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New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals: Game 17 Preview

The New Jersey Devils will face the Washington Capitals for the first of two straight games in D.C. tonight. This preview highlights how the Caps have been playing, who their big threats are, and notes the Devils' own lineup after their practice.

Henrik Tallinder played against Alex Ovechkin earlier in the season. It looks like he will get to do so again.
Henrik Tallinder played against Alex Ovechkin earlier in the season. It looks like he will get to do so again.

The rare non-back-to-back road game set against the same team. This is the first of two in D.C.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-3-4) at the Washington Capitals (5-9-1; SBN Blog: Japers' Rink)

The TiqIQ Ticket Link: In the D.C. area and need a seat to the game at the last second? Visit our partners at TiqIQ to get something from the secondary market. Here's a link: New Jersey Devils tickets.

The Last Devils Game: On President's Day, the Devils took to the ice for an afternoon game against the Ottawa Senators. The game started off well as Stephen Gionta knocked in a rebound from Steve Bernier's shot for a quick goal. The Devils continued to pile on the rubber on Ben Bishop, including nine shots on two straight power plays in the first period. Bishop made 16 saves, Gionta's rebound attempt being the lone one that got past him. The Devils then went frustrating for the following 45 minutes. The Senators tilted the ice back against New Jersey and Martin Brodeur and luck kept up the shutout. However, within the third period, Kyle Turris denied a clearance and threw it immediately down low to Jakub Silfverberg. He knocked it off Brodeur into the slot for Daniel Alfredsson to slam it into the mostly empty net to make it 1-1. The Devils responded with very little save for some drama near the end of the game and went into OT. After a mostly uneventful five minutes, the Devils went into the shootout and didn't make Bishop even move. Silfverberg sniped one past Brodeur and that was enough to make it a 2-1 shootout loss for the home team. My recap of that dismal performance is here.

The Last Capitals Game: On Sunday, the Capitals visited the World's Most Overrated Arena to take on the New York Rangers before a national audience. The Capitals were feeling pretty good with three straight wins going into this one. I can only assume those feelings bloomed again when John Carlson bombed one from distance past Henrik Lundqvist just 1:19 into the game. Early goal aside, the home team decided to hit Brayden Holtby early and often with shots on net. They put up 20 on the young goalie in the first period (the Caps only got 8), thanks in part to three power plays given by Capitals penalties. The Rangers finally got their equalizer within the second period when Carl Hagelin knocked in a Ryan McDonagh shot at the crease. They didn't let up as they out-shot the Caps again 14-9. Early in the third period, the Capitals' discipline caught up to them. Karl Alzner tripped Brad Richards and seven seconds after the call, Derek Stepan cashed in to make it 2-1. The Capitals found some offense to out-shoot the Rangers 11-6 but they couldn't solve Lundqvist a second time. The Caps' streak was snapped in a 2-1 loss. Becca H had a recap of the loss (and a message for the Rangers coach) over at Japers' Rink.

The Last Devils-Capitals Game: Way back on January 25, the Devils were hosting their second home game of the season against Washington, who have got off to a terrible start. The Devils looked poor in the first ten minutes or so, giving up all kinds of shots while blowing their own opportunities. But the Devils recovered and got the first goal right at the end of a penalty kill. Jacob Josefson got clobbered up ice but managed to get a pass off to Stephen Gionta, who fired one through Michal Neuvirth. A slow second period start was recovered faster by the Devils and a long 5-on-3 saw Patrik Elias slam in a rebound to make it 2-0. However, the lead would not last. In the third period and an incredibly stupid sequence of penalties that saw the Devils take three bench-based calls in less than two minutes, Mike Ribiero finished a backdoor play to give the Caps life. The Devils killed it all off but David Clarkson gave away a puck to Mike Green late in the game, who then fired one through traffic for the equalizer. Talk about a bad third period. Overtime would be necessary and a power play for the Devils gave the offense a chance to convert. They did not but they at least had possession. Not long after it's end, a rush up ice led to a sequence that ended with Ilya Kovalchuk on Neuvirth's flank. Kovalchuk sniped one to give New Jersey their first (and so far only) post regulation win, 3-2. My recap of the game is here and Kareem E. has this recap from a Capitals perspective over at Japers' Rink.

