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Defensive Errors Dragged New Jersey Devils Down in Defeat to Washington Capitals

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While it was not the dumpster fire like the New Year’s Eve game was, the New Jersey Devils committed heinous defensive errors that led to the Washington Capitals winning 5-2. This recap goes over the errors and the Devils’ performance.

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils
Keith Kinkaid could have used some more help tonight. A lot more help.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

I have to admit that tonight’s game at the Rock between the New Jersey Devils and the Washington Capitals was better than the last one on New Year’s Eve. Tom Wilson did not concuss anyone. The Devils did not resemble a dumpster fire. The score was a little worse on that afternoon. I did not leave the game early. Most of all, there were actual stretches in this game where one could watch it and conclude that the Devils were playing competitive hockey. Now that the Devils are in last place in the East, I cannot stress enough how important that is. If only to be able to see that the team play like they could do something positive since every other opponent in the conference is now superior to them. That good things are possible. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough good things tonight. The Devils lost to the Capitals by a 2-5 final score. And a big reason for that loss were defensive errors.

Usually, goals allowed involve some kind of error by the team who gave up the goal. But they were especially bad tonight. So much so that I’m going to provide video of each of the four non-empty net goals by Washington:

Kyle Quincey coughed up the puck by the blueline to Alexander Ovechkin. Giving up the puck in that spot is never good, but that’s one of the worst people in the world to lose the puck to in that area. Ovechkin gains control to complete the steal, blew by Quincey, and torched Keith Kinkaid with a backhander. The goal was unassisted, but I believe #22 on New Jersey deserves an primary point for that one. Thanks, Quincey. This made it 0-1.

Later in the first period, the Devils were killing a high-sticking minor on Kyle Palmieri. The call itself came shortly after Palmieri had a good scoring opportunity. This when the Caps made the Devils pay for that crime. Evgeny Kuznetsov is only able to get a piece of the puck as it goes into the right corner. Jon Merrill correctly engages him. Whilst the two were physically in each other’s business, Merrill turns and fires the puck to Adam Henrique at the crease. Live, I thought, “No way.” On the replay at the game, I thought the Cap knocked it there. Nope, it was Merrill with a very dangerous pass to the crease. What happened next shows why a pass towards their own crease is dangerous. The pass gets away from Henrique and just lies by the top of the crease. Andre Burkovsky is able to take his time, collect the puck, wait for Kinkaid to make a move (dive forward), and then roof the puck into the net. Thanks, Merrill - and Henrique. The PPGA made it 0-2.

In the second period, the Devils managed to do something different and play to the score. Their efforts were rewarded to a degree. Stefan Noesen, who the Devils just acquired on waivers yesterday, slammed in a one-timer in the slot thanks to a pass by Pavel Zacha. The shot beat Braden Holtby, the score was 1-2, and the Devils kept attacking. Holtby did have to make some tough saves tonight. For several minutes, the Caps weren’t preying on the Devils. The Devils were pushing the issue and it was actually fun. They were playing at least decent hockey. Then Kinkaid freezes a puck and this happens:

I believe teams do practice what to do when they win or lose a faceoff. In this case, the Devils defensemen - Karl Stollery and Steve Santini - decide to push up along with Devante Smith-Pelly with P.A. Parenteau going out wide to his right. Vernon Fiddler is the one man back. Meanwhile, right after the draw, Lars Eller goes to the net. And he just hangs out there. Fiddler deeper than the defensemen and he doesn’t know Eller is there. The pressure at the left point forces one block, but Burakovsky recovers the puck and passes it to Dmitry Orlov. This time, Orlov gets a shot through. Fiddler kneels for a block, trying to play goaltender, and he misses. Kinkaid gets his right pad on the puck, which leaves a tiny rebound that Eller - who was open the whole time - easily puts back into the net. Thanks for the breakdown, defensive coverage. That made it 1-3.

That goal certainly took the wind out the Devils’ sails. The next one tore a hole in the sail. Karl Stollery was called for hooking on his next shift. During that power play, this happens:

Kuznetsov streaked in over the line, caught Steve Santini flat footed, went to go backhand, lost the puck because Santini hooked his right arm from behind, and it slid through Kinkaid’s legs for a power play goal. Since Santini’s hook was to be called, the Capitals were awarded a power play after that goal. Thanks, Santini. And Kinkaid because, wow, that was a terribly soft goal. I was not surprised to see Cory Schneider replace Kinkaid - who was victimized on the other three goals against by his teammates - after that goal. That mess made it 1-4. At least the Devils killed Santini’s minor penalty.

