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Game Preview #36: New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals

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The New Jersey Devils will begin a home-and-home set with the Washington Capitals to close out 2016. This game preview looks at what the Devils may look like without Taylor Hall and what the Caps have done this season.

NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Islanders
The face of the Washington franchise since 2005.
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

I love my dad. I don’t know if I would make him sit through this home-and-home set. Alas, the dads of the Devils’ players will get exactly that. At least the organization is paying for their trip.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (13-15-7) at the Washington Capitals (20-9-4; SBN Blog: Japers’ Rink)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV – NBC SN; Radio – 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN; Digital Audio - The One Jersey Network

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils returned from the holidays to host the Pittsburgh Penguins. The start to this one was actually good. Taylor Hall made defenseman Chad Ruhwedel look silly and tossed a puck across to P.A. Parenteau for a tap in. It was a highlight-reel worthy play that opened the game’s scoring. The Penguins answered back on a power play when Sidney Crosby drew everyone to his side due to a pass by Evgeni Malkin, faked a shot, and then sent the puck back to Malkin for a score. The Devils would answer back on a power play of their own with Adam Henrique being in the right place at the right time to turn a blocked Kyle Palmieri shot into a PPG. The Devils even drew some more power plays and the first ended with them up 2-1. Then reality apparently came back like a ton of bricks. In the second period, the Devils’ offense faded, their defensive coverage became wobbly under Pittsburgh’s pressure, and the Pens would take not only control of the run of play but also the game itself. Conor Sheary styled on Henrique, forced a close shot, and then passed the rebound to an open Crosby in the slot to make it 2-2. With less than ten seconds left in the period, Malkin criss-crossed with Justin Schultz (and picked Travis Zajac in the process) and Schultz hammered a shot past a frozen Devils squad and Cory Schneider to make it 2-3 with 5.4 seconds left. The Devils responded to this latest example of adversity by keeping it status quo. The Pens struck again when Ruhwedel sailed a long pass to Carl Hagelin past five Devils. Hagelin not only had a breakaway but also the time to wind up for a slapshot – which he scored on. Somewhere, Brian Rolston smiled. The Devils had a late four-minute power play to try to get something going and could not even do anything with that – even after pulling Schneider for an extra skater. Bryan Rust won a puck battle along the sideboards in New Jersey’s end and a slow puck just slid into the empty net. That sealed a win that was practically sealed once the Pens started “going.” It was another bad loss and another night that proved how soft of a team the Devils are right now. My recap of the 2-5 defeat is here.

The Last Capitals Game: Washington went to Brooklyn to take on the Islanders last night. The Isles struck first with a score by the Isles’ hitter, Cal Clutterbuck. The Caps would have a response from Justin Williams later in the first period. In the second period, the penalties mounted for Washington. They took four: a hook by Nate Schmidt, a too many men on the ice call, a goaltender interference call on Williams, and a puck cleared over the glass by Evgeny Kuznetsov. The only relief for the PK was that Andrew Ladd interfered with Brooks Orpik during that Williams penalty. Fortunately for the Caps, they did not concede a power play goal. Unfortunately, Ladd would score during an even strength portion of the second period to give the Isles the lead. The third period was filled of goals. Alex Ovechkin fired in his sixteenth goal of the year early in the third to tie it up. But the Isles surprised the Caps and beat Braden Holtby with two quick goals: first from Ladd and a second by Anders Lee on a breakaway. The Caps battled to tie it up. Andre Burakovsky provided hope by scoring a goal with just under seven minutes left to play. Hope further intensified with two power plays within those last sevenish minutes. But the Isles’ PK succeeded and the Caps lost to the Islanders, 3-4. Jason Rogers has this recap of the loss at Japers’ Rink wherein he laments the Capitals’ defensive performance. This Devil fan thinks he hasn’t seen anything yet.

The Goal: Stop trying to work harder, work smarter. Since Ray Shero’s decree for the team to play harder, the Devils beat a Flyers team that clearly had a temper to overshadow their hockey performance and were bodied by a Penguins team that knew how to handle adversity like being down a goal twice in a game and dole it out to others. You don’t win games by being industrious at relatively ineffective acts. Here’s an example. I’ll concede that Michael Cammalleri has worked hard to be able to dump it in from the red line consistently in the past few games. Great. Notice – as it did against Pittsburgh whether at 5-on-5 or 5-on-4 play – that dump-ins just put the puck up for grabs and the opposition was able to grab it well more often than not. The Devils need to make a point of it to identify more effective acts of hockey and work harder at those. Chipping pucks away or selling out for blocks that make life harder for the goalie or joining a teammate to the same spot on the ice on a forecheck aren’t really great plays most of the time in this sport. It doesn’t matter how hard one works, it matters how well one works. And what the Devils have done against Pittsburgh (twice), the Rangers (the first one), St. Louis (twice), Montreal, and Nashville simply hasn’t been working. Washington will add their names to that list if the Devils don’t get smart about how they play the game real fast.

