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Game Preview #63: New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals

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With the Trade Deadline now past, the New Jersey Devils will begin their month’s games by visiting the Washington Capitals. This game preview shows how the Caps are stacked and the Devils aren’t.

NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
The Caps celebrating at the expense of Our Hated Rivals. I can get behind that.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Trade Deadline is over and the stretch run for the playoffs is now on. Not that the Devils will be involved in that.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (25-25-12) at the Washington Capitals (42-13-7, 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 Monday, the Devils celebrated Pride Night as they hosted Montreal. After a hard-to-watch first period where the Devils did not seem to want to embrace competency, they did get a late goal. Kyle Palmieri powered through Andrei Markov to beat Al Montoya with a wrister to make it 1-0. In the second period, the Canadiens had their own issues with puck possession and the Devils managed to attack more in response. However, the score stood. The third period was where the game’s scoring and pace picked up - and not always for the better. Early in the third, John Moore fired a low slapshot that got through traffic and Montoya. On the very next shift and eleven seconds after Moore made it 2-0, Alexander Radulov torched Cory Schneider with a wrist shot to make it 2-1. Later, Travis Zajac put home a rebound to quickly convert a power play to regain the two-goal lead. On the next shift, Max Pacioretty put home a sharp-angled rebound to make it 3-2. The Devils kept Montreal honest, but they could not maintain the lead the end of regulation. With less than a minute to play and six skaters on the ice, Pacioretty fired a shot that hit off Schneider’s side and trickled into the net for an equalizer. Overtime would be needed. It was decided after Damon Severson was assessed a minor penalty and Alex Galchenyuk rocketed a one-timer to convert said power play. The Devils lost 3-4 in OT. Devin’s recap of the loss is here.

The Last Capitals Game: Tuesday night had the Capitals visit the New York Rangers. The game was notable for not just being right before the trade deadline but also the Washington debut for one of the biggest names to be moved before said deadline: Kevin Shattenkirk. Brady Skeji spoiled things for the Caps with a first period goal. But the Caps roared back in the second period. Marcus Johansson tied up the game with a rebound goal. Brent Connolly put the Caps ahead late in the second, finishing a move that Matt Niskanen didn’t quite get all of. It’s all good when it results in a goal though. Johansson struck again early in the third period to give the Caps a cushion and the team rolled on from there. Nicklas Backstrom converted a late power play for an insurance goal. The Caps won 4-1, which I can’t hate because they beat Our Hated Rivals. Muneeb A at Japers’ Rink has this recap of the victory.

The Last Devils-Capitals Game: The Devils hosted Washington on January 26. The good news is that Tom Wilson didn’t concuss anyone and the Devils did play better than they did on New Year’s Eve against the Capitals. The bad news was the Washington made New Jersey pay dearly for their defensive errors. Kyle Quincey coughed up a puck that Alex Ovechkin took in for a score. Burakovsky was wide open in front of the net on a power play and benefited from Jon Merrill’s decision to put the puck from the corner towards from the front of the net. He scored. The then-debuting Stefan Noesen would score early in the second to make it 1-2 and give the Devils signs of hope. Then another big error would cost the Devils: the skaters just lost the plot after losing a defensive zone faceoff and Lars Eller was all alone in front of Keith Kinkaid to score a goal. Shortly thereafter, the Devils had to a kill a hooking minor by Karl Stollery. Evgeny Kuznetsov broke in, torched Steve Santini, drew a hook from Santini, and lost the puck on his stick - only for the puck to slide past Kinkaid to score. 1-4 and the game might as well have ended there. Adam Henrique scored on a power play late in the second and Damon Severson hammered the post afterwards which brought back some hopeful feelings that the Devils would make it a game. Then the third period rolled around, the Devils struggle to get much going, and Kuznetsov sealed up the loss with an empty net goal. The Devils lost 2-5. My recap of the loss is here. For the other side, here’s a recap by Muneeb A at Japers’ Rink, who noted how the Caps “out-skilled” the Devils. I can’t disagree with that assessment.

The Goal: Cut back on the errors. Without delving too deep into the data, it’s fairly known by now that the Capitals are a highly-skilled team. If not, then check out the last two Devils-Capitals games. They were both games where the Capitals just asserted their superiority in talent and structure to big wins. As the Devils learned in the last Devils-Caps game, this is a team that can and does punish opponents when they make an error. Whether it’s giving up pucks, giving up position, or giving up the game plan, they have players throughout their roster who can take advantage. If not Ovechkin and Backstrom, then Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Williams. There’s not much relief among their bottom two lines given the seasons Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky, and Jay Beagle are having. Their defensemen already included Matt Niskanen and John Carlson, now they have Kevin Shattenkirk in the mix. That’s a lot of potential danger. If only to be competitive, the Devils need to avoid making it easier for them with defensive errors. We’ll see whether they learned that lesson after getting educated in that on January 26.

