Not as dire as the last one, but this opponent would benefit from a victory tonight too.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-31-11) at the Washington Capitals (39-24-10; SBN Blog: Japers' Rink)
The Last Devils Game: On Monday night, the Devils hosted Los Angeles. The Kings ruled the ice like, well, kings and the Devils resembled peasantry on ice in the first period. The Devils were out-shot 3-16 and were deservedly down 0-2 due to goals from Andrej Sekera and Tyler Toffoli finishing a two-man advantage. The Devils would slow down the game in a second period that featured only five shots from each team. Scott Gomez got onto a rebound perfectly to make it 1-2. Alas, the Kings kept the Devils more than honest in a more active third period. Anze Kopitar scored to make it a three-point night for him and to make it 1-3. Jonathan Quick stopped most of the pedestrian twelve third period shots he faced. The Devils were outclassed by Los Angeles. Here is my recap of that game.
The Last Capitals Game: This past Saturday saw the Capitals visit Winnipeg. The first period went well enough. However, Mark Stuart scored for the Jets to put the visitors down 0-1. The Caps just looked lethargic after that period. It didn't help that Ondrej Pavelec was stopping everything thrown at them. Assuming they even got to them as the Caps got blocked almost as many times (26) as they got shots on goal (28) while missing the net quite a bit (18). In the third period, the Jets got an insurance goal from Mark Scheifele and an empty netter from Adam Lowry. The Caps were shut out, 0-3. The Peerless at Japers' Rink appropriately called the Capitals' performance "flat."
The Last Devils-Capitals Game: These two teams last faced each other way back on December 20. The Devils struggled to move the puck and generate a dangerous attack that would have challenged Braden Holtby. After a scoreless first period, the goals would come for the Capitals. First, it was Mike Green firing one past a screen early in the second period. Second, it was Nicklas Backstrom going against the grain on his shot, rifling one off the post and in late in the second period. Third, Alex Ovechkin torched Jon Merrill off the rush and beat Cory Schneider with a lovely backhander while falling down a little over seven minutes into the third period. Fourth and finally, Backstrom got an ENG. You'll notice I mentioned no goals for the Devils. They scored no goals with a performance so second-rate, it might be more appropriately called third-rate. Either way, the Devils looked bad in their loss as I described in this recap. For the opposition's perspective, Kevin Klein was much more effusive in his praise at Japers' Rink.
The Goal: Quell Ovechkin. Alex Ovechkin is currently the league's leading goal scorer with 47. He's also currently the league's leader in shots on goal with 356. Ovechkin is also the league's leader in power play goals with 21 and second in the entire NHL in power play points with 30. The Washington Capitals are more than just Ovechkin and his bros doing hockey things. But Ovechkin is a significant part of it. He cannot be stopped so much as he could be slowed down. He's going to attempt all kinds of shots and try to make some kinds of plays. You know he's going to hang out in the circle to the goalie's right on every power play and there's very little anyone can do anything about how he sets up. So the gameplan should be to make it as difficult as possible for #8. One of the reasons why the Caps' offense didn't pop against the Jets was because Ovechkin put only two out of thirteen shooting attempts on net. That's a small victory for Winnipeg and it contributed to their actual victory. This is going to be even more difficult given that Ovechkin has been incredibly well supported by Nicklas Backstrom. But the general idea should be to try to not let Ovechkin and his units do all the damage and almost dare the other lines to do so. They just might, since the Capitals are more than just Ovechkin and some dudes. But Ovechkin is that good and that important to demand that kind of attention tonight. We'll see if the Devils can keep him relatively quiet for a change.
Ovechkin's Great, But Don't Forget About His Center...: As mentioned, Nicklas Backstrom is pretty much the other supremely productive Capital on the team. He's just behind Ovechkin in points. Whereas #8 drops bombs we call shots, #19 drops dimes we call passes. Backstrom is the league leader in assists with 54, he's tied with Ovechkin in power play points, and while he doesn't shoot all that often, 18 goals on 143 shots mean that he can't be taken lightly when he's got a lane. They're a dynamic duo enough to command the other team's best players. The Devils will try to get Adam Larsson and Andy Greene against them. Based on the past few games, the forward line that the co-coaches may want to match against Ovechkin-Backstrom would be Adam Henrique, Patrik Elias, and Stephen Gionta. We'll see if they get that match-up.
Going back to that duo, who has been their third forward this season has been a point of contention all season. They've tried Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovsky, Jay Beagle, and Eric Fehr among others. According to Left Wing Lock, their most recent experiment has been Marcus Johansson. We'll see if that continues tonight. Will it be their long-term solution? Who knows.
The Big Picture Shows A Lot of Secondary Scoring...: Johansson is worth noting outside of getting some minutes with Ovechkin and Backstrom. He's part of the group that carries the secondary scoring for the Capitals. Per the list of scorers at NHL.com, that group consists of Johansson (17 goals, 22 assists, 123 shots), Joel Ward (16 goals, 14 assists, 128 shots), Troy Brouwer (18 goals, 18 assists, 123 shots), and Eric Fehr (18 goals, 11 assists, 130 shots). Alone, they're not supremely stand out numbers. Knowing they have four forwards who can do more than just chip in the odd goal helps. As does having burgeoning talents in Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov as well as some depth players that can do well in situations (e.g. Jason Chimera and his speed could make it a long, long night for a slow Devils team).
