The third back-to-back set of the month begins tonight in familiar territory.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM, 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils returned to the Rock from a fruitless road trip to host the Minnesota Wild. The first period was scoreless and all that could be said about it was that it was a period of hockey. The second period saw the Devils take it to the Wild early on. It paid off with two goals. Tuomo Ruutu deflected a shot by Seth Helgeson that beat Darcy Kuemper for the game's first goal. Helgeson made his NHL debut and got his first NHL point. Before the halfway mark, the Devils doubled their score with Mike Cammalleri piling in a rebound off a shot by Jaromir Jagr. The Wild came on later (thanks score effects) but Cory Schneider was very impressive to keep the score at 2-0. The game was filled with penalties and power plays failing to score. Yet, Schneider undid his own shutout effort with a horrible misplay of the puck led to Ryan Carter's low shot to the shortside sneaking past Schneider's pad. The shorthanded goal made it 2-1, but Schneider redeemed his error by stopping everything from shots through traffic to robbing Erik Haula in a 2-on-0 breakaway. The Devils clamped down in the final minutes and the Wild got tagged with a too many men on the ice call. They pulled Kuemper anyway and Travis Zajac got the ENG to make it a 3-1 final. My recap of the Devils' first win in four games is here.
The Last Capitals Game: While the Devils were battling the Wild, the Caps were hosting the slumping Columbus Blue Jackets. Columbus lost eight straight heading into the game. The Caps continued to pour on the misery. Marcus Johansson scored early in the game. Alex Ovechkin scored from his usual spot - the right circle - to convert a 5-on-3 power play to make it 2-0 Washington. Minutes later, Cam Atkinson cut the lead in half. But Ovechkin would restore the two goal lead later in the first period with an excellent shot after three drop passes. The Blue Jackets would put up more of a fight in the second period and their efforts paid off late in the second. David Savard fired a rising wrister that popped up off Brayden Holtby's shoulder and dropped in behind him. The blooper made it 3-2 and gave the Jackets life in the third to look for an equalizer. Holtby didn't give up any more bloopers and Johansson scored on a wraparound to make it 4-2. The win was the Caps' third in a row and the loss was the Blue Jackets' ninth in a row. Geoff Thompson has this recap at Japers' Rink about Washington's latest triumph.
The Last Devils-Capitals Game: The Devils' first trip to D.C. just spiraled out of control on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin scored 34 seconds into the game because the Devils figured #8 wasn't worth picking up. But the Devils would equalize just past the halfway mark with a blast by Damon Severson. Shortly thereafter, Cory Schneider conceded a bad goal from a shot by Chris Brown from outside of the dot. But Severson provided another slap shot - from further out - that got by Braden Holtby to make it 2-2. The Caps really exerted an edge puck control in the second period. They only got one goal out of their 16 shots; a shot by Marcus Johansson as he rolled out of the point. But that goal would be enough as the Caps just piled on the Devils in the third period. Nicklas Backstrom deflected a shot by Matt Niskanen within the first minute. Joel Ward scored off a bank shot. Schneider was replaced by Scott Clemmensen and the Devils just played out the string. Andre Burakovsky made it six with a power play snipe. The Devils ended their first road trip of the season with a 2-6 loss at Washington. Here's my recap of the game. For the opposition's opinion, here's Geoff Thompson's recap at Japers' Rink.
The Goal: Keep this game at even strength as much as possible. The Devils didn't just end a losing streak on Tuesday night, but their penalty kill was perfect. But that was against a team converting them at a 5% rate going into the game. Tonight's opponent is far better on the man advantage. The Capitals' power play has 28% success rate, the second highest in the league prior to Thursday's games. They have one of the most frightening forwards to defend against in the world, who just hangs out in the right circle, waiting for a puck to blast on net. You know it's coming and one's only hope is the goalie making a big stop or Ovechkin messing up the shot. Yet, the Caps aren't just feeding one man. Look at the production. Following Ovechkin's four power play goals is Joel Ward, who has three. Tory Brouwer has two and five others have one each. Backstrom absolutely has been the straw stirring the drink with seven power play assists. It's a crew that has made opposing teams pay for their fouls. The defensemen are going to have enough issues at evens. The forwards are going to have to backcheck a lot. Cory Schneider will have to be strong in the crease again. The last thing they can do is make this game harder on themselves by taking plenty of penalties.
No One Returns or Changes for New Jersey: The Devils practiced on Thursday. Per Tom Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice, the lines and pairings appear to be the same from Tuesday night. Jon Merrill and Adam Henrique did not return to practice so there's little reason to expect them to return tonight. Gulitti did confirm that Cory Schneider will start this game. Those who want to see Keith Kinkaid start may have to wait until the next game, which is tomorrow.