OK, it’s not a great goal, but it really stands out given this month’s performances.

Adding to the Degree of Difficulty: As reported by Andrew Gross at Fire & Ice yesterday, the Devils will not have Taylor Hall and Vernon Fiddler tonight. Hall is day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Fiddler will be out for three to four weeks with a lower-body injury of his own. This is clearly bad news. Hall, for better or worse, is the Devils’ most talented forward. Is he putting the forwards on his back every night like a Crosby or an Ovechkin? No. Has he been productive? Yes, with twenty-three points in twenty-seven games. Can he do things like no one else on the team? Absolutely. Again, watch this play from Tuesday’s game:

He will be missed on a team that continues to need offensively skilled players in the worst way. Especially tonight as the Caps can certainly light a team up and the Devils may need some goals (plural). I hope he is back as soon as possible.

As for the other injury, Fiddler has not exactly been a great player, but he has solidified the fourth-line center role. He has also participated quite a bit on the penalty kill. His loss creates another hole on the team that needs to be filled in. The team has announced that Fiddler has been placed on IR and that they have called up Luke Gazdic in his place. I know Albany has three games in three nights coming up, but shouldn’t rebuilding teams give younger players a chance? Even a second one, which turned out to be a move that gave the squad a (somewhat) effective Wood?

Wednesday’s practice has provided a clue as far as what John Hynes intends to do about it. Here’s what Gross has noted: Michael Cammalleri has been moved to play with Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri. Beau Bennett has joined Adam Henrique and P.A. Parenteau. Pavel Zacha was centering Sergey Kalinin (who looked bad whenever he played center this season) and Devante Smith-Pelly (who isn’t a center at all). Miles Wood is with Nick Lappin and Jacob Josefson. Yes, Josefson is back – sort of. He is with the team, he will go to D.C., and he practiced with the squad yesterday. He has yet to be activated from injured reserve and he is coming off a concussion, so it’s not a guarantee he’ll be ready for tonight. That he went through practice is a sign that he is close at least. If he’s activated, then expect him to be back at center tonight. If not, then expect Gazdic to play minimal minutes and Kalinin could move to center.

All the same, these injuries will only make tonight’s game even harder for New Jersey. The issue as of late for New Jersey is that they have struggled to even compete with teams, never mind try to beat them. Anything can happen but an even weaker Devils squad makes that issue loom even larger. Tonight would be a great night for someone to have a great night. Like Zajac. Like Cammalleri. Like Henrique. Like Palmieri. Like a defenseman. Like Schneider or Kinkaid. I’ll take anyone, really.

Maybe Auvitu?: The Devils called up Yohann Auvitu before the Penguins game and did not play him. Given how ineffective the power play was and that Hynes still has the defensemen play a large role on offense, then perhaps it would be a good idea for Auvitu to get back into the lineup. No, he alone won’t make the Devils become a great team and stomp all over the Caps. But is he really worse than Jon Merrill or Kyle Quincey? If not – and I don’t think he is - then he should be playing tonight. We’ll see if he does.

Since 2005: Alex Ovechkin has been the top man for Washington since 2005. In the 872 games since taking to the ice, Ovechkin has scored 541 goals, registered 451 assists, and taken 4,362 shots on net. Without a shadow of a doubt, Ovechkin is a guaranteed Hall of Fame player. The 31-year old remains Washington’s biggest threat. He may be tied for 42nd in NHL scoring with 26 points and he may be shooting at only 11.9 percent (he’s a career 12.4% shooter, he hasn’t finished below 12% since 2010-11), it’s still 16 goals, 26 points in 33 games and 134 shots on net. He remains an offensive machine. Ovechkin will bomb away pucks all night long, especially from the right circle on power plays. Since 2005, #8 has been Washington’s star. He remains a star and he will likely be one tonight.

The Multiple Pointed Capitals: Of course, one man does not make a team in hockey. There must be others to driving their offense. And there are. Ovechkin isn’t leading his team in scoring. It’s Nicklas Backstrom, the main distributor for many years in Washington.