The Leaders: As of the afternoon of March 1, the Washington Capitals have the best record in hockey. They are second only to Pittsburgh in goals scored, they average over three goals per game (3.32 to be exact), they average the fewest amount of goals against per game (2.03), and their success rates on both the power play (22.1%) and the penalty kill (84.1%) are top ten in the NHL. Ovechkin is starting to rise up the goal leaders with 27 scores, Backstrom is second only to McDavid for the league lead in assists with 45 helpers, and Braden Holtby is clearly a Vezina favorite with a stunning 94% even strength save percentage for this whole season so far. Good luck to a low-scoring team for trying to crack him tonight, as he’s the expected starting goalie. Their CF% is only 51.07%, which is only the eighth best percentage in the NHL per Corsica. The Capitals are your deserved leaders in the NHL. And they just added the offensive machine from the point that is Kevin Shattenkirk.

This may actually be their year to get beyond the second round of the playoffs. If not now, then when, Washington?

The New Holes for New Jersey: Mike Morreale Tweeted the following yesterday after the Devils’ practice:

P.A. Parenteau is now a Nashville Predator, so his status is moot. Jacob Josefson are going to be inactive for tonight and Saturday’s game at a minimum. This will mean another game for Blake Coleman. With Parenteau out either way, tonight could mean the debut of forward Kevin Rooney, who signed an entry level contract on Monday and was called up on Wednesday.

Kyle Quincey was sent to Columbus yesterday and Seth Helgeson was sent down to Albany. Quincey was traded for Dalton Prout, who is a right-handed defenseman who’s known for being tough, gritty, and other things that don’t really help defenses or win games. I don’t know if Prout will make his Devils debut tonight. Quincey was a healthy scratch on Monday against Montreal in anticipation of a trade and so John Moore stepped right in while Jon Merrill moved to the right side. Given that Moore scored and Merrill wasn’t an outright disaster, I don’t know if John Hynes would want to change the defensive pairings right away. It’s something to look for. And given how good the Caps have been at generating offense, we’ll get to see the defense quite a bit tonight.

The Line Matchup to Watch: New Jersey’s top line is Taylor Hall, Travis Zajac, and Kyle Palmieri. It’s going to be interesting whether the Caps go power for power, meaning Zajac will have to endure a lot of Backstrom and Hall will be opposite Ovechkin. Those are difficult matchups. However, it may not be to New Jersey’s advantage if they draw their second line. Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Williams have all performed very well this season. With a shooting percentage over 21%, Johansson’s stick is particularly hot. Kuznetsov is excellent on the puck and reads plays well; the Capitals are spoiled to have this guy follow Backstrom at center. Williams has been a possession star and more than a fine fit in D.C. It’s a tough trio to play against even if they’re not the “big names.” Fortunately for the Devils, Hall-Zajac-Palmieri isn’t chopped liver either. My point is that not drawing the Backstrom line isn’t necessarily an easier matchup for them.

The X Factor: On a defense with Niskanen, Carlson, and now Shattenkirk, it’s easy to forget that Dmitry Orlov can be an offensive threat too. The defenseman has four goals, twenty-four assists, and 95 shots on net. He’s smart at the points in deciding when to fire the puck, when to play it away, and when to make a pass to a teammate. With Shattenkirk on the team, Orlov may now have more room to attack as teams may focus on the other three defensemen mentioned. According to the lines from their recent game at Left Wing Lock, Orlov has been paired with Niskanen. That’s going to be a difficult assignment at either end of the rink. Hopefully he isn’t too free to rain on the Devils.

One Last Thought: Tom Wilson has been up with Ovechkin and Backstrom on their line in the Capitals’ recent game. Wilson concussed Moore with an uncalled boarding penalty back on December 31, 2016. Hopefully, Wilson can control his actions and if he fails at that, the referees can do a better job tonight then those refs back on New Year’s Eve.

Your Take: The Devils kick off the month of March with a game against the best team in hockey at the moment. Not ideal at any time, especially for a Devils team that lost their last four games. Do you think the Devils will able to break the losing streak tonight? If so, how? If not, can the Devils at least be competitive with a team that is seemingly stacked at every position? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.