Sixty minutes is the length of a regulation hockey game. Ask a number of players, coaches, or fans about what they want to see from their team going into a game and they'll give some variation of a "sixty minute effort." They want to see a good performance for all three periods. It's a cliche but it's not entirely false. It's entirely possible to lose a game in one period. The New Jersey Devils demonstrated that at the Verizon Center against the Washington Capitals. They lost to the Caps 5-1, with the breakthrough and several insurance goals all coming in the third period.
Many will point to the scoreboard and claim that this was a bad game for the Devils. A bad result? Definitely. But not a bad game. The first period was fairly even. While the Capitals out-shot the Devils 11-5, the Devils were much closer in terms of attempts, 12-14. The Devils got the puck in their end and threatened. They just didn't get their shots to Brayden Holtby, whereas the Capitals got theirs to Johan Hedberg. The Devils responded in the second period, though the first few minutes weren't so strong. Alex Ovechkin got wide-open on a developing attack and fired a one-timer 5:20 into the second period. From then on, the Caps couldn't get pucks on target while the Devils put up ten shots. Ilya Kovalchuk picked up a loose puck in their end and ripped one blocker side to tie up the game late in the period. It was 1-1 and shots were even at 15 each after two periods. The third period would decide the game, and, well, Washington took control.
The Devils did not start the third period well. Alex Ovechkin scored on a shot similar to Kovalchuk's 1:23 into the third period to put the Caps up 2-1. The Devils got a power play and disaster struck. The usual lackluster result came about. They got only one shot on net and had to recover more clearances than attempts on net. The disaster came when Johan Hedberg went out of his net to get to a cleared puck. He delayed with the puck, Eric Fehr drove in between him and Andy Greene, Fehr knocked it away, and wrapped it around to the empty net. It was a horrid indecision by Moose and it truly sunk the Devils. The period got worse, though. The Devils did not respond well at all as they only got three shots on net to the Capitals' four. They didn't play like they were down two goals. Stefan Matteau got his stick up high on John Carlson after a hit, so that was a penalty. Ovechkin slammed in a one-timer, again, behind the defense, for his hat trick and made it 4-1. Adam Larsson took an unnecessary call not long after the goal. Ovechkin found Troy Brouwer in the slot, hit him with a pass, and Brouwer one-timed it past Moose. It's 5-1, the Verizon Center is in raptures, hockey journalists are falling over themselves to declare Ovechkin as "back" even though he never really left, and the Devils faithful are understandably unhappy. That's how it all ended.
It was an abject failure of a third period. Not a game. It would be one thing if the Devils went out there and just got beaten by better plays, but they didn't. The Capitals took advantage of the Devils' errors, while the Devils didn't really push back. It's one thing to not generate much down 4-1 or 5-1. But 3-1 with time left on the clock to make something out of the game? Or a power play that could have tied it up, or end 2-1 had Hedberg done something with the puck? At least they could have put a more aggressive effort. They didn't, which helped how they got out-shot 11-5 in the period and 7-6 even though they were down in the game for most of the period. It's incredibly difficult to do well for all sixty minutes all the time, but it shouldn't be so hard to be so passive and caught out for twenty minutes. It was an awful period, arguably one of the worst of the season for New Jersey, and it's why we're looking at a loss.
The Game Highlights: It was the Alex Ovechkin Show today. You'll see plenty of #8 in this NHL.com video:
Ovechking: Alex Ovechkin was fantastic today. Seven shots out of ten attempts. Three goals and an assist. At least one typical late hit; I only can immediately recall the one he threw on Matteau before his first goal. The only goal he didn't have a hand in was Fehr's shorthanded goal, which surprisingly doesn't have an assist awarded to Hedberg. He only played 16:40, but when he did get a shift, you couldn't ignore him. All three of his goals came from fantastic shots, and his first and third came on one-timers where he was wide-open behind the defense.
Given that he was among the most prolific shooters in the NHL, I don't get the impression that he was really "struggling." Ovechkin has always been a dangerous player and the fact is that the Devils couldn't keep him quiet today or on Thursday. The difference today was that he had the space to shoot at, and he fired them past a Moose that had no chance on either of his goals or even the one he set up. He was great, but let's not act as if he was just a bum until the Devils came to town. That simply isn't true.
