Improvement rarely happens overnight. One does not simply lose a ton of weight, change a lifestyle, end a bad habit, or get better at something immediately. Many steps are small ones, but they are going forward and it is crucial to recognize that they are steps forward. As the New Jersey Devils are a re-building team with brand new coaches, brand new concepts, and many new players to the lineup, there will be many small steps to take. They took one or two tonight in their 3-5 loss to the Washington Capitals.
In their home opener, the Devils were outplayed throughout the game by Winnipeg. Tonight, the Devils arguably had the better run of play for the first period and survived a difficult second period. The difference in tonight's game came in the third period as the Caps pulled away largely thanks to their superstar, Alexander Ovechkin. Ovechkin posterized John Moore with a stickhandling manuever followed by an inch-perfect shot to the top corner to the far post over Keith Kinkaid. Moore getting beat is one thing, but usually that shot from angle Ovechkin shot it from usually goes high and/or wide. It was in. About six minutes later, during a power play, Ovechkin fired his trademark killer one-timer. Moore blocked it with his behind. As Moore writhed in pain, Ovechkin picked up the loose puck, charged in for a close shot, and Marcus Johansson piled in the puck to make it 2-4 then. He was not involved in the Capitals' third goal, an empty netter by Matt Niskanen to convert a late power play. While Mike Cammalleri - OK, Jason Chimera to be precise - got one back late, it was too little too late. The Devils played like the game was in some kind of reach to the end. Still, the loss came within the third period and it was not the result of being second-rate for most of the game.
What was different? Well, the Devils out-shot the Capitals 11-6 in the first period and out-attempted them 23-16. In a way, that's somewhat dubious in that the Caps scored on two of those five shots. Jordin Tootoo re-directed a Chimera shot during a Devils power play past Kinkaid for the game's first goal. About two minutes later, the Devils got caught too bunched up in their own end and so Brooks Orpik was all alone in the high slot. Tom Wilson fed him for a blast that beat Kinkaid. Yet, the Devils responded to both goals. Jiri Tlusty hit Adam Henrique with an outlet pass that left him alone with Holtby. Henrique finished it to make it 1-2 seconds after Orpik's goal. Later in the period, Eric Gelinas hit D.C. with The Truth to convert a power play. The play was mostly in New Jersey's favor and they did well to battle back. I would say that's the main positive to takeaway from this game.
The second period was mostly in Washington's favor. They did out-shoot the Devils, 5-11. Even strength wasn't that bad, but the Devils took two costly penalties within each other. Eric Gelinas cross-checked Scott Collins during an attacking shift. Lee Stempniak got caught with a hold on John Carlson when chasing down an iced puck. The Devils had 1:38 of a 3-on-5 against Washington's frightening power play. They weathered five shots on net, the first penalty ended with Gelinas springing Henrique for a shorthanded breakaway, and easily escaped the rest of Stempniak's penalty. It was easily one of the more nervy parts of this young season and the Devils didn't panic or blow it. They essentially escaped the second period tied at two, which is a positive both for Kinkaid, who made the stops, and the team, in that the game was still up for grabs.
Among what needs to be addressed for that next step, discipline is a good one as any. It was an issue in preseason. Then again, it was often an issue for New Jersey's opponents too. Tonight, the Devils helped dig their own grave in the third period with three power plays given to the Caps. The Caps put up eight of their ten shots in the period only on the power play. Two were goals, albeit one was an empty netter. Even as the first three kills were successful, that was about six minutes where the Devils couldn't attack or play their normal way in the neutral zone. With three of the five being restraining fouls, the Devils indeed got caught cheating too much. The Devils can ill-afford to shoot themselves in the foot if the idea is to at least be competitive in games.
That being said, the Devils could claim to be competitive in this one. The shot total ended 25-27 in favor of Washington, attempts in all situations ended at 54-51 in favor of New Jersey, and at least the team evened up the goal differential with the goalie pulled. Efforts like this one were more fun to watch. It's a function of the players being a bit more familiar with what the coaches want them to do. It's a loss, but it may turn out to be a small step towards where they want to become one day.
The Opposition Opinion: ThePeerless has this recap at Japers' Rink.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are the highlights from tonight's game:
The Season Debuts: Four Devils made their season debuts tonight. Let's discuss them a little bit:
Keith Kinkaid did not have to wait over twenty games for his first start this season. He got it tonight and he did OK. I think among the goals he'd like to have back, it probably would have been Orpik's. He got done in by a deflection by Tootoo, a highlight-reel-worthy goal by Ovechkin, a close put back by Johansson on the others. Still, he withstood a lot in the second and third periods, ranging from long strikes to simple charges to the net to making huge stops on T.J. Oshie. He'll be fine.