By the way, Kuznetsov did not intend to score this goal. The goalscorer on this play said this after the game, as tweeted by Mike Morreale of NHL.com:

That’s never a good feeling to see from a player that they didn’t intend to score but managed to do so and have that be the proverbial nail in the coffin.

Four goals against and all four of them featured some kind of horrid defensive error. The first was a giveaway. The second was a bad decision on the puck. The third was a collective brainfart of coverage off the puck. The fourth was just a man being beaten combined with a goaltender getting caught with legs resembling a tunnel. There were plenty of turnovers and miscues tonight. The very first shift of the game featured a giveaway right to Washington’s leading scorer, Nicklas Backstrom. But these four were the costliest errors. They didn’t look good live and they don’t look good now on video after the game is over.

The Devils did manage to generate some hope. Schneider was excellent in relief, including several difficult saves like stopping a 2-on-1 late in the third period with his split legs. The Devils’ own power plays were mostly ineffective, but they did get one success. Mike Cammalleri fired a long shot that Adam Henrique tipped in late in the second period to make it 2-4. The Devils went on a bit of a surge at the end of the second and early in the third period that really did threaten Holtby and the Caps. Damon Severson hammered the right post late in the second period and the Travis Zajac, Palmieri, and Taylor Hall line had a very strong shift. But the shots were either not on target or not fooling Holtby. Eventually, the Devils’ surge would sag and the Devils’ attacks became fewer and further between. Killing a Palmieri minor penalty (more on this later) seems about when that happened. While the Devils tried to make a late run, the Caps only sealed the game with an empty net goal. Hall lost the puck in the neutral zone, Stollery was beaten by Kuznetsov, and so Kuznetsov tucked in an easy ENG.

The sad thing is that this was a better game than the last Devils-Capitals game at the Rock. There were stretches of time in this game where the Devils looked like they could hang with the best team in the Eastern Conference. There were shifts where I thought Holtby saved the Caps’ bacon and maybe next time he won’t be able to. A comeback was not totally impossible to think of, unlike, say, Tuesday’s game. Schneider was perfect in relief so the possibility was there in the third period. And while the Caps out-shot the Devils 36-29 (attempts 54-48 for Washington), 5-on-5 shots were pretty even at 26-25 (as were attempts, 40-43 for Washington) - the Caps didn’t lock the game down. The shot differential just speaks to how the Capitals definitely won their special teams situations and that the Devils continued to struggle there. My point is that there some silver linings to this one outside of some obvious ones like Noesen scoring a goal in his debut and not getting shutout. This wasn’t a beatdown like New Year’s Eve was. That said, the Devils paid dearly for their errors tonight, they earned this ‘L’, and so they enter the All-Star Weekend last in the East.

The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The NHL.com Shift Charts | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats | The HockeyStats.ca Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Muneeb Alam at Japers’ Rink has this recap stating that the Caps’ “out-skilled” the Devils. That’s one way of putting it. I’d rather link to something he usually tweets out.

It’s a 5-on-5 Corsi chart broken down by common matchups. Basically, Hall, Zajac, and Palmieri really did perform well until the third period. The line of Cammalleri, Henrique, and Miles Wood performed very poorly - especially against Kuznetsov’s line. No, this chart doesn’t really get into horrid turnovers or special teams. But it shows how the general run of play went. Check it out for a different perspective from what Natural Stat Trick and HockeyStats.ca has for their games.

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid: At 6:52 into third period, Brooks Orpik leveled Hall with a check in open-ice. The hit was so hard, Hall’s stick broke. This led to a melee as Palmieri jumped Orpik for the crime of throwing a legal and hard hit in hockey. Tom Wilson interjected as a third man in the fight. A crowd formed and it took some time for everything to be sorted out by the referees. Wilson was given a game misconduct for being a third man in the fight. That should be even more evidence that he’s That Kind of Player. Orpik received five minutes for fighting. Palmieri received two for instigation, five for fighting, and a game misconduct. The result was a power play for Washington, which undercut whatever the Devils were trying to do to get back into the game at the start of the period.

Do recall that Zajac, Hall, and Palmieri were playing very well in 5-on-5 action tonight. Palmieri himself had four shots on net tonight, tying Hall for the team lead tonight. Also recall that Palmieri is one of the team’s scoring wingers and he would need to be present in any attempt to make a comeback. His actions took himself out of the game, the instigation penalty set back attempts at a comeback, and Hall and Zajac weren’t as dominant with other wingers for the rest of the game. I’m not saying that Palmieri remaining in the game would have guaranteed a tied game or a third goal, just that he could have been crucial for such an effort because he was otherwise having a productive game. All for what? To protect Hall after Orpik did something entirely legal? Something not dissimilar to what Hall did to Jannik Hansen back in December? He didn’t need to do any of that fighting then and it dashed whatever faint hopes the Devils had in getting back in the game.

