Before a massively important game on Sunday, there's this just-as-massively-important game tonight.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (21-19-11) vs. the Washington Capitals (22-20-8; SBN Blog: Japers' Rink)
The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the St. Louis Blues. Outside the Rock, Winter Storm Janus was hammering New Jersey with snowfall and wind. Inside the Rock, the Devils hammered the Blues for seven goals. Instead of summarizing the whole game here, please read the recap for an outstanding 7-1 win where it all went New Jersey's way - and against the Blues.
The Last Capitals Game: As the Devils dropped an anvil on Brian Elliott's and Jaroslav Halak's save percentages, the Capitals hosted the Ottawa Senators. Alexander Ovechkin was a gametime decision and did not play. The Caps did put up 34 shots without him. They got nothing past Craig Anderson. Kyle Turris scored right through Brayden Holtby's legs before the thirteenth minute in the second period. Jason Spezza converted a third period power play. And that wa enough to make it six winless games in a row for the Caps. Here's Geoff Thompson's recap of the 2-0 loss at Japers' Rink.
The Last Devils-Capitals Game: The Devils went to the nation's capital on December 21 to play the Caps. The game started innocently enough. Marek Zidlicky scored first to convert a power play and the first ended 1-0. Then in the second, the Devils dominated in possession but got lit up three times by Capitals attacks. Jason Chimera, Mikhail Grabovski, and Joel Ward stunned the skaters and made Martin Brodeur look more than a bit silly. However, the third featured something more stunning: a comeback. Jaromir Jagr scored on a power play to make it a one-goal game. Alexander Ovechkin scored from a bit of a distance to make it 4-2, but the Devils would not be deterred. They swarmed more, the Caps' defense proved to be the shakiest of all, and the Devils got two more past Brayden Holtby. First from Zidlicky and then from Dainius Zubrus. Holtby managed to hold off a breakthrough until overtime. A Jaromir Jagr shot bounced off the goalie and Andy Greene got the shaft of his stick on the puck to propel it past him for the win. The Devils completed a wild comeback to win 5-4. My recap of the game is here. For the other side, J.P. has this recap.
The Goal: Beware of Alex. Ottawa didn't have to deal with Alex. The Devils may have to. Alexander Ovechkin has been an absolute monster for goalies and defenses everywhere. He leads the league in goals with 35, shots with 260, and power play goals with 13. He's been killing nets usually from the right circle, but his world-class shot is a threat from anywhere in the zone except for behind the net. If there's any player that's going to make life supremely difficult, then it's Ovechkin. This isn't to say the other Caps can be ignored, but if the Devils are going to get a result tonight, then they need to contain #8 as much as possible. This means not taking many penalties that will lead to him getting free one-timers from the circle. This means not playing off of him or forgetting where he is as the Caps attack. This means hoping he's having an off night too. I know it sounds crazy to focus on one man in a team sport, but this is no ordinary man. It's Alex. He didn't practice yesterday according to Katie Carrera of the Washington Post, but he is with the team. Beware of Alex.
In Case Alex Doesn't Play...Revised Goal: Beware of the breakdowns. All teams in almost every game have bad shifts. Short periods of time where they get pinned back, can't make a clean exit, and generally just have everything go not so well. Hopefully, one hopes the goalie makes a save or the opposition doesn't take full advantage. In the last Devils-Caps game, these bad moments doomed the Devils for multiple goals against. And they all didn't come from Ovechkin. Remember, it was Jason Chimera (9 goals, 23 points), Joel Ward (13 goals, 14 assists), and Mikhail Grabovski (12 goals, 33 points) that made that count. They along with Nicklas Backstrom (11 goals, 49 points) and Troy Brouwer (9 goals, 20 points) can do it with or without Ovechkin.
Make It Rain: The Devils really need this win to start moving up in the Metropolitan Division. They need it to get closer to the playoffs. These are the games that will haunt them if they drop them. The previous three sentences apply to the Capitals - only they have the additional issue of having been without a win in six games.
That is correct. The Caps are 0-4-2 in their last six games. The four regulation losses were their last four games. The team page at Extra Skater looks grim for Washington. Look at the graphs. The Caps have stopped their freefall in possession and have been rising recently. Yet, they remain well below 50% as a team in close-score Fenwick and all attempts in 5-on-5 play. More distressingly, their PDO has cratered. This means their shooting percentage and save percentage has really been off, which means fewer goals scored and more goals allowed at even strength. In their last six games, they've scored a total of seven and conceded a total of seventeen. Their power play - normally a strength - has gone freezing cold by converting only one of their last seventeen advantages in those six games. Their penalty kill - which hasn't been stingy - has conceded at least one power play goal in their last three games. If there's a time to play a divisional game, then it's against an opponent with these struggles.