Eric Gelinas had a great game in my opinion. His only major fault was cross-checking Collins in the second. The play went well when he was out there with David Schlemko, who also had a good game; the Caps did not torch him. Just as importantly, Gelinas made an offensive impact. While he only put one of his four attempts on net, that one was a rocket from the blueline to convert the team's second power play of the night. More performances like this one will help him stay in the lineup.
Brian O'Neill and Stefan Matteau each did not play much tonight. They didn't really do much on the ice or make a kind of impact on the game, good or bad. For players being used like a fourth liner - both O'Neill and Matteau played less than eleven minutes - that's not terrible. But it doesn't really help their case to stay in the lineup ahead of other forwards. Sergey Kalinin had a similar game, so it's entirely possible he comes out and one or both stay in for Nashville.
Much Better: Mike Cammalleri had a much better game tonight. While Chimera helped him get on the board late in the game, Cammalleri was more involved with three shots on net, he got a secondary assist on Gelinas' blast, and generally attacking well. If only he didn't attempt a really bizarre between-the-legs blind pass on a shorthanded rush up ice. Travis Zajac had a very good game. While some will carp that he got robbed again, that he's been getting opportunities to score is a good thing. I wasn't a huge fan of Jordin Tootoo, but I can't say he dragged that first line down. This was a line that we saw more than a few times under the multi-coaches. This was a game where they did well. Hopefully, John Hynes isn't going to become tied to it because of this good game because as we saw last season, there were games that they didn't do well at all.
Adam Henrique definitely stood out much more tonight. His goal wasn't just an immediate response to Orpik's, it was a reminder that he can be quick and dangerous in space. Henrique had another breakaway - New Jersey's lone shorthanded shot tonight - and he was lively going forward. I think Jiri Tlusty and Kyle Palmieri will be better fits with him; it should make for a brisk line going forward.
Much Worse: John Moore and Jon Merrill got their lunch eaten tonight. I do feel bad for Moore because, well, Ovechkin can posterize a lot of people. And he did take a one-timer by #8 on his bottom. Drawing Ovechkin at evens is a difficult task. It did not go well. Merrill really did not help him either. Tough match-up but when New Jersey's on the road, this is going to be an issue. If Hynes was willing to scratch Severson, would he then do so for Moore or Merrill? We may see soon.
The bottom six really didn't add much positive. Fortunately, the top six did well enough but all lines play and when they suffer, it's noticeable. Stempniak took two penalties that he really didn't need to take, even if the hold on Carlson was kind of a cheap one. Stephen Gionta really didn't add much, which is disappointing given he was one of the veterans deep in the line up.
What?: Hynes did do something too aggressive late in the third period. During the minor to Stempniak, with about three minutes left in regulation, Kinkaid was pulled. It was weird to see the Caps set up in a power play formation with an empty net, but they did. Niskanen scored, which extended the lead to three at the time. I understand the idea of pulling the goalie earlier than one hundred seconds, especially with a two goal deficit. But the Washington power play was firing away as they did earlier in the period and the Devils had less than a minute left to kill. They could have held on, ensured the deficit as only two goals, and then make their push. It was a risky decision by the head coach and it didn't work.
Fortunately, it didn't burn the Devils again when Kinkaid was pulled afterwards. Not even after a coincidental minor call on Kyle Palmieri and Brooks Laich. The Devils turned that 4-on-4 to a 5-on-4 and got a goal on it.
Speaking of the PK: Have the Devils abandoned motioning from a small box to a wedge plus one like they did last season? I'll have to pay closer attention on Tuesday, but I'm wondering if that contributed to Washington putting up thirteen shots on five power play situations. Of course, it's Washington so perhaps they didn't need that help.
One Last Thought: This game showcased more of the speed the Devils may have added to their lineup. This was possible because they had the puck more often. Possession was better and if they can maintain and/or improve that, then they'll be more able to meet the marketing campaign.
Your Take: The Devils lost 3-5 in a better effort than their first game. Do you agree with that? Who do you think was the best on the Devils tonight? Who do you think was not at all good? What stood out to you tonight? What do you want to see for Tuesday's game based on tonight's game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this loss in the comments. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread, everyone who followed @AATJerseyBlog on Twitter, and you for reading.