The Debut of Noesen: Stefan Noesen was acquired on waivers yesterday and showed up in New Jersey today to play on a line with Pavel Zacha and Jacob Josefson. It went fairly well. Obviously, the highlight was his goal. It was a very nice finish from a very nice pass by Zacha. The rest of his night was not too shabby. While he only had one other shot on net himself, the play was usually going in the right direction when he was on the ice. He showed no issue in getting in defenders faces or going in deep for pucks. I watched him at right wing and thought, “Sergey Kalinin and Smith-Pelly may be watching their replacement here.” I’d like to see more from him, of course, but it was a good debut.

Speaking of DSP, I thought he had a more active night. I think the recent scratchings sent him a message and so he pushed to be more involved on offense. He did have three shots on net, he did go to the net with pace, and he wasn’t a total liability on defense. He was part of the unit on the ice for Eller’s goal, but DSP wasn’t really the problem on that goal. If he can play like this a bit more often, then I think it may give him an edge in getting games over Kalinin. Given that DSP (or Kalinin) have not been consistent, I’m not terribly confident we’ll see that consistency.

A Non-Woeful Defenseman: Ben Lovejoy was the most solid, reliable defender for the Devils tonight. Jon Merrill wasn’t awful at even strength; but Lovejoy would get an edge if only for not contributing to a goal against tonight. He also did not panic when a forecheck would come - though the Devils’ “pass in the defensive zone” edict is more coaching than anything else. Lovejoy handled his business well, he didn’t take any penalties, and he didn’t have to do so. This was a good game for him. It should be pointed out for reference in future performances.

Pinching: What made Quincey and Stollery look worse amid their errors tonight were some of their pinch-ins. There were shifts on offense where Quincey and Stollery would go in deeper from the point and either A) not get the puck, B) have the puck and lose it, or C) not make themselves an option. When that happened, the Devils’ attack would just fade and the Caps would try to make a counter-attack. A couple of 2-on-1 situations directly arose from them and Kinkaid and Schneider had to be excellent to stop both of them. That no other Devil rotated to take their spot when they made their move suggests that they didn’t expect such a decision. That may point to some deeper issues (for example, communication on-ice) that John Hynes and his staff would need to remediate as soon as possible.

The Kuznetsov Factor: Sure, Ovechkin had four shots and a highlight-reel worthy goal where Quincey looks like a pylon of sorts. Sure, Holtby made plenty of tough saves as the Devils did generate more than a few scoring chances. But the star of the night was Evgeny Kuznetsov. With a whopping eight shots on net, the Devils had little answer for him. Henrique, Wood, and Cammalleri didn’t have one. Neither did Damon Severson, Quincey, Stollery, or Santini. He scored two goals, so he made his mark on the scoreboard. He led his line to a such w win in his match-up that I’m now wondering why Hynes didn’t change it. Kuznetsov did not get mentioned among the three stars from tonight’s attending media; I thought he deserved one over Burakovsky.

A Theme Night: Oh, it was also Retro Night. Me and 8,999 of my fellow fans got socks, heard a lot of 80s and 90s music, witnessed a heavily video-game referenced introduction, and saw the Devils in their red, white, green uniforms as they played defense like it was the 1980s at times. So there was all that.

One Last Thought: While he did not pick up a point, Hall demonstrated why he’s going to the All Star Game in my mind. When he was on the ice, he took plenty of initiative with the puck. He controlled the puck well for most of the night, often turning what would have been nothing from other lines into something going forward. He was good at carrying the puck into the zone, he was good at finding his teammates when they were open, and he did all of this while skating fast enough to force the Caps back. Hall can do this on most nights. No one else on the Devils has really done so on a consistent basis. Therefore, he was a standout despite not getting on the scoresheet.

Your Take: The Devils lost another game at home and secured last in the East and 28th in the NHL ahead of the All Star Weekend. At least this game had portions of competitiveness. Anyway, I want to know what you thought about tonight’s loss. Which of the four goals against had the worst defensive error in your opinion? What could and should have the Devils done differently? Is there anything the Devils can fix ahead of their next game on Tuesday? Will you watch Hall this weekend? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s loss.

Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with the site’s account (@AAtJerseyBlog). Thank you for reading.