Even if they weren't winless, the Capitals still bleed a lot of shots. The Caps' current shots per game average in all situations is 33.9; their shots against per 60 rate at Extra Skater rates in the lower third of the league. Recall that the Devils put up 37 on them way back in December when it was rare for them to crack 30. If the team's feeling good after ringing up seven on St. Louis, then they could very well keep the good times rolling if the Caps play in their own end like they have been all season. Unless they play a really smart game, the Devils can and should swarm the Caps defense and overwhelm them as much as possible. (Incidentally, if you want to know why the Caps' D has been getting Fs in the proverbial school, then J.P. has some thoughts in this Japers' Rink post.)
One Confirmed Goalie, One Possible Goalie: Tom Gulitti has reported at Fire & Ice yesterday that Cory Schneider will start tonight's game. Schneider has played very well so far this month. He's now at an even strength save percentage of 92.4% and 92.6% overall, which is about the level one would hope he'd be at. I feel confident that he'll play well again tonight.
It's not announced yet, but I suspect Brayden Holtby will start tonight's game. It is the first game of a back-to-back set for Washington. They could go with Michael Neuvirth, but I think they'll go with their starter in this divisional match up. Holtby has a very good 92.6% save percentage at evens, but a not-very-good shorthanded save percentage drives his overall down to 91.1%. He's used to facing a lot of rubber. Let's hope the Devils give him a lot and find ways to get it past him. The lackluster Capitals defense can help, as we saw back in December.
The Lithuanian Freight Train Spot Goes to the Littlest Engine That Might: The Devils sent down Reid Boucher on Wednesday. On Thursday, the team called up Albany's leading scorer, Joe Whitney. Lou told Tom Gulitti that it had nothing to do with the mandate that players had to be sent down by Friday evening to play in the AHL through the Olympics. I don't quite buy that. Either way, I think Boucher will benefit by playing somewhere regularly than sitting around for about two-and-a-half weeks. Who knows, we may see him sooner rather than later.
I can't say I'm totally surprised that Whitney was called up. He did get a NHL deal last summer, so somebody in the organization was impressed enough to ink him. I'm a little surprised that it's now and that he was skating with Jaromir Jagr and Travis Zajac. I know he was doing very well in Albany this season, and he's been the team's leading scorer for three seasons running. Maybe he'd get a call up later in the season or in case of injury. But he's going up to a big spot right away. Sure, I expect Peter DeBoer to demote him in the lineup as the game warrant. Still, starting with a very good NHL player and a living legend of the game has to be a dream come true. How the diminutive Whitney handle playing down low in addition to the general increase of speed and talent. Whether this is a Matt Anderson-style call up or an opportunity to earn more games remains to be seen. So I echo BC Interruption's Joseph Gravellese: Congratulations. And good luck.
No Injury: Adam Henrique took a shot to the hand in the St. Louis game. While he did finish the period - and scored a sweet power play goal - he was out for the entire third period. Gulitti reported that he did practice and that Henrique said his thumb, the same one that he tore a ligament in last season, was just sore. This is good news in two ways. First, the now healthy Devils can be healthy for one more game. Second, Henrique is able to play and should be counted on to provide a solid two-way game he's expected to bring every night. With the Caps lining up Backstrom, Grabovski, and Brooks Laich at center, having Henrique among the centers helps in that match-up.
No Other Changes: Gulitti noted on Thursday that Jon Merrill, Andrei Loktionov, Jacob Josefson, and Peter Harrold stayed on for extra work, which is usually indicative of being scratched. All of them were scratched for the St. Louis game. So other than Whitney in for Boucher, there are no other lineup changes. Fans of Eric Gelinas should be pleased as he'll get another opportunity to make his presence and The Truth felt. Those hoping for any other change, well, won't be pleased. Given that the Devils won big on Tuesday, I can't imagine there would be many major outcries with the lineup.
Your Take: The Devils do play an incredibly important game on Sunday but they really have to win this one. Can the Devils pour on more misery for the Capitals? What should the Devils look out for, with or without Ovechkin? Will they light up the Caps' goalie? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.