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New Jersey Devils vs. Washington Capitals: Game Preview #27

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The New Jersey Devils will return home after a successful night in Toronto. They will take on the Washington Capitals in an important divisional matchup. This preview looks at the Caps' players and focuses on Damien Brunner.

Schneider should start, Ruutu will be there, but will Jagr return?
Schneider should start, Ruutu will be there, but will Jagr return?
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Back home right after a win.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (10-12-4) vs. the Washington Capitals (11-10-4; SBN Blog: Japers' Rink)

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the New Jersey Devils visited the Toronto Maple Leafs.  The Devils were hurting with multiple skaters out injured plus Adam Larsson and Jaromir Jagr out with the flu.  This did not deter the Devils from putting out a competitive effort.  In fact, they took a lead and never fell behind.  Eric Gelinas put home a long wrister to convert an early power play to make it 1-0. The Leafs tilted the ice, but Cory Schneider & Co. held them off. Toronto would equalize early in the second period when Mike Santorelli tipped down a shot from Jofferey Lupul.  But the Devils would take the lead back minutes later when Stephen Gionta kept a dump-in alive, hustled to the middle of the ice, and put home a feed from Steve Bernier.  The Devils fell apart on a power play later on as the skaters and Schneider just looked awful while Nazem Kadri scored a shorthanded goal.   But again, the lead would be restored on a power play later in the period.  Eric Gelinas hammered The Truth off the endboards and Mike Cammalleri hammered the rebound past Jonathan Bernier to make it 3-2.  The Leafs started attempting more but not necessarily getting rubber on net. The Devils kept them more than honest in the third and were rewarded.  Steve Bernier took a rebound off a Marek Zidlicky shot, turned around, and slid it in to make it 4-2.  Adam Henrique followed Michael Ryder forcing a puck into the middle of the ice and sniped in a shot to make it 5-2.  The Leafs would get one back late in the game when Phil Kessel batted in a rebound to convert a power play.  Yet, it was too little, too late. The Devils won their first game in nearly two weeks 5-3; here's my recap of the win.

The Last Capitals Game: On that same night, the Capitals took on the Carolina Hurricanes.  It turned out to be an even game in terms of shots and attempts.  The Capitals got up first with an early goal by Jay Beagle.  He put home a loose puck, caused by Anton Khudobin unable to snag a hard shot by Jason Chimera.   The Canes and Caps played it close since then.  Carolina did survive the Washington power play in the second period and the Caps didn't get called for anything beyond a matching-minor in the first period.  Early in the third period, former Capital and current Hurricane Alexander Semin tied it up with a beautiful backhander that banged off the bar and in past Braden Holtby.  There would be a breakthrough goal.  Jiri Tlustly lost the puck in his own end of the rink and Eric Fehr pounced on it.  He drove in, took a foul, kept going, and beat Khudobin to make it 2-1. The score was held and so the Caps won.  Here's the recap at Japers' Rink by Geoff Thompson.

The Last Devils-Capitals Game: Back on November 14, the Devils visited Washington for their second game of the season series.   What unfolded was a fairly even game with plenty of excellent work by goaltenders Cory Schneider and Braden Holtby.   The Devils' gameplan was to keep the Capitals in front of them as much as possible and it succeeded as the Caps had few opportunities off the rush.  They withstood the frightening nature of the Capitals' 1-3-1 formation on their power plays.  They gave back what Washington brought in the way of crashing the net and providing shots from all locations.   While Schneider was sensational, Holtby was the difference maker. In the third period, he left his crease to play in a dumped-in puck. He flung it in front of him - right to Mike Cammalleri.  Cammalleri put home the puck into the empty net and the gift would be the game's only goal.  The Devils won 1-0. Here's my recap. For the opposition's perspective, here's the game recap at Japers' Rink by The Peerless.

