so the goals - and the victory - will come more often than not. So the Devils dominated in Corsi, dominated in shots, didn't take any penalties, and still lost by a decisive-looking score 3-0. What happened? Let's summarize all three goals against:
The first one came at the end of a long shift by the Capitals. The Johansson line was out there with Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz, keeping the puck alive for a while. This was the first serious attack by the Capitals of the game and it felt like a doozy. Changing of points, winning pucks along the boards, and denying attempted clearances. They didn't attempt too many shots, just a few misses and only one shot on net at the time. Yet, they eventually found what they were looking for, not long after part of the Elias line (Elias, Rolston) got on the ice. From behind the net, Knuble found Schultz wide open in the right circle for a one-timer. Who was supposed to be there? David Clarkson, I guess, by position - though he was on Ovechkin prior. Anyway, Schultz was free blasted it high and it went off Martin Brodeur's glove and in. Perhaps Brodeur should have had that one, but at the same time, the Devils got totally worked over by the Johansson line and the inability to stop them almost made the goal seem like an inevitability. I feared that line would make New Jersey's night a long one.
Then the Capitals were held to no shots on net until the second period. The scorer wasn't being stingy, the Caps just didn't go forward all that much.
But in the second, the Johansson line struck again against the full Elias line. Zubrus' clearing attempt gets blocked at the point and it's dumped in to keep the Johansson line on the attack. Ovechkin gets it on the side boards and he's pressured. While all 5 Devils are in that corner, John Carlson jumps up to the left circle. Ovechkin makes a perfect cross-ice pass to him and the Devils are scrambling. Yes, at 5-on-5, the Devils were flanked. I'm not sure why Brian Rolston wasn't looking on that side since that was his spot. Anyway, Brodeur slides over in time to make Carlson think again about the shot, but Carlson sees Knuble at the crease. Mark Fayne can't get to the right side of Knuble in time to stop the easy re-direction of Carlson's pass for the goal behind Brodeur.
The third goal was off the rush on a counter-attack by, you guessed it, the Johansson line. The whole rush happens because Zubrus falls on an attempt to keep the attack going and so the Caps were off to the races with one pass up ice to Mr. Ovechkin. Ovechkin is flying up the wing, leading the 3-on-2, and he's covered well. Yet, he sees another Capital wide open on the weak side: Knuble. Given that it was a rush, I guess he couldn't be covered. Ovechkin slides the pass perfectly between the sticks of Anssi Salmela (who was in position) and Rolston (who was just getting back) to Knuble who one-times it past a sliding Brodeur.
One awesome shift where NJ was dominated, in a period where the Capitals only had one awesome shift. One defensive breakdown in a period where the Capitals actually stopped a clearance. One counter-attacking 3-on-2 rush in a period where the Capitals got only one odd-man rush. Brodeur maybe should have had the first one, but he had no chance on the other two. Amazing how the Johansson line was pinned back so much and Ovechkin was held to no shots on net - exactly what one would want to accomplish in a game against the Capitals - and yet they still put up all of the production in tonight's game. Enough to make Tom Gulitti write that the Elias lost that matchup, despite Corsi and Fenwick telling the completely opposite story. Though I will agree with Elias' statement that the mistakes killed them in particular.
Basically, the Capitals got a few chances and scored. The Devils got a few more (by way of just having way more shots) and didn't. A big score, even if the play on the ice didn't reflect that.
What Was Truly Horrible: So far, I've been recapping this game with the main point that the Devils didn't mess themselves on the ice. There is one big exception: the power play. The Devils got 3 power plays, all on legit calls. Kovalchuk was tripped by Karl Alzner; Wideman intentionally moved the net, and Matt Hendrick's stick hit Rod Pelley's face and drew blood. With the Devils being down on the score, the fans wanted to see the Devils at 5-on-4. And why not? They were beating the Caps at 5-on-5. Surely, a man advantage would allow them to really put the screws to the visitors and make a game of it.
