After three games of goals and fun but not necessarily dominant play, the New Jersey Devils were handed a reality check in a 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals. It was not so much that the Devils are no longer undefeated. It is all about how poorly the Devils performed as they took this defeat.
Throwbacks remain popular in a lot of hobbies and pastimes. The New Jersey Devils decided to throw it back to 2015-16 with this performance. Dubious decisions on the puck? Check. Struggles to complete passes and make successful zone entries for stretches at a time? Check. Devils shots held in the low twenties or worse? 23 - check. Making costly errors like turnovers or penalties to undercut hopes of getting a positive result? Check. (More on this in a bit.) Players looking like they have not played with each other ever before on some shifts? Check. Not playing to the score? With a six-shot third period compared to Washington’s eight, that’s definitely a check.
It takes two to tango and so credit must be given to the Washington Capitals. The Caps played a solid all-around game. When the Devils were trying for rushes up ice towards the end of the first period, the Caps skaters did well to recover their positions and be able to make a play to stop the attack, make it less threatening, or clean it up in front of Braden Holtby. When the Devils had a power play, their penalty killers limited them to just five shots across four power plays. One shot worked out really well, but for the most part, the Capitals PK held the Devils PP in check. On the flipside, the feared Washington power play made the Devils pay for their crimes with three power play goals, including two off a double-minor that sealed the game for them. In the run of play, Washington looked prepared for what the Devils were trying to do, which seemed like throwing junk at a wall and hoping it would stick. The Caps made their passes and limited their turnovers. They looked very, very solid.
They also looked and probably are way better than the Devils’ first three opponents. It is still early in the season, but I do not think it is unfair to think that Washington is a better team in most aspects than Colorado, Buffalo, and Toronto. Whereas the Devils’ speed threw those three teams for a loop and those three teams had issues with turnovers that the Devils capitalized on and those three teams are not so defensively strong, the Capitals did not show those issues. Their offense didn’t rack up the shots like Toronto did but they didn’t need to as they scored five goals and never lost their lead. Even with Matt Niskanen gone for the latter part of the game, the Caps’ defense did its job very well - and they didn’t have a Calle Rosen to help gift the Devils some goals. Holtby is better than Andersen, Johnson, and Bernier. The Capitals are a top tier team and they played like it tonight. Therefore, the Devils could not get away with what they may have got away with in those three games.
In the larger scope of this season and a re-build, that is not such a bad reality check. OK, it was not so fun to see the Devils come within a goal of the Capitals and then lose that hope minutes later. It was not fun to see the young players on the Devils struggle instead of thrive. It was not fun to see John Moore for most of tonight. It was not fun to see the Devils take costly penalties and make costly mistakes. But improvement requires suffering some setbacks and powering through adversity to learn from mistakes. Discipline, puck possession, and decision making at both ends all stood out as issues by the Devils tonight. They are good places to start. The game tape should be studied; the experience should be seen as one that can lead to some learning.
Unfortunately for the players and the coaches, they will not have the time to do that before their next game. Fortunately, the upcoming opponents are not as good as Washington. And should the Devils provide a better result, then things will look a little more fun as the season continues.
The Opposition Opinion: Geoff Thompson has this short recap at Japers’ Rink.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Discipline Matters: A big reason why the Devils lost so definitively were their penalties. They did not just give the Capitals four power plays, which really is not a lot to allow. But, again, it’s not about what but how. These four power plays came from silly, avoidable penalties. Dalton Prout took down Washington’s Thug Tom Wilson before he can play a puck for an interference call in the first. Blake Coleman gloved the puck and made a zone exit with a sweet 360-degree move - which was accomplished by closing his hand on the puck. That is a penalty and it was ended quickly by Alex Ovechkin firing a wrister from (where else?) the right circle. In the third period, Kyle Palmieri followed up a sweet goal by taking a not-so-sweet interference penalty in the offensive zone. The Devils killed that one. Minutes later, Pavel Zacha did not control his stick well and he high-sticked Lars Eller in the face in the offensive zone. It drew blood, which drew a double-minor for Zacha. T.J. Oshie hammered in a one-timer to score in the first half of that and Nicklas Backstrom re-directed a shot-pass by Ovechkin (again) from the right circle in the second half. Two minors, two power play goals against. These penalties were not good ones to take. They did not prevent a goal or a scoring opportunity (two were in Washington’s end!). They were not ticky-tack calls from a picky referee crew. They were just dumb decisions. And the Devils paid the price big time for it.