The Goal: Keep this game at even strength as much as possible. If that's a familiar sentence, that's because it's what I wrote in the game preview of the previous Devils-Caps game. The Capitals' power play remains the second most successful in the NHL at 27.5%. Alex Ovechkin has a monster shot and he only needs one opportunity from the right circle to make the penalty kill fail.  Nicklas Backstrom leads the Caps in overall points (25) and power play points (11); but a glance at their player stats shows many more Caps than just Backstrom and Ovechkin with multiple points in man advantage situations.  The Devils' penalty kill has not been as dire as it was several weeks ago, but like Pittsburgh, handing this team opportunities to play with an extra skater is a bad idea should the Devils want to succeed tonight.   Given that the Capitals are one of three teams with a lower penalty kill success rate than the Devils, they may even be willing to oblige.

The Other Goal: Get in Ovechkin's way.  Ovechkin does not believe there's a bad shot to take.  Therefore, it should be of no surprise he leads the league in shots on net with 111.   While anyone with 12 goals and 9 assists in 25 games is to be taken seriously, it's that fact that makes him especially dangerous.  If you can't recall many shots from him in the last Devils-Caps game, then you would not be wrong to do so.  He only had two on net.  However, he missed the net three times and he got blocked eight times.  Even on a night where other Caps got more shots on net, Ovechkin was a consistent threat by the fact he got 13 shooting attempts.  It should always be expected he's going to get many attempts tonight, it would be in New Jersey's best interest to avoid giving him favorable shooting lanes.   Cutting him off whenever possible is to the Devils' benefit.

The Other Caps Forwards: While Marcus Johansson isn't as hot as he was heading into the last Devils-Caps game, he's part of a group of Capitals players that have been productive beyond the Ovechkin-Backstrom dynamic duo.  (Left Wing Lock listed Tom Wilson as the common winger on that unit in the Caps' last game.)   Johansson did finish November strong with four points in three games, which places him fourth on the team in scoring.  He's been playing with Troy Brouwer and Andre Burakovsky as of late.  Both of whom have been productive with twelve and thirteen points, respectively.   Joel Ward has nine goals and four assists; he'll be one to watch on a unit centered by Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr.  That unit hasn't been as productive, but they can provide issues if they get a favorable matchup.   Jason Chimera can provide speed from a fourth line and if Evgeny Kuznetsov draws back into the lineup - he was a scratch against Carolina - the Caps could have a boost of skill among their depth.

There Will Be No Mike on the Caps Tonight: While Andy Greene has the superfluous 'e' at the end of his last name, it's pronounced like the color green.   The Caps have a player whose name is Green.  Mike Green.  He's an offensive defenseman but you will not see him tonight.  Alex Prewitt of the Washington Post has reported that he will miss his sixth straight game with the dreaded upper-body injury.  He is skating but he doesn't want any set backs. With 12 points in 19 games, the offense presumably doesn't want any either.  Prewitt noted that Jack Hillen will play again with Nate Schmidt on a third pairing.   This leaves the Caps with two offensively notable defensemen: Matt Niskanen, who's a quality two-way defender who hasn't exactly lit it up (one goal, nine assists, just 32 shots); and John Carlson, who's third on the team in scoring with four goals, 14 assists, and 60 shots.  Carlson will be a threat in the back but as he's paired with Brooks Orpik, the way to quell him is to force him to play defense.  Not as easy as it was earlier in the season as per War on Ice, but it's still the way to keep Carlson from attacking.  In any case, the loss of Green gives Greene the meaningless title of Best Player Whose Name Sounds Like a Color in tonight's game.  It's the little things.

By the way, if the preceding paragraph reads like the sort of clumsy prose you'd get in a sports broadcast pregame show, then you got what I was going for.  I'm just having fun in here.

Damien on the Outs: The Devils have topped themselves in terms of putting someone in the proverbial doghouse.  Days after making Michael Ryder a healthy scratch amid a bunch of injuries at forward that led Peter DeBoer to include Jordin Tootoo in his line up and Lou to sign Scott Gomez, the team has placed Damien Brunner on waivers on Friday.  Seriously.  No, no one is necessarily coming back from injury; although Jagr and Larsson may be feeling better.  Tom Gulitti has the report at Fire & Ice. I don't get it.  With the Devils hurting as much as they are, I'm baffled that this is the move they are making with him.  Gulitti notes that Brunner was read the riot act of sorts for his lack of defensive play during the Toronto game by DeBoer and Brunner's turnover eventually led to Kadri's shorthanded goal.  He was benched through the third period, something I didn't even pick up on while watching or writing about the game.  That in of itself is telling.