I was partially hoping that Merrill would be able to come back. Look at the defensemen pairings. Andy Greene and Damon Severson have been going along fine. Beyond them is a defensively-suspect pair in Marek Zidlicky and Eric Gelinas; and a pairing of Adam Larsson and Seth Helgeson. Given that the Caps are very talented up front, one of those pairings is going to get some very undesirable match-ups. Helgeson only played a little more than six minutes, due in part of being a rookie in a close game and playing most of those six minutes in his own end of the rink. I would not be surprised if the Devils resort to rotating five defenders again; but that's only going to add more pressure to the 'D.' The Caps are three lines deep with danger: against one line featuring Ovechkin and Backstrom, one speedy line featuring Jason Chimera and Ward, and one hot unit consisting of Johansson, Burakovsky, and Brouwer. The Devils forwards will have to make a very good effort to backcheck and to help out the defense by cutting back on turnovers when they do attack. If only to relieve some of that pressure.
You Know AO: Ovechkin does not believe there's a bad shot to take. (I got that line from the 2014-15 Hockey Prospectus, which is available for purchase and is another book I'm in.) Ovechkin leads the NHL with 73 shots on net. It's not a question of whether he'll get his shot tonight. It's a question of how many. With Backstrom making great reads and plays at both ends (he's tied with Ovechkin with 16 points), it almost doesn't matter who's on the other wing. It could be, say, Jay Beagle. In any case, Ovechkin is a constant threat any time he's out there - and especially on the power play. The Devils' PK can't sell out to just guard the right circle because the other Capitals players have been scoring too, though it's a tempting thought.
But Do You Know, MoJo?: Ovechkin leads the Caps in shots, but he is tied in goals with Marcus Johansson. Yes, the Marcus Johansson. The fourth-year forward is hot right now. He got two goals and eight shots on net in his last game. In his last five games, he's got four goals and two assists. He's been firing them in with a 21.6% shooting percentage. That may not last, but he could be "breaking out" this season. Before piling up eight shots against Columbus, Johansson was still averaging just above two shots per game. He's never done that in his career. So while the shooting percentage will eventually fade, keeping that up will help him rack up points and keep his position in the lineup as he's doing something right.
His torrid scoring so far this season has made him stand out on an effective line with Burakovsky and Brouwer. The threesome have been positive in possession per War on Ice and they've been appearing on the scoresheet more and more as of late. That this line has a forward producing at a hot rate helps make the Capitals tougher to play against. Peter DeBoer won't get the last change but even if he did, 22-2 or 5-25 will at least start the game against this unit, a speedy one (anything involving Jason Chimera is speedy), or the power duo of Ovechkin and Backstrom. Good luck, Devils.
This Caps' D isn't Shabby Either: With an average of 26.4 shots against per game and a FenClose% of 54.59%, Caps games aren't just full of shots at both ends. That's the second lowest average in the league prior to Thursday's games and the fourth best percentage in that category at War on Ice. This looks like a strong puck-controlling team to me. The defense has been helpful in that regard. Here are the individual Corsi numbers at War on Ice for them. Mike Green has received very favorable zone starts and competition and he's done what he should do: own it. The pairing or Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner has been steady. The only pairing that has struggled in that regard has been John Carlson and Brooks Orpik. And one has to consider their sub-50% possession rate with the fact that Carlson-Orpik have seen tougher competition than the other pairings. Overall, they've done well.
That said, if there's a weak link in this group, it's Orpik. He's not fast, he can get too physical for his own good, and he's penalty prone. He leads the team with eleven minor penalties. He's not happy about it according to this post by Alex Prewitt in the Washington Post's Capitals Insider. I don't think there's a lot he can do about it short of changing how he does things. But how he does things is what garnered him a fat contract. Overpaid, slow, too physical at times? This seems familiar.
So the Caps' Issue Is...Goaltending?: Ah, goaltending. The Caps are beginning a back-to-back set tonight of their own. It's not known at this time whether Braden Holtby or Justin Peters will get the start. Both have an even strength save percentage below 91%. Holtby's save percentage is buoyed by a good penalty kill save percentage; Peters' is not. I suppose the hope is for Peters, but provided the Devils can generate shots at evens somehow, they may not be fully out of it. Problem is getting to him, of course. But imagine how much better the Caps would be if their goaltenders were better at evens. There's still time, of course.
What About Leads? Don't the Caps Keep Teams Around: For a really in-depth look into that and what they've done in various scoring situations, you should read this excellent article by A. Stringham and J.P. at Japers' Rink.
Food Bank: The Devils aren't at home tonight, but they will be on Saturday. The team put out a press release stating that they will be collecting food for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. The details are up at the team's official website. If you bring ten or more items, you'll get a voucher for an upcoming game. Now that there's more than just a notice on the day of game, there's some to do some good if you're going to the Rock on Saturday.
Your Take: I know I made the Caps seem like a really good team in this preview. That's because to an extent, they are. Plus, they did just win three straight so things have gone well for them recently. But the Devils can make a statement by getting a result in D.C. Provided they have a gameplan that isn't simply to hope Schneider stops everything from the other team or some kind of great break, it's certainly possible. They'll have to make the most of their play in the neutral zone, be judicious with the puck, and keep this game at evens. It's possible.
Do you think it's possible? What can the Devils do about the Caps' depth up top? Can they stay out of the penalty box? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.