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Game Preview #53: New Jersey Devils vs. Washington Capitals

The New Jersey Devils return home to play someone they haven't seen since October: the league-leaders, the Washington Capitals. This game preview goes into who's back for NJ and how good the Caps are (spoiler: extremely).

The last Devils-Capitals game didn't end so well.  Oh, and Palmieri missed this puck.
The last Devils-Capitals game didn't end so well. Oh, and Palmieri missed this puck.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I have the flu.  It sucks. Hockey never stops. Let's get to it.

The Time: 1:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (26-20-6) at the Washington Capitals (36-9-4; SBN Blog: Japers' Rink)

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday, the Devils went up to Toronto to play the Maple Leafs. Their last trip up there yielded a shootout loss.  Would it happen again?  It looked good early on when Jacob Josefson beat James Reimer on a stoppable shot to convert a power play.  It took a step back when Shawn Matthias was able to get a pass at the crease to re-direct it past Keith Kinkaid's right flank.  The game moved fast and frequent, with Kinkaid and eventually Reimer seeing lots of rubber.  As spotty as the Devils looked, they would go up again in the third period thanks to David Schlemko. The Devils were holding on well until Toronto pulled Reimer early. Tyler Bozak tied it up with 17:54 to go. Overtime would be necessary.  However, that solved nothing. A shootout was needed and only goal would solve it: and it was a goal by P.A. Parenteau.  The Devils lost 2-3 via the shootout.  So, yes, it did happen again.  Alex graciously stepped in on Thursday night and wrote the recap of that loss. You can read that here.

The Last Capitals Game: The Capitals hosted the Islanders on Thursday while the Devils were up in Toronto.  Things looked good for the visitors when Mikael Grabovski scored early in the first period. T.J. Oshie provided the equalizer later in the first period thanks to a sweet feed by Nicklas Backstrom. The score held for the period.  Shortly after a power play, Andre Burakovsky scored his fifth goal in four games to put the Caps up 2-1.  The Isles would have an answer in the third period.  Josh Bailey would score to make it 2-2.  Late in the third period, the Caps would go up again thanks to Alex Ovechkin firing a one-timer from the slot past Jaroslav Halak.  The end of the game was exciting in that John Carlson flung a puck over the glass in his own end and the team's penalty killers scrambled to close out the game.  They succeeded; the Caps won 3-2.  Jason Rogers has this recap at Japers' Rink.

The Last Devils-Capitals Game: The Devils played the Capitals in their second game this season, way back on October 10, 2015.  The game did not get off to a good start.  During the Devils' first power play, Jason Chimera scored a shorthanded goal to make it 0-1.  Minutes later, Brooks Orpik was all alone in the high slot.  Pass from Tom Wilson, shot, 0-2 Capitals.  The Devils would have a response.  On the next shift, Adam Henrique got sprung for a breakaway by Jiri Tlusty. Henrique beat Braden Holtby to make it 1-2.  Before the end of the first, the Devils would get another power play and Eric Gelinas converted it to make it 2-2.   Not bad.  The Devils struggled to get going in the second period, but the Caps didn't exactly wow the Verizon Center with their own play.  The third period would be New Jersey's downfall that evening.  Ovechkin posterized John Moore and then Kinkaid with a move to make it 2-3.  Ovechkin piled in his own rebound off a painful block by John Moore. The puck stayed out, but Marcus Johansson put it into the net amid the scrum to make it 2-4.  Late in the game, despite killing a penalty, Kinkaid was pulled for an extra skater. This didn't work.  Matt Niskanen converted a power play ENG to make it 2-5.  There would be one last bit of consolation. With Kinkaid pulled again, Michael Cammalleri moved a puck towards Holtby and Chimera was the last one to touch it.  The O.G. was only for show; the Devils lost 3-5.  My recap of the loss is here. For the opposition's side, ThePeerless had this recap at Japers' Rink.

The Goal: Play a slower game.  Alex noted in the last two Devils' games that the pace of the game was really brisk.  While the up tempo hockey may have been enjoyable - especially in a rivalry game - it may not have been to New Jersey's benefit.  With the Capitals boasting so much offensive talent, I don't think they can hang with them if the game becomes a race.  The Devils should try to slow the game down to minimize the opportunities the Caps will try to generate - especially in the neutral zone.  Of course, given that today's opponent hasn't even lost double-digit games in regulation yet, that's a lot easier said than done.

The Secondary Goal: Keep this game at evens.  The Caps aren't exactly a dominant possession team (though the 2015-16 Devils seemingly can make any team look like one).  What's more concerning is their league leading +31 goal differential at evens. Still, I'd rather have a mostly 5-on-5 game even with lots of no-calls.  Why? The Capitals' power play is still fierce.  Their 25% conversion rate is the highest in the NHL. Their 38 collective PPGs also leads the league. They have one of the most obvious set-ups in the NHL for years and no one can stop it.  Of course, that's Ovechkin taking a one-timer from the right circle.  Washington's penalty kill is also highly rated at 84% (fifth best in the NHL) so it's not likely the Devils can keep up if the game comes down to who's power play can be better.  Discipline has been an annoying issue all season with the Devils; today would be a great day to exercise it.