The Palmieri interference minor and the double-minor on Zacha were especially painful. Again, Palmieri split the ‘D’ and scored on Holtby within the first minute of the third to make it a one goal game. Palmieri puts the Devils in a defensive situation shortly after making it close. And Zacha’s double minor put them in a longer one which led to the Capitals expanding their lead. After those goals, the Devils played like it was already over - mostly because it was.
The Devils were fortunate to not have penalties lead to their doom in Toronto. Tonight, the calls helped the Devils earn their first loss of the season.
What of Turnovers?: Two turnovers led to two Capitals goals tonight too. In the first period, John Moore - who had a bad game - coughed up the puck to Backstrom. Damon Severson was behind Moore and was left on an island. Severson chose to defend nobody as Backstrom set up Oshie for a great, high shot past Cory Schneider. That made it 1-0 in the first.
Late in the second period and shortly after the Devils made it 1-2, Andy Greene tosses a puck to Steve Santini behind the net. Facing some light pressure, Santini lobs the puck towards Greene - and well past him. It ends up in the corner where Evgeny Kuznetsov beat him to it. He passes it to Devante Smith-Pelly in the left circle. Smith-Pelly’s shot is touched off by Jakub Vrana in front, which trickles through Schneider. I thought it was a stoppable shot when I thought Smith-Pelly shot it himself. The deflection makes it a bit kinder, but all the same - it was a play created from another turnover which led to another goal.
There were other turnovers in both ends by the Devils that just helped Washington along. Whether it was a pass across the middle on defense that the Caps intercepted or a clearance that was denied by the blueline, the Capitals were winning pucks all over. The shot-attempts in 5-on-5 were not so out-of-control, it was a 43-37 shot-attempt count in 5-on-5 (Capitals had 43). But look at the gameflow and heat map at Natural Stat Trick. The Capitals had the edge in attempts and maintained it throughout the game. The Capitals were able to get into the high slot and in front of the net often, whereas the Devils were not able to do so much of that - certainly not as much as they did in their first three games. Why? The turnovers from poor passes, defenses by Washington, and poor decisions on the puck.
Silver Linings: Hall and Palmieri finally scored their first goals of the season. Hall has been robbed on at least one shot in each of the first three games. He slammed in a high shot past Holtby for a power play goal in the second period. The Rock lit up and Hall was exuberant. May it lead to more goals from him. Palmieri’s goal was the 100th of his career and it was largely due to powering between the Capitals defense and beating Holtby to the goalie’s right. Palmieri led the team in shots with three tonight; and both he and Hall were one of the few Devils to be present for a positive CF%. I guess you could say they contributed. If only others were able to do so.
Additionally, outside of perhaps that third goal, I do not think Schneider had a bad night. The Devils could also be credited for not giving up 50 shots again; but the Capitals did enough damage to be satisfied with 28.
Debut of Prout: Dalton Prout made his season debut tonight, replacing Mirco Mueller. I do not think Prout was all that bad, but I do not think he did so well that he deserves further minutes. Again, his penalty was not a smart one to take. That he only played 14:23 makes me think that Mueller could have done the same amount of work tonight. If you were expecting him to be a “deterrent,” well, that didn’t happen either.