The Goal: Limit the number of power plays given to Washington. While the Caps remain at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, their power play is anything but. Before Wednesday's games, their success rate of 25% ranked fifth best in the league. According to Behind the Net's team stats in 5-on-4 situations, their shots for per 60 rate is ninth in the league at 49.7 and their shooting percentage is seventh best at 17.9%. Mike Ribiero is tied for second in the entire NHL in power play points with four goals and six assists. He's well supported by Alex Ovechkin (4 PPG, 2 PPA), Troy Brouwer (3 PPG, 2 PPA), and Nicklas Backstrom (5 PPA). From the blueline, Mike Green (3 PPA) and John Carlson have demonstrated excellent offensive skills and can wreck havok on any penalty kill. The Capitals are truly excellent with the man advantage. I don't think the Devils will win if they play to one of Washington's biggest strengths.

As Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Wednesday, Peter DeBoer commented after the team's practice that Washington has been improving. Of course they have. They won some games, they have a strong power play, and even their recent loss to the Rangers was a close one. Their performance in five-on-five situations at Behind the Net is OK in terms of shooting rates. They're just above average in shots for per 60 minutes at 29.0 per game. Yet their shooting percentage is just outside of the bottom third at 7.7%. On the other side of the puck, they're just ahead of the league median at 28.2 shots against per 60. But percentages undercut them as the have the sixth lowest team save percentage at 89.7%. Unlike some of the more recent opponents of the Devils, they're not facing a high-shooting squad, but they're not bleeding shots either. The Caps could use some better luck at evens. Perhaps that's changing?

The possession numbers are a little murkier for the Caps. Behind the Net has team Fenwick (goals, shots, and misses - no blocks) figures. The Capitals are right with the Devils in tied-score situations at around the league median at about 51%. However, in close-score situations (one-goal game in the first two periods, tied in the third and overtime), the Capitals are in the bottom third of the league at 48% as the Devils are just under 51%. That's a rather curious drop; I wonder why that is? Going to the player level at Behind the Net, the on-ice Corsi rates for most of the Capitals are quite positive with a handful of exceptions. That suggests to me they get blocked out more than they block shots, which boosts Corsi and does nothing to Fenwick. So don't be surprised if the Caps and Devils end up about even in attempts at evens; or if the Caps lead, then it could very well end up at the cost of the Devils' skates, sticks, and bodies. Nevertheless, the Caps aren't possession poor like Tampa Bay but they're not really crushing it with any regularity.

If there's one player who could be a surprise threat in even strength play, then it's Joel Ward. It is Ward and not Ovechkin, Ribiero (though he's close), or Backstrom, who leads the Caps in even strength scoring. He's got four goals and five assists at evens. Stephen Whyno's report from the Capitals' recent practice at Capitals Watch has Ward slotted on the third line. Given how the Devils have had issues with their bottom six, Ward could be in a good situation to put his mark on the game tonight. With the Capitals getting the last line change, the players will have to be particularly aware when he's on the ice.

That's one player. As far as a dangerous unit goes, the Devils will have to ensure they get their best out there against the potential line of Ribiero, Ovechkin, and Jason Chimera. While much ado has been made about his production (5 goals and 5 assists in 15 games) performance, Ovechkin is all about generating shots and he's got 64 right now. Only three players in the entire league have more shots than him right now (one is David Clarkson). He's going to rack up attempts tonight and cause issues for the Devils on the back end. Ribiero has been a revelation for Washington and he's the current team leader in scoring with 5 goals and 13 assists; he will gladly find the seams for passes to his linemates. Chimera is a fast skater who's been snakebit with no goals on his 27 shots, though he does have six assists. He will stretch the play as needed and can cause additional issues should the Devils get caught out of position. This is not to disrespect Backstrom, Brouwer, and Wojtek Wolski, but on paper, the Chimera-Ribiero-Ovechkin unit is the more fearsome in my mind.