Backstrom has an astounding twenty assists out of twenty-nine points as well as eleven power play assists. Backstrom isn’t shy about shooting the puck either given his 69 shots on net and his nine goals show that he’s good at that too. Curiously, Backstrom has recently played away from Ovechkin at even strength. His two wingers, though, have been quite productive. T.J. Oshie and Marcus Johansson each have ten and thirteen goals, respectively. They’re not particularly prolific at shooting the puck with 55 and 56 shots on net, respectively; but their sticks have been hot. Oshie and Johansson may not keep their shooting percentages at 17% and 23%, respectively; but they are a threat for tonight. Who’s with Ovechkin? Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been quite productive three goals, fifteen assists, and 61 shots on net; and Justin Williams, who has eight goals, five assists, and 70 shots on net. Their bottom six has not exactly lit it up – otherwise, they’d be higher up in the depth chart – but they have plenty of skill with Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Jay Beagle among them. It may not be as productive or as deep as Pittsburgh, but defending the Caps will take a lot more than just hoping Ovechkin has a quiet night.

Mind you, those are all forwards. The Capitals have received quite a bit of production from their defensemen. John Carlson has emerged as Washington’s top defenseman in terms of average ice time (23:36), shots on net (83), power play points (8), goals (3), and total points (17). Carlson is quite effective at both ends and he’s well supported in his own end by the quietly effective Karl Alzner. Another pairing for Washington has been more productive away from special teams. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov each have 15 points, respectively. While neither have been firing shots on net like Carlson, they have 63 and 49 shots on net respectively. They’re more than capable of taking a chance from distance and turning it into something. If Washington’s defensemen are able to have time and space in New Jersey’s end, then I would expect them to make the Capitals offense even more effective to stretch out an already hapless Devils defensive game plan – as if their forwards alone weren’t enough of a threat.

Support in the Back: Supplanting the Capitals’ skaters are their goaltenders Braden Holtby and Phillip Grubauer. While Holtby conceded four goals to the Islanders, he has been very good this season with a 93.7% save percentage at even strength. Penalty kills have been a bit more of an issue with only an 85.1% save percentage; but even that isn’t too bad. The backup Grubauer has been excellent as a backup. His even strength save percentage has been on par with Holtby’s and he’s been fantastic on penalty kills. With only 13 goals allowed in seven appearances, Grubauer has pretty much done anything that could be expected from a #2 goaltender. The Devils will likely see Holtby tonight and could see Grubauer this weekend. All the same, goaltending has been a positive for this Capitals team.

Just Not Hot Enough – I Guess: With all of these players performing at varying levels of success, one would think the Capitals should be higher in the standings than just fourth in the division. A 20-9-4 record is nothing to sneeze at, though. Only seven teams have compiled more standings points prior to Wednesday’s game. It just so happens that three of them are in the Metropolitan Division. This has been the season where the Capitals’ success has been matched by Columbus, Pittsburgh, and the Rangers getting and staying hot.

That said, I would not expect the Caps to fade as the season goes on. They have plenty going for them. They are a very good possession team according to Corsica. Their 5-on-5 CF% is 52.24%, the fifth highest in the NHL in all scoring situations. When the game is tied, the Caps have the best CF% in the NHL at 55.27%. When the Caps are leading, their CF% is 48.34%, which is the sixth highest in the NHL. When the Caps are trailing, they aren’t one of the best most attacking teams but their 52.24% is close to league median and far and away better than New Jersey’s league-worst 46.27% when trailing. This all means the Capitals know how to play effectively in 5-on-5 situations. Their penalty kill has been also been successful. Their success rate of 85.3% is the sixth highest in the NHL prior to Wednesday’s games with only 16 goals allowed in 109 situations. And they do not go relatively overboard with penalties as 109 shorthanded situations is the 20th most in the NHL. I’d like to think they’ll sharpen up after taking four calls in the second period on Tuesday night. In general, the Caps out-shoot and out-attempt their opposition. Combined with excellent goaltending and a talented group of forwards, the Caps are a formidable opponent.

If there’s one aspect they could be better at, then it’s the power play. It is not bad. Their success rate of 18.3% is around the league median at sixteenth overall. Again, that’s not a bad rate at all. It just is not superlative. That is kind of surprising for a team that popularized the 1-3-1 formation that many teams use on the power play, including New Jersey; and features an all-world forward Ovechkin in the right circle constantly firing away one-timers. A closer look at Corsica’s 5-on-4 team statistics shows that Washington has one of the higher SF/60 rates (ninth, to be exact) in the NHL. They have a very low shooting percentage of 9.8%. In time, this should improve and then the Caps will be even more formidable. Perhaps by then, the other teams in the division will cool off and the Caps can push their way back to the top for another shot in the playoffs.

In summary, the Caps are a really good team. The Devils are not and have been rolled over by really good teams in this past month. I do not expect much, even though I stand to be proven wrong (as always).

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils will close out 2016 with the Capitals; this is the first half of a home-and-home. At least they are not on consecutive nights. What do you think of the Devils without Hall and Fiddler? What should they do for tonight’s game to put out at least a more competitive performance? Who on the Capitals concerns you the most (is it Ovechkin)? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.