Whew: Cory Schneider was held out of Thursday's game.  The good news is that Tom Gulitti confirmed he's A-OK and will start today's game against Braden Holtby per this post at Fire & Ice. Schneider could have a lot of work today, so seeing that he's fine and starting is always good.

Uh?: According to Gulitti's post from Friday's practice, it appears the only change to the skaters for today would be Reid Boucher playing with Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri; and Sergey Kalinin lining up with Jacob Josefson and Tyler Kennedy.  What I don't get is that it appears Damon Severson is the odd man out again on defense.  I know I've been sick and I didn't recap the last two games.  However, I saw enough of them to know that Eric Gelinas' play has been very poor and, while he's not getting owned, Seth Helgeson only goes one way.  I get that the coaching staff wants to send a message to Severson, but I'm not sure how that can get sent with Gelinas losing pucks and making bad reads?

The Washington Team Stats: Let's keep it simple. The Capitals have the best record in the NHL right now. They also have the best goals per game average at 3.29.  They have the second lowest goals against per game average at 2.24 (that's lower than New Jersey). As mentioned earlier, their power play is the most productive and successful in the NHL right now. Their penalty kill definitely isn't a weakness as their success rate of 84% is the fifth best in the NHL.  Their shots for and against per game aren't among the league's best, but they're all good with the former being 30.7 (eighth best) and the latter being 28.7 (ninth lowest).   As also mentioned earlier, their CF% isn't dominant at 50.3% but with hot sticks and great goaltending, they have the league's best goal differential at even strength at +31.  Needless to say, they are an elite team this season.

The Scary Thing....Washington Player Stats: For years, you didn't have to look up Washington's leading scorer.  It's Alex Ovechkin.  The hard-shooting, high-volume, do-it-all winger just dominated the scorer's sheets for years.  Maybe Nicklas Backstrom - his usual center - comes close.  Ovechkin is indeed the team's leading goal scorer with 29 goals out of 239 shots. Yet, he's only got fourteen assists so he's just tied for twentieth in league scoring. Backstrom is indeed ahead of him with five additional points.  But he's not even the team's leading scorer.

It's Evgeny Kuznetsov.  The 23-year old forward has blown up this season.  He's not a prolific shooter but 108 shots isn't so bad.  Scoring fifteen goals on them sure helps.  It's all about the set-ups and Kuznetsov has 36 assists.  He's currently sixth in the NHL in scoring.  Combined with Andre Burakovsky - whose stick is hot right now with five goals in his last four games - the Capitals actually have future contributors going.  In Kuznetsov's case, he could be a star quite soon.

For today, this will make life very difficult for New Jersey.  Kuznetsov and Burakovsky have been on a different line from Ovechkin and Backstrom. With each of those lines complemented by solid veterans having solid seasons (T.J. Oshie for Backstrom; Justin Williams for Kuznetsov), the Devils will have to hope their skaters can play a smart game.  Not even the bottom six will provide much of a chance to breathe per Left Wing Lock. Jason Chimera has done well in those spots all season; Tom Wilson likes to go rough-housing (my understanding is that the Isles got really salty at him on Thursday); Mike Richards is trying to reclaim his career, which means he's going to be a pain too.

Defensively, the Caps' D will likely be led by Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner.  Niskanen has a fairly solid offensive game to go with his Greene-like defending.  Alzner is, well, also like Greene in that he's an iron man for the squad. John Carlson definitely knows how to rip it and the Devils will probably see plenty of him.  They'll have to be aware of him and Niskanen, particularly on power plays. Nate Schmidt's production isn't that impressive, but he's growing into a good hand for the blueline.

Lastly, there's Holtby.  He's played an impressive forty games and he's posted a 93.6% save percentage at even strength and a 88.6% save percentage on the penalty kill. Those are also impressive numbers.  He's been as much a part of Washington's success this season as anyone's.  He will not be easy to beat at all.

The scary thing is that the sum of the parts to this team appears to add up to an elite team.  And I don't know what's going to stop them short of some rotten luck.

One Last Thought: That doesn't mean I don't think the Devils have a chance today.  They did beat Dallas back when they were the top team in the West.  Just that it will take a great performance, a great gameplan, great execution, and some luck to do it.  The Capitals are for real.  There's no shame in my opinion if this turns out ugly.

Besides, the two games after this are more important to me.  Especially the one on 2/9.

Your Take: The Devils will take on their most challenging opponent to date this season - again. What do you think will happen?  Can the Devils find a way to get a result against Washington? How?  Who do you think needs to have a strong game - other than Schneider - for that to happen?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today's game in the comments.  Thanks again to Alex for filling in on Thursday. Thank you for reading.