Last night, the New Jersey Devils won a game. They had to do it through the shootout, but a win is a win. However, those who saw that game and/or read a recap like mine would know that the Devils did not play well at all in that game. I don't care what anyone says, putting up less than 20 shots and barely breaking 20 shooting attempts in game is not at all a good performance. It was not something the team should try to repeat as they will not and have not won many games playing like that. Tonight was yet another example in a season littered with games where the unsaid message was clear - puck possession matters most - yet the Devils have not learned to hear it.
Unlike last night's game, the Devils weren't constantly attacked. Yet, they went for long stretches without much offense and when they did get into Washington's end, the attempts were few and largely lackluster. After a slow start, the Washington Capitals preyed on the Devils and just put up the goals. The Caps never really ran away with the game in terms of shots or attempts like Tampa Bay. They didn't have to because of the goals. They were some very good goals, too. Mike Green got things going by firing a shot past Troy Brouwer standing in front of Cory Schneider and found the far post. Nicklas Backstrom extended the lead later in the second period when he took a drop pass by Jay Beagle, lost his balance but fired the puck against the grain, and it beat Schneider - hitting off the left post and in. In the third period, Alex Ovechkin - who hit two posts already and was the only Cap to threaten all game long - made Jon Merrill look like a chump and elevated a backhander past a sliding Schneider for a highlight reel-worthy goal. Backstrom added an empty netter to boost the scoreboard. With goals like those, who needs to keep attacking?
What's really pathetic about all of this was the lack of response by the Devils to any of these goals. In total, the Devils fired 21 shots on net out of 36 attempts. In the third period, down two goals to start, they put up a whopping four and attempted only seven shots. For the umpteenth time this season, the Devils struggled at moving the puck and keeping it on their sticks. The Caps didn't fire a lot of rubber on net - again, didn't have to once they scored - but they were able to move it around. They looked faster because they had the puck. They looked fresher because they controlled the pace of the game. They looked stronger because they denied the Devils and responded accordingly. They were better namely because they played like possession matters. The Devils were a mess yet again.
I can only think of only two positives from tonight's game. The penalty kill didn't get burned, which is always a concern given how dangerous the Washington power play can be. Of course, Ovechkin hit one of his two posts on a patented one-timer from the right circle. Still, no PPGAs is a good thing. The other positive is that I don't think any Devil got injured. Though I stand to be proven wrong about this.
Quite frankly, tonight's game was worse than the last Saturday night loss to the Capitals, which featured a remarkably stupid performance by the Devils. There was little hope from the offense. The defense didn't get run over but got beaten badly in spots for scores. The power play generated not enough and the last one was just, well, dreadful. Because they didn't have the puck so much, they were forced to react and catch-up to plays. The only way the Devils were going to get a result tonight was if Schneider was inch-perfect in net and he wasn't and I don't think it's fair to fault him for it. But it's even less fair to the Devils fans who paid money and time to see this team play like absolute garbage for a second straight night. Many fans left early, those who stayed voiced their displeasure appropriately, and no one except for the Pro-Tankers are happy about this game. Puck possession matters most and the Devils got another loss for refusing to heed that lesson. Something they knew full well even last season.
As if there was any doubt, this is a bad team. This wasn't so much one step forward and two steps back as it was a step in place amid a pile of mud (but somehow getting a reward) followed by a lateral step in said pile.
The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Devils Time on Ice Log | The Natural Stat Trick Corsi Charts
The Opposition Opinion: Kevin Klein has this recap up at Japers' Rink. He and the many Caps fans are pleased with the victory.
The Game Highlights: There were no highlights for the Devils as far as I recall. Here's the video from NHL.com anyway.
Let's Talk About the Lineup: Why did the Devils change their lineup? Why did Peter DeBoer make changes? They won last night and in the eyes of some, that's only madness. To the eyes of those who actually watched last night's game, the Devils' performance was clearly inferior.
Michael Ryder was especially bad. If we're honest with ourselves, Steve Bernier has contributed more than Ryder over the last few weeks. So I am more than fine with Ryder being scratched tonight. Of the Devils' issues tonight, Ryder's inclusion would have solved about none of them short of Ryder playing like Ovechkin. I can't say that calling up Mike Sislo and playing him along with Jordin Tootoo and Tim Sestito in the same lineup was a better move. They were bad tonight. But that's partially a function of better Devil forwards being unavailable due to injury and partially wanting to be able to keep Ryder off the ice. It's a defendable decision even if it meant Bernier playing higher up in the lineup than he should be. That just speaks to the lack of right wingers available in the organization.