Yet, out of 8 minutes, the Devils got a mere 3 shots on net. The power play units did well in Ottawa but they played like they had a brainfreeze tonight. I don't get how they were so in sync in getting the puck forward, but at 5-on-4, they just derped all over the place with the puck. Full credit to the Capitals' PK units. Their penalty killers were aggressive on the points, often forcing Kovalchuk, Rolston, or Salmela to attempt a difficult pass or shot - only for it to lead to a clearance. This was incredibly frustrating to watch. The first one didn't go so well, but the Devils attempted to do the same things on the second and third one. There were no noticeable adjustments by the coaches on the power play. Just attempting more of the same, leaving the pointmen to do all the work, and the down low forwards not moving much. It kept failing to get an open shot on net, when the Devils were able to set up at all.
Given that the four minute power play was miserable on top of a 2-0 deficit, it is no wonder the Devils were booed off the ice in the second period. The Devils had 8 minutes of PP time wasted, which is unacceptable. If you want to say the Devils were horrible tonight, this was the only aspect that they truly were. Given that the Devils did so well at evens, it's not right to say the power play failures lost New Jersey the game. It would be right to say that they hurt the overall effort to win.
If Kovalchuk was "Tight," What Was Zajac and Palmieri Tonight?: The word for Kovalchuk after tonight's game is "tight," per this post game post by Rich Chere at NJ.com. He was visibly frustrated, the apex of which happened after Neuvirth denied Kovalchuk on a breakaway with a big glove save. His Corsi wasn't much to write home about at +2, so perhaps there's something to him not having a great game. On the other hand, he got 5 shots on net, had 2 attempts blocked, hit the post once, and missed twice. I'm not sure what "tight" means, but the guy was making the effort.
That's a lot more than what can be said about his linemates. Travis Zajac and Nick Palmieri also finished at +2 Corsi. Yet, Zajac got no shots on goal, only one attempt blocked; and Palmieri only had one shot - a really good one, a one-timer in the high slot - on net. It appears to me that while Kovalchuk wasn't in Beast Mode, he was making the most of what was line accomplished against Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Marco Sturm. Chere's post includes Lemaire saying that he felt Kovalchuk "wants to do too much;" but given how Zajac and Palmieri played tonight, can you really fault him for that? I, personally, do not know.
This Has Nothing to Do With a Larger Point But I Want to Point This Out Because It Amused Me: In the first period, Brian Rolston out-hustled three Capitals for a puck in the neutral zone, re-gained the puck when Jeff Schultz got in front of him to try and knock it away (he failed), and put a low shot on Neuvirth. A 38-year old Brian Rolston out-hustled three Capitals and got past Schultz, who was the only one to catch up to him and try and do something about it. Maybe he should be "Wheels" in the next Detective Zach Parise commercial that will never be made.
Atmosphere: The sellout crowd was hot and expected something great. They made their voice heard for the first 40 minutes from cheering strong shifts by NJ to booing the team at the end of the second during the third wasted PP of the night. They didn't get deflated until Knuble's second goal in the third period, which was understandable since it made it 3-0. And so they were disappointed except for the few hundred (maybe a thousand? I may be really off) Capitals fans at the game.
No Time for Reflection: After all, the road awaits. The Devils have four games on the road, starting with Columbus on Sunday evening. It will be the last road trip the Devils take this season. Like the fans, the players have reason to wonder wonder why they can't beat the goaltender as much as they want to. Unlike them, they can't dwell on it lest they psyche themselves out.
Personally, they should try to keep doing what they have done in the last two games. Own the puck, out-shoot the opposition, and continue to attack be it at the start of the game, at the beginning of periods, the end of periods, and after goals against. Outside of that, adjust the power play when the opposition clearly knows what the gameplan is. They aren't going to get goals by getting beaten on by the opposition, and they aren't going to get many by being outplayed. Washington did the latter tonight, but that's not sustainable or desirable. Just read Kareem E's recap at Japers' Rink if you don't want to take my word for it. Eventually, they'll run into some goalies who aren't blazing hot when they suit up against New Jersey and then superior possession and shooting will turn into goals. The Devils aren't going to suddenly turn into, say, Philadelphia when it comes to goal scoring, but it will be a lot less frustrating to witness.
That's my take. What did you take away from tonight's game? If you feel that the Devils were terrible, then please explain how that is beyond "they lost 3-0." What do you think the Devils need to do for Sunday's game after this one beyond just scoring? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks to all of the commenters in the Gamethread, and thank you for reading.