As of this morning, it’s last in the East versus first in the East tonight.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (20-20-9) vs. the Washington Capitals (32-10-6; SBN Blog: Japers’ Rink)
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV – MSG; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils hosted Los Angeles. The Devils’ start was terrible. Within the first minute, Kyle Quincey hauled down Jordan Nolan and Anze Kopitar converted the power play within seconds to make it 1-0. Within the second minute, Jeff Carter flung a puck to the slot where Tanner Pearson and Steve Santini were engaged. Santini missed the puck, Pearson turned and hit the rolling puck while falling to make it 0-2. Despite some opportunities, the Devils would go down 0-3 later in the period. Just as a penalty was expiring, Marian Gaborik had a free shot at the left side of the crease. Cory Schneider stopped it but Alec Martinez swooped in to poke in the rebound. The Devils changed goalies but struggled against the Kings throughout the rest of the night. Quincey would get the Devils on the board in the third period when a shot from the center point hit off Pearson and trickled by Peter Budaj. But the Kings controlled the game and the Devils just failing to break through again and again. The Devils lost 1-3; my recap of the loss is here.
The Last Capitals Game: On Tuesday, the Capitals were in Ottawa. The Caps were stunned as Chris Kelly managed to score a shorthanded goal early in the first period. Minutes later, Bobby Ryan tipped in a shot by Fredrik Claesson to make it 0-2. It wasn’t even five minutes into the game and the Caps were in trouble. They responded with...not much. In the second period, the whistles were more often and the Caps would pay the price for one of their fouls. Ryan Dzingel found a seam to pass the puck to Zack Smith in the slot, who redirected it past Philipp Grubauer to make it 0-3. The Caps tried to attack more but the Senators kept up with them in shots and Mike Condon stopped all 31 shots. The Capitals were shutout by Ottawa, 0-3, for their first regulation loss since December 27, 2016. Jason Rogers has this recap at Japers’ Rink.
The Last Devils-Capitals Game: The Devils hosted Washington for an afternoon game on New Year’s Eve. Early on, Tom Wilson checked John Moore from behind into the boards. Moore went down and he had to be stretchered off. Moore would be stabilized and released from the hospital, but he was diagnosed with a concussion. He has yet to play a game since then. Tom Wilson received no punishment whatsoever for hitting a man from behind.
The Devils’ performance in the game was a dumpster fire. They lost 6-2 to the Caps and that’s all I have to really say about that. Please read my recap if you want the details of how bad it was. For the other side, Becca H somehow found a way to rationalize the hit by Wilson in her recap at Japers’ Rink.
The Goal: Change something - whatever was done on Tuesday didn’t work. The Kings, who play a well-structured game and have been excellent in 5-on-5 play in this day and age, crushed them on Tuesday. They controlled the game, they dominated the neutral zone, and they kept the Devils at bay as the Devils believed that doing the same thing over and over will somehow yield different results. The Capitals do not have as high of a CF% as Los Angeles, but they’re in the top ten in the NHL at 51.3% per Corsica. They’re not just a high-scoring team, they know how to handle their business at even strength. So if the Devils think that the dump and chase is going to work, that it’s desirable to have a Luke Gazdic skating about, that it’s OK to just chip or ice pucks away, or that they can stay stationary on special teams, then they’re in for a bad time. A really bad time. Like the last Devils-Capitals game.
Alternatively, I’d like to see all of the Devils - from Taylor Hall to Damon Severson to Vernon Fiddler to Steven Santini - to play far better than they did on Tuesday. That should be obvious to anyone who watched some or all of Tuesday’s game.
Another Retro Night: Tonight is Retro Night so the Devils will be wearing their old red, white, and green uniforms. They’ll be giving away socks (and true to the 1980s, it’s limited to 9,000 fans); there will be older presentations and graphics; and a nice looking game day poster to buy. That’s all well and good and I’m sure it’ll do some good business. Me? I’d rather see the team move forward to better hockey rather than dwell on the past. Alas, that doesn’t appear to be in the cards for the 2016-17 Devils.
Maybe Welcome to New Jersey, Noesen: Yesterday, the Devils claimed Stefan Noesen off waivers. Noesen was with Anaheim, where he was making a kind of a case for a regular NHL spot. The 23-year old did appear in twelve games for the Ducks and scored two goals; he was productive in the AHL, though, so there may be something there. It’s essentially a low cost pick up for depth. According to this post by Andrew Gross at Fire & Ice, Noesen is expected to arrive in New Jersey today and play tonight. He is on the active roster; the team moved Beau Bennett to injured reserve to make room for him.
Noesen can play right wing and center. Vernon Fiddler pretty much has the fourth line center spot locked down, so he would be on the right side. I’m hopeful Noesen will mean Gazdic will be in a suit tonight. At the same time, Devante Smith-Pelly’s time in New Jersey may be up with this move - assuming Noesen plays decently. DSP may draw back in when a right wing spot open backs up, but I think the writing is appearing on the wall.
Also from Gross, Andy Greene and John Moore did skate again but they have been ruled out. Curiously, John Hynes has not named a goalie for tonight. Keith Kinkaid played very well last Friday and Saturday and again in relief of Cory Schneider on Tuesday. I don’t think all three goals by the Kings were Schneider’s fault; I think he was pulled just because of the principle of giving up three goals in the first period. I could see Hynes thinking that Kinkaid is hot right now and if the team needs anything to be competitive, it’s a hot goalie. That said, I could see Schneider getting this game so he’s not entirely cold by next week. We’ll see.