Since He Was a King, Let's See the Devils' Royal Screwups on His Goals: On the three goals Ovechkin scored, the Devils look really silly on defense. Let me describe each one.
First: Ovechkin got so open on the first one because Mark Fayne didn't track Ovechkin coming into the zone. He focused on the puck. David Clarkson didn't drop back and help, he took focused on the center. When Mike Ribiero got the feed from Jason Chimera, Ribiero saw a diagonal lane to his winger. Fayne and Clarkson both miss it. That's an error mostly on Fayne, who just got inserted back into the line up.
Second: Matt Hendricks hits Ovechkin with a pass into the zone and #8 is all alone with #28. Ovechkin cut one way, fired a shot through the legs of Anton Volchenkov. AO not only used the defender as a screen, but he fired a hard one so by the time Moose saw it, it was in the back of the net. Volchenkov hung back in the hopes to keep him away, but he just got used.
Third: The Devils are killing a penalty. The play is beyond the left post, behind the goal line. Volchenkov appropriately slides to the middle but he's at the crease and looking at the play. He doesn't see #8 dropping in, right to the slot. Volchenkov puts his stick on the ice in the hopes it will make Ribiero think twice about a pass. It doesn't work. Since Ovechkin was just hanging out, waiting for the puck, he crushes Ribiero's pass past Hedberg. Like the first goal, he gets beyond a defender who should have kept his eyes out on him.
At the risk of disrespecting the rest of the Capitals who don't play with Ovechkin, the Devils really needed to ensure someone was on him whenever possible. They didn't and it burned them twice. Throw in that shot through A-Train and that's why the fans threw a lot of hats on the ice instead of wondering what happened to his production.
Ilya Kovalchuk and...uh...: Offensively, the Devils struggled at times. In the first period, they had opportunities to put pucks on Holtby but they were blocked and off-target much more more often than not. In the third period, the Devils didn't play with the necessary energy and conceded much possession. The second period didn't look good at times, but they were eventually more successful than their opposition. It was an uneven performance, to put it nicely. If it wasn't for Ilya Kovalchuk and his five shots out of eight attempts, it would have been really ugly out there. David Clarkson was off the mark with one shot on net out of five attempts, Patrik Elias was a non-factor for the most part with one shot on two attempts, Travis Zajac didn't add much other than one shot, Alexei Ponikarovsky's secondary assist was nice but he only got one attempt and it missed all day, and they got very little out of the power play in general. Kovalchuk was a bright spot, but even then he was negative in possession. Adam Henrique got three shots on net and he had one really good chance that Holtby robbed him on early in the second period. Andrei Loktionov only got one shot, but he played 14:35 and earned his first primary assist of the season.
Individual aside, the Devils' offense wasn't nearly as effective as they were on Thursday against the same team. Their power play was as punchless, but the 5-on-5 play really hurt New Jersey. Again, they gave up the shorty and then proceeded to still get out-shot before their first penalty of the third period.
Hedbers' Folly: The Devils' power play did little of note except that they allowed their first shorthanded goal of the season. Given how many shortys they allowed last season, it's a wonder they went seventeen games without one. Hedberg, who otherwise did what he could, just completely botched this one. The Caps clear the puck and only Fehr was coming in after it. The decision to come out of the net to play it was correct. It's something that all goalies should be expected to do: stop a cleared puck behind the net and move it along to a teammate. He didn't pass it along to Greene, and instead he just kept it. There had to have been either a miscommunication or a brainfart. All it did was give Fehr enough time for a swipe, a wrap, and a goal. After that shorthanded goal, the Devils were in too deep and without a ladder to get out, so to speak. Had there been no shorthanded goal, then perhaps the Devils' approach and mindset is different only down 2-1 with plenty of time left.