I can understand the issues with Brunner: he's not useful at all in his own end of the rink, he tends to take silly penalties, and he can be anonymous in games.  He's still a solid skater, he's one of the Devils forwards who will try and sometimes succeed with a flashy move to beat someone, and when he's able to fire away, he will do so.  For all of his warts, he's been coming out ahead in possession - even adjusted for zone starts, as C.J. showed yesterday; so I don't agree that he hasn't fit in or anything like that.  At the same time, my reading of the quotes from Lou in Gulitti's article don't speak to anything recent but a culmination of events that led to this.  Gulitti actually cites a source (!) that the team has been trying to trade him but since that hasn't happened, he's being dangled for free.  Clearly, he's on the outs - but there could be way back in.  Brunner clearing waivers doesn't necessarily mean he'll be sent down to Albany; he could play tonight and if he does real well, then maybe this becomes a thing of the past.  Or someone else will want him and make a deal.

What of the Defense: Jaromir Jagr possibly being healthy is an easy choice.  He's the best forward on the team, so he plays and someone else sits (Maybe Tootoo?).  Adam Larsson may also be feeling better and that brings up a more interesting decision.  Larsson hasn't been a defensive stalwart by any means, but he's been quite good in his own end - especially on the penalty kill.  I would like to see #5 back out there given how dangerous Washington's power play can be.  But who would sit for him?  Jon Merrill just came back against Toronto.  I saw him struggle more than a little bit in his own end at times, though that could be just rust from not playing.  Seth Helgeson has held it together as a rookie, but he's only been here because the Devils needed another defender after Merrill got hurt.   An argument can be made for each.   If it were me, I'd take out Helgeson as Larsson can do what he does but better and Larsson doesn't have to be limited in his minutes like Helgeson was the last Devils-Caps game (second career NHL game, so it was understandable).  Of course, that presumes Larsson has recovered from the flu well enough to play. I hope he - and Jagr - does.

Expect the Goalies: Schneider and Holtby have undeniably been the starters for their respective teams. As this game is independent of any back-to-backs, I would expect both to start this one.  They dueled themselves well in their last meeting.  We'll see whether they pick up right where they left off earlier last month.  I wouldn't hold my breath for Holtby giving Cammalleri a gift.

Another Hope: I really liked how Ryder, Cammalleri, and Adam Henrique attacked against Toronto. The Caps aren't going to be as sketchy as the Leafs were on Thursday. I would count on them being able to more successfully exit their own end of the rink than Toronto did.  But I would like to see those three try to keep pushing forward to attack.  When they're getting shots on net, they're contributing in the way they're intended - and they'll need it should they want to prevail tonight.

Similarly, if Jagr does play, I'd like to see DeBoer give Tuomo Ruutu a shot with Jagr and Scott Gomez.  We saw this trio against Pittsburgh before Robert Bortuzzo applied a late headshot on Jagr and they were doing quite well.  I know Ruutu did well with Jacob Josefson and Dainius Zubrus on Thursday night, but I think it's a combination worth trying out.  With Travis Zajac not necessarily coming back; Patrik Elias day-to-day with a groin issue; and Martin Havlat and Ryane Clowe still on injured reserve, now's the time to try out such combinations. Who knows? Maybe it'll give DeBoer more options when some of those forwards come back from injury.

Your Take: The Devils are 1-1 against the Caps this season and this game could help propel one of them back towards third place (New Jersey) or put them up in third place (Washington).  These games mean quite a bit. What do you think will happen?  Can the Devils put out a similar game plan to limit the Caps from just skating free and doing as they wish?  Can the Devils build on a five-goal game and put up multiple goals on a goalie who had to give a goal away in the last Devils-Caps game?  Can Ovechkin be quelled?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.