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New Jersey Devils vs. Washington Capitals: Game Preview #77

The New Jersey Devils host the Washington Capitals for the final time this season. This preview highlights the importance of staying out of the box, Alexander Ovechkin, and attacking a whole bunch among other thoughts about this game.

Eric Gelinas and Jay Beagle both fall apart from each other as both teams fall out of the playoff picture almost together.
Eric Gelinas and Jay Beagle both fall apart from each other as both teams fall out of the playoff picture almost together.

There's going to be a lot of psychic support from Ohio and Ontario for the home team.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - NBC Sports Network; Radio - 880 AM WCBS

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (32-28-16) vs, the Washington Capitals (34-29-13; SBN Blog: Japers' Rink)

The Last Devils Game: On Monday night, the Devils went up to upstate New York to play the Buffalo Sabres. The Devils dominated the game in terms of shots, possession, and overall run of play. Unfortunately, trying to get a goal was more difficult than one would have liked. Dainius Zubrus did get one in the second period; a killer pass to the far post by Michael Ryder gave Zubrus his first in a while and a 1-0 lead. However, an offensive breakdown early in the third period led to a 3-on-2 that was cooly finished by Tyler Ennis on Cory Schneider's flank. The Sabres went up 2-1 when Ennis got behind the defense on Schneider's left flank again and received a pass. He finished it, of course. The Devils would get an equalizer on a power play, though. Andy Greene took a shot from the right circle and Tuomo Ruutu got just enough of the puck to deflect it into the net. The Devils tried hard to get that third goal, but it would not come in regulation - or in overtime. An amazing shootout occurred. Ennis scored first and than Jacob Josefson stepped up and scored. Yes, the Devils scored a shootout goal. And Jaromir Jagr did it later to tie it up at 2-2. It wasn't until the ninth round that it was decided. Unfortunately, the Devils' inability to get a third goal in regulation continued in the shootout. Ville Leino scored a shootout goal, but Mike Sislo couldn't match it after multiple Devils could have ended it prior. The Devils lost 2-3 in a shootout to the Sabres; and I wasn't happy in my recap.

The Last Capitals Game: On that same night saw the playoff-hopeful Capitals take on the similarly hopeful Dallas Stars. What transpired would have made Caps fans wish the team lost in a shootout to Buffalo instead. It took about fifteen minutes for Dallas to make Washington pay for their sloppy defending. Tyler Seguin re-directed a shot by Jamie Benn to make it 0-1, Stars. In the second period, Ray Whitney and Dustin Jeffery each scored with a primary assist by Alex Chiasson within the ninth minute to make it 0-3 for the visitors. Braden Holtby replaced Jaroslav Halak but the Stars weren't done yet. In the third period, Jeffery scored his second of the night and of the season before the halfway mark. Ryan Garbutt undercut the fearsome Washington power play with a shorthanded goal just before the fifteen-minute mark. He made it 0-5 and that's where it ended. Geoff Thompson explained in his recap at Japers' Rink that the Caps no-showed. Maybe, but the 35 shots they took suggests to me that they showed. Their problem was they just stunk that night.

The Last Devils-Capitals Game: It was right before the Olympic break; the Devils were coming off an OT win over Edmonton to visit D.C. to play the Capitals. Cory Schneider, who was coming into the game hot, tayed hot as he was only beaten once. Unfortunately, the Devils didn't give him a goal to work with. Against a defensively-poor team like Washington, the Devils put 25 shots on net, hit one post, and missed the net 17 times among their various opportunities. The only one that beat Schneider was a third period blast by Julien Brouillette that got through a screen in the third period. Peter DeBoer pulled Schneider for an attempt at an equalizer; only to have to Martin Erat get his first of the season on an empty. DeBoer pulled Schneider again in the hopes for two quick goals in the last 100 seconds or so. That ended with Troy Brouwer sinking in a second empty netter. It was mostly close but the final of 0-3 to Washington further highlighted the team's lack of scoring being a key issue. I said that back on February 8 and it's not any less true now. My recap of the game is here. For an opposition take, please read Becca H's recap at Japers' Rink.