Getting back to the Caps as a whole, if there's one aspect of the game the Devils can exploit, it's the Capitals' penalty kill. Unlike their power play, they really haven't been all that successful. Their success rate is only 75.4%, the sixth worst in the NHL. According to the 4-on-5 situation team stats at Behind the Net, the Caps' SA/60 is the third highest in the league at 58.3. The Devils' power play should be able to get shots on net. Funnily enough, their team save percentage has been decent at 87%. But the Devils get a break as Whyno confirmed that Holtby will start tonight's game. His save percentage on power plays has been a woeful 82.1% this season. While he certainly got a boost to both percentages in the Rangers game, he hasn't been all that great in 2013. So unless he gets hot, repeated shots against him should find their way in eventually.

As a last point about the Capitals, the Devils may get one more. The big story from Wednesday's practice by Whyno has been that Mike Green only participated partially before he left the ice. While Adam Oates tried to make it sound like Green could be good to go tonight - and for all we know, he could - this follow up post by Whyno at Capitals Watch isn't as positive (warning: auto-play video). In it, he argues that the lower body injury would undercut Green's "explosiveness" and so they shouldn't rush him tonight. After all, the team has performed without him and the Caps could lean on Carlson, Tomas Kundratek, and Karl Alzner again. A Green-less Caps team weakens their power play a bit and could make it easier on the Devils forwards to generate shots. It's something to look for ahead of tonight's game.

The Devils will definitely have one change to their lineup. As Gulitti reported on Fire & Ice on Wednesday, Ryan Carter did not travel with the team to D.C. so he's out for the next two games. The team has been careful to not officially say it's a concussion, but they're being just as cautious with Carter's health. I can respect that decision. Filling in for his spot alongside Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier will be Stefan Matteau. I think this is an intriguing decision. Matteau certainly is big enough for a grinder role, he won't be asked to do too much since that line isn't asked to do too much in general, and it may even force DeBoer to be at least a little more judicious with throwing that line out on the ice. On top of that, the line is Stefan, Stephen, and Steve, a trio of first names that immediately brings Tony, Toni, Toné to mind. But even if they had no loot, I have no problems with seeing it tonight. At a minimum, I think Matteau can be a stop-gap fill-in for Carter.

Unfortunately, that could be it based on Gulitti's report of the lines from practice. No, I don't have an issue with Andrei Loktionov getting another game at center. One game isn't really enough to determine whether he has a real spot in the NHL. No, I don't have an issue with Alexei Ponikarovsky, Travis Zajac, and Ilya Kovalchuk together though it would be really good if they could generate several shots at even strength or not get wrecked in possession. No, I don't even have a problem with Martin Brodeur starting this game. Why would I? The problem I have is that Mark Fayne remains out of the main set-up on defense.

I don't get it. The Devils have given up at least 30 shots on net in each of their last two games without Fayne on defense. Bryce Salvador has been wrecked in possession without him. Fayne has been one of the best, if not the best, defenseman on the team this season. Yet, he's getting scratched for some inexplicable reason. If the plan is to keep giving Henrik Tallinder minutes, why isn't it someone else's turn to sit out? Surely Tallinder, Fayne, and Adam Larsson aren't the only ones who can be rotated, right? Alas, we'll just have to hope it's not three Fayne-less games where not coincidentally the team's defense looks suspect.

Defense, of course, is a team effort beyond the six. Given that the Devils have had periods littered with mistakes that have seen them concede possession - and here's some examples of those kinds of mistakes - it's not enough for the Devils just get pucks away. They have to not only get the puck out but keep it to actually limit the Caps' attack. It's not reasonable or even possible to request or hope that the Devils don't make mistakes. I just want them to not go through most of a period making them over and over. If necessary, they should try to slow it down and pick their battles. I'm a little more confident in the line of Patrik Elias, David Clarkson, and Adam Henrique to do just that since they've been strong in possession in recent games. I just hope the rest of the team can follow suit in their own way.

What do you think will happen in tonight's game between the Devils and Capitals, the first of two straight road games? Can the Devils avoid the wrath of the Capitals' power play? Can they also keep Chimera-Ribiero-Ovechkin at bay? Can they make the most of their chances and force Holtby to see a lot of rubber? Can we see more than one good period of hockey? Who will take this game and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.