Penalty Not-Killers: I can't say plenty good about the PK today. The Devils allowed only three power plays (which is good) and the Caps scored on two of them (which is awful). The first kill was great; they didn't even allow a shot on net. With the two in the third period, the Caps went 2-for-3 on shots. I went over the first goal, where Ovechkin made the Devils pay for leaving him unattended. The second PPG was simply a pass by Ovechkin to Brouwer. This goal was a result of the Devils defenders caught in a bad position. Anton Volchenkov went in too deep as the Caps came in, so he couldn't do anything about Ovechkin receiving a pass from Tomas Kundratek. Andy Greene was caught away from Brouwer in the middle as Volchenkov focused his attention to Ovechkin. So Ovechkin was open, Brouwer was open, and the passing lane was open. It was academic for them. The Devils' PK has been vulnerable for the last two weeks and it's because of errors like that. I think I'll document them in a later post but do note that it happened again. The only solace the Devils can take about their PK is that it didn't lose them the game today, it just guaranteed the loss.
I Can't Believe That Pt. 1: the Capitals should have ended the first period 1-0, to be honest. Wojtek Wolski was in a perfect position for a loose puck right in the crease. The net was entirely open. He was less than three feet in front of the net. He could have gotten on his hands and knees and blew the puck into the net. Wolski was that close to breaking his scoring slump. Wolski somehow, someway, and for some reason, whacked at it to the side and missed the entire net. I couldn't believe it then and I can't believe it now.
I Can't Believe That Pt. 2: On the Devils' second power play, Marek Zidlicky gave the puck away after a clearance which resulted in the Capitals just knocking it into their end again. Kovalchuk retrieved the puck and saw Steve Bernier open. He hit him with a perfect leading pass into the zone and Bernier had a breakaway. Yes, a breakaway on a power play. Not only that, but Tom Poti hooked him and then tripped him. The ref awarded a penalty shot to Steve Bernier. Amid a power play. I've never seen that before. Bernier did not convert, but it's hard to be mad about it since he's never received one before.
Returning Fayne: I'd love to tell you that Mark Fayne had a great game and should work his way back up to more minutes. However, he did get exposed for the first Ovechkin goal and he only played 14:27, mostly with Volchenkov at even strength. Should he get more ice time? Yes. He really would be better suited with Bryce Salvador than Zidlicky. But I can't say he did so much so well that he'll get it.
Corsi Charts: Let's end the recap with some Corsi charts. Unlike Thursday's game, the Devils did not dominate this game at 5-on-5. They did come out slightly ahead as a team and only a few players ended up negative. Yet, given the situations, they could have done so much more. The Caps out-did them in attempts 14-12 in the first, the Devils rose up 12-7 in the second, and the third period was even at 11-11. That's a total of 35-32 in favor of the Devils, which speaks to how muddled this game got at times in 5-on-5 play. Also, getting evened up in attempts when losing doesn't speak well of the losing team. It suggests the winning team was successful at keeping them very honest today, which the Capitals did in my eyes.
Here's the Capitals' chart:
No one on the Capitals really had a great game in possession. The unit of Ribiero, Chimera, and Ovechkin did the most damage overall and were each just above zero Corsi differential. Given that they took a lead, that's pretty good. The Capitals' defense was far better today compared to how they all got wrecked on Thursday. The absence of Mike Green did not loom large on the ice. The only one who looked quite bad in possession was Matt Hendricks at -5. Good for the bottom six, I suppose.
Here's the Devils chart:
While Kovalchuk had the most shots today, three of them did come on the power play (he had three of the team's total of five with the man advantage), so he didn't get much at evens. With Ponikarovsky, he came out behind in possession. Andrei Loktionov stayed above even, at least. Travis Zajac was even but only 6 attempts for? An offensive player has to do better than that. I'm surprised to see Clarkson up at +5, but maybe I should since four of his five attempts all came at evens. I'm also surprised to see Zidlicky and Salvador come out positive as it didn't look that way at times. That said, Greene and Adam Larsson had their share of errors that the Caps took enough advantage from. So it goes with confirmation bias.
A Final Thought: If the Devils win tomorrow, then there's no need to hit a panic button. Yes, the 5-1 loss driven by the third period sucked today. I assure you, the sun will come up tomorrow either way. Also, you disrespect a team not named Columbus at your own peril and ignorance.
What's your take on today's game? What do you think of how the Devils did in the first two periods? In retrospect, what would you have want them to have done differently in the third? What's going on with the special teams? Aren't you glad you won't see Ovechkin play against the Devils in this regular season anymore? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's loss in the comments. Thanks to those who followed in the Gamethread and on Twitter through @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.