The Goal: Stay disciplined. The Washington Capitals have the most successful power play in the league. They are first in conversion rate (23.4%), they have the league's leading power play goal scorer in Alexander Ovechkin with 22, the league's leading power play point scorer in Nicklas Backstrom with 42, and the second highest shooting rate in power play situations per Extra Skater. The Devils may have a very successful penalty kill, but the prospect of the Washington power play was enough to have DeBoer focus on the PK in place of the PP in Thursday's practice according to this report by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. That's all well and good. However, the best kind of kill is never having to kill in the first place. The Devils absolutely have to avoid all kinds of needless fouls. If they have to penalize a skater, then they better have a proper justification. I can understand taking someone down to deny them a chance to make a play. It's the fouls that come from being too rough or too unaware that are distasteful; and the Caps can certainly make them pay. Staying disciplined will not be easy at all. No team gets to be second in the NHL for total power play opportunities without being able to draw a few calls.

One Returning, Maybe A Second: The Devils' injury situation got a little brighter in Thursday's practice. Both Jon Merrill and Anton Volchenkov took to the ice. According to this tweet by Gulitti, DeBoer stated that those who were in practice may play and those who weren't will not. This should mean that Bryce Salvador, Ryane Clowe, and Stephen Gionta will remain out of the lineup since Gulitti reported that they did not practice in this post at Fire & Ice.This will mean another game for Jacob Josefson and Mike Sislo at forward.

Based on Gulitti's reports of the lines, it appears Peter Harrold may be the odd defenseman out. Merrill practiced with him on a fourth pairing, which is usually held for scratched players. I can understand putting Volchenkov back into the lineup. The Devils' penalty killers of the past few games included Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, Harrold, and Adam Larsson. Given tonight's opponent, adding a PK veteran really helps. I thought Harrold was playing pretty well as of late. But someone's got to sit and I suppose this speaks to how DeBoer views the Eric Gelinas-Adam Larsson pairing. With the Devils hosting Washington, they can shelter that pairing from Washington's top players.

The Right Call: Gulitti did report that Cory Schneider did help a kid with a dream and that he will start tonight's game. Good. I absolutely did not want to see #30 up against #8. This is the tougher game in this back-to-back set (Devils visit the Canes tomorrow); the better goalie should get this start. As Mike at Left Wing Lock highlighted, it may be too late but at least it's being done now and hopefully for the future.

More than Alex: The Washington Capitals have some impressive players not wearing #8 tonight. Backstrom is actually Washington's top scorer with 14 goals and 59 assists. He's usually centering Ovechkin and his prominence on the power play as a distributor has picked him up a lot of points. Backstrom is supremely skilled. The Devils will have to be cautious of two other wingers. Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward aren't the "name" players but they've been very good. They have 23 and 22 goals, respectively the second and third leading goal scorers on the team. They have also benefited from the power play (Brouwer has 12 PPGs, Ward has 6) but they have done well together. If only because they've been far, far worse apart. Fortunately for New Jersey, it appears they will be apart based on Katie Carrera's practice report at the Washington Post. Brouwer should be active if he was truly off for "maintenance," by the by.

If you need an X-factor, then two come to mind. The first is Jason Chimera. He has seemingly been a thorn in New Jersey's side for a few seasons now. The speedy winger has 14 goals, 24 assists, and loves to fly when given half a chance. Be very careful if he gets Anton Volchenkov in a match-up. The second is Evgeny Kuznetsov. The 2010 first rounder has finally came over to North America. In his first 11 games, he's got two goals, five assists, and 17 shots. He's displayed flashes of his offensive skill and has provided good production from a depth role. Should he get loose, he could cause some problems among the bottom six. That said, he's been held shotless and pointless in his last two games so he's not an automatic scorer by any means. Still, be aware of his presence.