Defensive Thoughts: With Prout drawing in, the pairings for most of the game in 5-on-5 hockey were Andy Greene with Steve Santini, Prout and Will Butcher, and John Moore and Damon Severson. In a word: why? Greene-Severson could have been a pairing to match up against Backstrom and Oshie or Ovechkin’s line. Greene-Santini had their hands full with Ovechkin’s line while Severson and especially Moore had some really poor shifts. The CF% may have been not bad, but the scoring chance differential show that the Caps were able to break them down several times. Moore was noticeably bad tonight. Not a lot went right for him either with the puck or in coverage; the only positive thing I can say is that he did not take a penalty. Especially when Ovechkin caught him pinching and Moore had to catch up and deny Ovechkin a strong shot. While Moore did that, he would not have had to if he did not pinch in for a puck he was not going to get anyway. Moore was limited to less than 16 minutes and that was deserved.
What I really do not get is that we saw the forwards get mixed up in the second period in the hopes of generating some kind of offensive spark. Why not the defense? When Moore was getting wrecked, then why not re-unite Greene and Severson and move Moore around could handle something.
Praise for the Opposition: Backstrom was initially reported on Twitter of being a late scratch, possibly due to being hit with a puck in warm-ups. That was an error and it was a good thing for the Capitals. Backstrom was a star with three primary assists and that third, insurance power play goal. T.J. Oshie made the Devils suffer with two goals. Ovechkin scored his ninth of the season from his usual spot. Smith-Pelly, Alex Chiasson, and Jay Beagle had a great night. John Carlson played a ton and he was good throughout the night. Those players stuck out to me and so they should because they represented how Washington played as a team tonight. They were in control, they rarely misread or lost the situation, and they executed their plays well.
An Oddity: Andre Burakovsky and Blake Coleman got into a fight during the Palmieri minor. Coleman tripped up Orlov while chasing down a dumped puck. Coleman was going to be given a boarding minor and then Burakovsky decided to throwdown with #40. The fight ensued and afterwards, Burakovsky received a two minute instigator and a game misconduct to go with that fighting major. While the Capitals won handedly, I cannot imagine the coaches were happy with that. For one, it is a power play. If the shorthanded team does something dumb, then let it go and the let the refs deal with it. Burakovsky may have received some love for “sticking up for his teammate;” he definitely wiped out a two man advantage that the Capitals could have used to really put the screws to the Devils. For another, the Capitals power play is filled with skilled players who have good hands to make plays. Why risk damaging a hand in a fight? It makes no sense to me.
The Quiet: Nico Hischier did not do much. Jesper Bratt did not do much, though he drew a slashing minor when the game was out of doubt. Zacha’s high-stick was a big reason why it was a 5-2 loss tonight. Will Butcher picked up a secondary assist on Hall’s power play goal and that was the extent of what he brought to the table. Miles Wood struggled on the puck. Steve Santini was overwhelmed at times. Stefan Noesen was just “there” tonight. I suppose Damon Severson was the best among the under-25 year old players, but again, he was held back by having John Moore as his partner.
I’m not trying to pick on the youngsters. However, as they were a significant part of the Devils’ first three wins, that they were held in check was quite noticeable amid this loss. That’ll happen over a season; players can, do, and will have bad nights. But when it’s so many of them at the same time, it cannot be ignored. Hopefully, they will learn from their errors and non-actions tonight for a better tomorrow. And I do mean tomorrow, there’s a game tomorrow night.
One Last Thought: Tom Wilson did not hit anyone from behind tonight. He’s still a thug and why he is celebrated by the Caps fans, I could not tell you. Call it a Sean Avery Effect.
Your Take: The Devils lost their first game of the season and lost it definitively to the Capitals. You know what I thought of it. What did you think of this loss? Who stood out to you? Who had a poor game in your eyes? What was the worst part of this loss? What can the Devils takeaway from this loss that they can use to prepare for Saturday night’s game against Our Hated Rivals? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s loss in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter, @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.