As for the goaltender, the Devils just played last night. As well as Keith Kinkaid was, it's usually a poor idea to give a goaltender back-to-back starts, particularly an inexperienced one like Kinkaid. It's great that the team appears to have a legitimate #2 goalie, but Schneider isn't in any danger of being unseated. Schneider was fine, but again, that's not good enough given that the team is playing like he needs to be absolutely perfect. And I don't think that's fair.
The Devils made no changes on defense. I found that weird because the Devils called up Adam Larsson. Larsson did play 25 minutes and quite well in Albany last night. I guess that since he's still getting back into form, it would be pushing it to throw him into a NHL game. But if that's the case, why call him up if it wasn't clear he would be ready? Why not wait until Sunday or Monday? Surely he could have done better than Seth Helgeson or spell Jon Merrill some. Given the state of the fourth line, the team could've went with seven defensemen. In any case, at least we should see Larsson back in the lineup real soon.
Maybe questioning DeBoer changing the lineup is an easier criticism than just "this team played very poorly and it's because they are a very poor team" or "this team can't move the puck effectively and it's why they're so hard to watch and they lose a lot of games." But I'm not Rich Chere, so whatever.
Another Sign Your Offense Didn't Do Enough: Scott Gomez led the team with four shots on net. Gomez shooting the puck is nice to see but on a line with Adam Henrique and Jaromir Jagr, he shouldn't be the key guy to fire away. The unit was the best the Devils had to offer and even then they combined for seven shots out of 21. I know, valley of the blind and the man with one eye and all that, but it was still lackluster. Braden Holtby wasn't challenged enough by them or the other forwards. Like, say, the largely invisible unit of Patrik Elias (no shots, three misses, too many botched passes) and Travis Zajac (no shots, three misses, too many times tracking back after said botched passes). Steve Bernier didn't fit well with both and Martin Havlat (one shot, no other attempts, one drawn call) wasn't much of an improvement. That was the top six and that was it and clearly that's not enough unless the few pucks fired actually got in. They didn't.
Ovechking: The Caps started this game off slowly as they were just as non-sharp at moving the puck as the Devils. The lone exception was Ovechkin, who was a roaming monster all night long. He had the most shots, five, and the most attempts, ten, of any one on the ice. And those official numbers don't include the two posts he hit with his terrifyingly strong shot. He drew a penalty shot, though he was denied. His goal tonight was the sort of goal that gets used in highlight packages for years to come to promote him, the team, and the league. His line was strong enough to carry the night for the Caps as Ovechkin was present for all three goals against Schneider. Backstrom got two, but #8 played like the star that he is. I'd go as far as to say that he made Devils fans wish more that the team can find a star like him - and soon.
Here's A Small Surprise: The pairing or Marek Zidlicky and Eric Gelinas wasn't hideous. Though, they had their moment of danger when Gelinas coughed up the puck at the blue line, Ovechkin pounced on it, and Zidlicky fouled him on his breakaway. Schneider denied Ovechkin on the ensuing penalty shot to bail out 2-22. But among the defense, those two made me the least unhappy. So there's that, which isn't worth all that much.
As for the others, well, Peter Harrold and Seth Helgeson weren't beaten up too much though they were out of their element at times. Andy Greene got overwhelmed and Jon Merrill varied between looking kind of like Greene and looking like a less offensive version of Jack Johnson. I'm also pretty sure Ovechkin still has Merrill's jock.
Will Pete DeBoer Last?: Short of a miracle, no. I can't say it would be undeserved. The record speaks for itself and the fact that the team has continued to play this poorly on the ice does fall on him and his staff. I still don't think a new coach makes these players necessarily better at the fundamentals. A lot of it falls on execution and the guys in the suits aren't the ones doing that no matter how many words are used to claim that they can. But I feel like his time is soon and very few will be unhappy about it.
Your Take: I summed up this game in a word on Twitter: poop. I think it still applies. I don't think too many of you will disagree with that. Or that this is just a plain bad team, not even an enjoyable sometimes-fun bad team. At least I put more effort into writing this recap and you put more effort into reading it than several Devils players. What's your take on this game? How do they rebound from something they've suffered now for the better part of two months? If you're all in on hoping the team can get an 18-year old potential star named Connor or Jack, then are you pleased with tonight's game? (And if not, why not? Is this not the tanking you wanted?) What should they do ahead of the game against Carolina on Tuesday? Do you even still want to go to games after a game like this one? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to Brian for writing the preview. Thanks to those who commented in the gamethread and followed @InLouWeTrust on Twitter. Thank you for reading.