Lastly, the Devils have not made any other roster moves other than putting Bennett on IR and picking up Noesen. This means Karl Stollery and Steve Santini will remain as a defensive pairing tonight. We’ll see if they bounce back from a poor game on Tuesday.
All They’ve Done is Mostly Win: The Devils just played and lost to a Los Angeles team that was awesome in possession but were held back by a low shooting percentage. Tonight, they’ll play a team that’s quite good in possession and have thrived with a high shooting percentage. According to Corsica, the Caps have the highest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the NHL at approximately 10%. The result of that is that Washington is just under three goals per sixty minutes in 5-on-5 play. If they were more prolific shooters in 5-on-5 play, they’d probably get there. Their power play is not too shabby either. While it has not been superlative like, say, Columbus’; it’s done well enough with a success rate of 19.9% (29 for 146) - which is just above the league median according to NHL.com. It still has The One Play That Teams Still Worry About (Alex Ovechkin in the right circle) Needless to say, the Caps are an offensive machine that actually scores a lot of goals. This is a problem on paper for the Devils and it became a reality on New Year’s Eve.
What maybe gets lost among all the lamps being lit is that the Capitals just have not allowed a lot of goals. Their team 5-on-5 save percentage is the best in the NHL at 94.17% according to Corsica. The goalie stats at Corsica show that Braden Holtby has the league’s highest GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average) at 23.17. His backup Phillip Grubauer has been a solid backup with a GSAA of 4.01. Their even strength save percentages at NHL.com: 94% for Holtby and 93.1% for Grubauer. Both goalies have been very good in shorthanded situations. That has helped the Capitals’ penalty kill success rate to be ranked third in the NHL at 85.5% (25 GA out of 172 situations). The defense of the Capitals has been solid. Their SA/60 in 5-on-5 play is 28.49, which is the seventh fewest amount in the NHL per Corsica. And their SA/60 in 4-on-5 situations is the lowest in the NHL at 36.45 per Corsica. This is a Capitals team that has taken care of more than their fair share of business on defense and in net.
If that was not enough, then I have to stress that the Capitals have just lost their first game in regulation since December 27. The Caps went on a 12-0-2 run since that night. That run moved them up to first in the Metropolitan and the Eastern Conference. This is a Capitals team that has been playing very well in this season and even better in the last three weeks or so. Washington has earned the platitudes and praise that comes with such a position in the standings.
In short, the Caps are an excellent team and so this may not go well at all for a bad team like the Devils.
The Caps in 2017: Thanks to NHL.com, I can easily bracket production stats by date. Here are the Capitals players by points since January 1. Nicklas Backstrom has been on a tear with four goals and thirteen assists in his last thirteen games. Backstrom is not only the Caps’ leading scorer, but he’s tied for sixth in league scoring with 48 points. His 34 assists are second only to Connor McDavid. But the focus cannot entirely be on him. Just look at Evgeny Kuznetsov. In the last thirteen games, he has put up four goals and twelve assists. According to Left Wing Lock, Backstrom and Kuznetsov play on different lines. That he’s been recently successful will only make it harder on the Devils’ defense to try to match up against that unit. That both have been picking up so many helpers suggests they have been the straw that stirs their respective line’s drinks.
The wingers have been similarly productive. Ovechkin has shot the most pucks as that is what he does: he creates and fires away shots better than almost anyone in the world. It’s yielded him only five goals, but he has ten assists - which shows that can he do more than just bomb pucks on net. His partner on the wing, T.J Oshie, has seven goals and eight assists in the new year. He’s been a fine fit for the Caps and what’s worse for their opponents is that Oshie has recently been with Ovechkin and Backstrom. That’s a tough line as any in the NHL. Justin Williams has also emerged to be a very good winger for the Caps. Especially as of late with eight goals and five assists; usually skating with Kuznetsov. Left Wing Lock has Marcus Johansson as their recent winger, who hasn’t been as hot with the scoring but has been more than decent with a goal and six assists. Their third line features Andre Burakovsky and Lars Eller, who have been quite productive - which means the Devils will have three scoring lines to contend with.
On defense, John Carlson has been held out with injury so the top pairing is now Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner - both very good defenders in their own right. Dmitry Orlov has been quite good and Brooks Orpik has been a pain to play against. Their top four remains strong. With the possibility of Holtby starting, it’s going to be difficult for the Devils to break through. No, they’re not as stingy as the Kings, but the Capitals have proven to be more than capable of handling teams that struggle at moving the puck and maintaining possession - teams like the Devils.
No, I’m not positive about this match up knowing the Caps, player by player, have been playing rather well so far in 2017. I stand to be proven wrong, but we’ll see.
One Last Thought: Tom Wilson is that kind of player. Watch your backs, Devils. Literally.
Your Take: The Devils will play a team deserving of first in the East in the Washington Capitals tonight. What do you think will happen? Can the Devils manage to put together a better performance to hang with the Capitals tonight? How can the Devils manage to get a result out of tonight’s game - other than hoping the Caps have a bad night? Will the Caps remain this good after the All Star break? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.