There's also the blueline. Mike Green has been the long-standing story of offense from the back end for Washington. Six goals, thirty three assists, and 139 shots means it's another fine season of production from him. However, Green's not the leading scorer among Capitals defenseman. It's John Carlson. His production is just more impressive with eleven goals, thirty six assists, and 174 shots on net. He can and will bomb away from the back. The Caps even have a third threat from the blueline in Matt Niskanen. While he hasn't been as productive, three goals, twenty one assists, and 103 shots isn't worth ignoring. He's very good at getting stops and getting the puck forward.
...The More Recent Small Picture Shows a Lack of Secondary Scoring: While the Caps look fairly productive on paper, they have not been as of late. A big talking point for the Capitals is their recent lack of scoring outside of Ovechkin. According to this article by Ben Raby in the Washington Post, the team is aware of the inherent issue of having #8 and #19 carry all of the production workload. The article notes that players like Brooks Laich, Chimera, and Brouwer have not scored in a while. It also notes that only Ovechkin and Kuznetsov have scored at even strength in recent games. The scoring issues go beyond even strength. In this article in the Washington Post by Alex Prewitt, the Caps have been 0-for-7 recently on their power play. With a long break between games, the Capitals have been focusing on ways to work on that. One could argue that this is the best time for New Jersey to get one over the Capitals. One could also argue the Devils are about to get stepped on by the Capitals. I'm leaning towards the latter given how bad the Devils have been in possession and puck movement on top of how they've got little to play for whereas the Caps still do. Good luck either way to Cory Schneider, who will start tonight for New Jersey according to this tweet by Rich Chere.
Bright, Young, and Very Good: The Capitals have been successful recently in spite of their production issues. A big reason as to why is because of the play of Braden Holtby. He's ninth in the league among save percentage leaders at NHL.com with an overall percentage of 92.4%. His splits feature an impressive 93% save percentage at evens to with a very good penalty kill save percentage of 88.9%. He rates very well among starters with the danger-based save percentages - namely, the high-danger ones - at War on Ice. All this and he's only 25 years old. This season may be the best yet in his young career. He didn't just earn the starting job, he's excelled in it in D.C. The Devils have only beaten Holtby four times this season and one of those times was on a big mistake by the young goalie (giving the puck away outside of his net to Mike Cammalleri). I doubt Holtby will make that mistake again. I don't doubt Holtby will be very good unless the Devils give him a lot of pressure and try to beat him laterally. Unfortunately, that's not what the Devils are apt at doing on offense as we all know from this season. It's not guaranteed he'll start but as the Capitals' starter and this game not being part of any back-to-back set, I'd be surprised if he does not start this one.
One AHLer Active For Now: According to Tom Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice of the lines and pairings in Wednesday's practice, Reid Boucher appears to be staying in the lineup for now. I wasn't a big fan of Boucher or Stefan Matteau against the Kings. But it's an evaluation period for them so I am not bothered by either getting games. I don't know if Boucher with Scott Gomez and Steve Bernier is a good fit. Hopefully, Boucher can get some opportunities to show he can do something or at least get some decent shots on net. I do know that the hope is that Barry Trotz doesn't try to pick on that lineup. Stefan Matteau appears to be on the outs for this game as he skated on a fifth line in practice. That's a pretty good sign we won't see him tonight.
Other Change: That's change, singular. Apparently, Tuomo Ruutu will also be back in the lineup. He was skating with Jacob Josefson and Dainius Zubrus. That's one real heavy sandwich on paper. Look out if the Capitals get caught by them instead of, you know, skating right by those wingers. That appears to be it for moves within the roster. The unit of Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, and Jordin Tootoo will have to try to get it together to get something going. Cammalleri is someone I have my eye on in particular. He didn't do much in his first game back from illness. Now that he's had a few more days, he may be able to play more like himself; which is what the Devils need as they lack shooters.
Defensively, Gulitti reported that the pairings remain the same. He also noted that Peter Harrold was practicing as a defenseman. I would've liked to have seen Harrold replace Mark Fraser, if only for this game. I think the Capitals are swift team, even beyond their top line. A pairing of Eric Gelinas and Mark Fraser is ripe for getting ripped apart by speed. Neither defenseman is fast. Neither are so good positionally that they can leverage their coverage to minimize the difference in speed. Neither are so good or quick on the puck in their own end, which makes them suspect to forecheckers and pressure applied by Capitals on an attack. Harrold isn't a good defenseman, but he's at least more mobile and would reduce the speed difference. Alas, the Gelinas-Fraser pairing continues to get
Lastly: A part of me may consider the game a minor win if Jon Merrill doesn't get posterized by Alex Ovechkin again.
Your Take: The Devils will close out their season series with the Capitals tonight. Won't you miss them? Well, maybe not. Either way, what do you think of the match-up for tonight? Will the Caps get more scoring than what Ovechkin provides? Can the Devils just slow him and Backstrom down? Can the Devils find a way to score even one past Holtby unlike the last game? What should any Devils fan expect out of tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.