But Seriously, Alex is Amazing: That all said, the most dangerous man on the ice is the league leading goal scorer and shot taker. Ovechkin has 48 goals and 370 shots. Those numbers by themselves command serious attention, nevermind he's well ahead of everyone else in the NHL in those categories. He has been held pointless in his last three games; but just like Jaromir Jagr, it's not for a lack of trying given he put 12 shots on net across those three games. The guy will put rubber on net. The guy will make things happen. The guy's one-timer is absolutely frightening. If that wasn't enough, he's actually one of the Capitals who's not far below break-even mark in possession in 5-on-5 play. For a possession-poor team like the Caps, that also makes him stand out as a threat beyond the massive production.

You Think You Don't Like Your Coach?: Caps fans are increasingly unhappy with Adam Oates. Now, there's more than a handful Devils fans that don't like Peter DeBoer, but I think they would be hard pressed to come up with criticisms deep in scope and wide in range like in these two pieces. First, J.P. has put together a full 64-listing called the Bracket of Fail at Japers' Rink. It highlights all of the reasons why the team is where they are. There are 16 for coaching alone and it's a tough way to figure out what reason comes out more than the other. Devils fans have plenty to point to that's wrong but I don't think I could come up with 64 individual reasons even if I make a few not-so-serious ones. Second, Peter Hasset has detailed 20 reasons (theses?) as to why Oates should be fired over at Russian Machine Never Breaks. Some may be familiar but certainly not all of them and not to the level of severity and impact as detailed. Remember: the Devils are a top possession team, meaning they regularly out-attempt their opponents. That means they have the puck more often and do more with it. The Caps, on the other hand, are on the receiving end and forced to defend. Something they're not at all good at.

W-A-S-H-I-N-G-T-O-N C-A-P-I-T-A-L-S: See? No D. But seriously, the Capitals average over 33 shots against per game. That's one of the highest in the league. Even with the league's top shooter, the rest of the team doesn't shoot nearly enough to make up the difference in what they're allowing. Their 5-on-5 SA/60 rate is 31.5 per Extra Skater. Only Colorado has a higher rate among playoff teams and they have a shooting percentage of 9.1% and a save percentage of 92.8%. Therefore, they don't get licked as much. The Caps, on the other hand, only shoot at 7.3% and have a save percentage of 92.1%. So the sieve-like nature of the skaters hurts. The goalies have decent to good save percentages but because they face so much volume, the team is in the bottom third of the league in goals against per game average (2.91).

Who should the Devils go after to attack? The team's gone through over fourteen defenseman this season and the only good pairing (by possession) among them have been Dmitry Orlov and Mike Green. The Devils should absolutely make the most of going up against anyone else. In recent play, that's been Karl Alzner, John Carlson (how did he make the Olympics?!), Juliet Brouillette, and John Erskine. I personally want Jagr, Travis Zajac, and Tuomo Ruutu to go up against Alzner-Carlson for laughs, possession dominance, and (hopefully) goals. But whoever gets them should relish that match-up as well as their third pairing all night long. Provided the Devils don't try to get too clever or overthink their shooting lanes, they should be more than fine from an attacking standpoint.

Regarding their goalie, it's unclear who will start at this juncture. It's either Jaroslav Halak or Braden Holtby. Holtby's been the better goalie at evens but far worse on PK situations this season. I'd prefer Halak because he recently got lit up in conjunction with his poorer even strength save percentage.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils may be truly be on the outside at this point, perhaps they can "convince" the Capitals to join them. What do you think will happen tonight? Can the Devils stay out of the box and keep Washington's most threatening unit off the ice? Can they keep Ovechkin and Backstrom at bay without being hurt by the others? Can the Devils attack all over a Capitals defense that's used to being under siege? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.