Tonight, the New Jersey Devils made sure that they weren’t going to have the Washington Capitals walk all over them. No, sir. They were going to make as many shifts as possible feel as uncomfortable as wearing a wool sweater on a summer afternoon. And the Caps had a similar thought, which is understandable since they’re seemingly great at everything this season. What transpired at the Verizon Center was a sterling example of low shooting hockey. The Devils were held to a massive 15 shots, while the offensive machine that are the 2016-17 Capitals were kept to only 24. It wasn’t as if both teams were just collective failures at setting up offenses. Both sides did their best to keep active sticks in passing and shooting lanes, get bodies in the way of shots, and just manage to disrupt the other side. As a result, Cory Schneider and Braden Holtby had to be more concerned about the attempts that didn’t get to them than the ones that did.
Unfortunately, one goal went past Cory Schneider - and it was the only goal in the entire game. It came on Washington’s third power play of the night; the result of a tripping call on Damon Severson. It was an opportunistic play. John Carlson tried to feed Evgeny Kuznetsov in the slot while Jakub Vrana lurked more and more to the crease behind the PK unit. The puck bounced around amid the traffic in the slot and just slid out into space at the top of the crease. Vrana took it and had Schneider dead-to-rights. That converted the power play and it was enough to secure the win since, again, the Devils were held to such a
Special teams didn’t just provide the means for victory tonight, it also provided a respite for the lack of shots generated by a team that boasts Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, and more. Of the 24 shots on net, ten came in non-even strength situations for the Caps. Their five power play situations yielded nine shots, including Vrana’s goal. Their penalty kill generated a shot and, in a way, ensured this win. The Devils had four power plays tonight, including a four-minute 5-on-4 situation late in the third period. Brett Connolly was given a slashing minor and reacted to it in a damaging way. But the Devils were unable to take any real advantage on this and their other power plays tonight. Whereas the Caps were able to make the Devils sweat and ultimately pay for one of their penalties, the Devils barely made Holtby work with a mere two shots on net across all of their power plays. That four minute situation was a tantalizing time for the Devils to equalize the game or at least come close to it. The Caps’ penalty killers were so on point that you wouldn’t have guessed that the Devils had the hottest power play in the league last month from how the power play units looked tonight. Special teams made the difference in this one.
Strange as it may seem, I’m weirdly fine with how this game turned out. Granted, the last two Devils-Caps games were a blowout loss on New Year’s Eve and a blowout loss in January. They were akin to a superstar throwing a jobber around for a while and then just taking the win. While the offensive effort felt like trying to squeeze blood from a stone, the Devils made sure to be more careful with the puck, be quick about recovering when things go awry, and to be supportive on defense. If the Devils intended to show they can have a less error-filled performance like the last Devils-Caps game, then they demonstrated that. If the Devils wanted to grind out a game against a superior talented team, then they achieved that. If the Devils wanted to keep things close against a top tier team, then they absolutely did that. I know those are all rationalizations for a 0-1 defeat and the team’s fifth straight loss. With this season effectively over for New Jersey, I’ll take my small victories where I can find them. Not getting routed by the Capitals again and doing so with their gameplan counts for that in my opinion.
18 games to go.
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: Jason Rogers recapped the game at Japers’ Rink and the headline uses the word “Vranamatopoeia.” Yep.
The Best Non-Goalies Tonight: Of course, Schneider and Holtby played well tonight. The goalies are usually good in games that end 0-1. They each didn’t see a lot of shots come at them, but they stopped all that they could, including a couple of tough ones. So let’s discuss the skaters.
In my view, I was most impressed with a defenseman from each team. Matt Niskanen played a very strong game for the Capitals. The Devils took a total of two shots on net when Niskanen was on the ice in all 21:07 tonight. While that’s also a credit to the other guys he was out there, Niskanen absolutely took care of business in his own end of the rink. As for the Devils, I’m surprised I’m writing this, but I think Jon Merrill played an awesome game. He looked like a defenseman who could actually take on a significant amount of minutes tonight. Merrill cleaned up loose pucks, he made his exits count, he didn’t have to throw his body in the way to make plays, and his positioning was generally sound. While he is by no means an offensive player, he did create one of the few open scoring chances for the Devils when he sprung Miles Wood with a long pass through the neutral zone. Merrill was excellent for the Devils tonight. This isn’t to denigrate Dmitry Orlov, Steve Santini, Andy Greene, or Carlson. I just thought Niskanen and Merrill were above the rest of the skaters on each side.
As for forwards, it’s surprising that Ovechkin, Williams, Marcus Johansson, and so forth didn’t do a whole lot of damage. The goal scorer, Vrana, also led the team in shots with four; he was a part of Washington’s most effective line in 5-on-5 play; and he maximized the ten-ish minutes he played. On the Devils, I’m loathe to name a forward as being the best in a 15-shot performance. Miles Wood actually wasn’t a black hole for possession and had one of the team’s best scoring chances tonight. However, he took two penalties, including a really stupid cross-checking penalty within the last two minutes of a one-goal game with Schneider pulled. How about this: I’ll leave that for you to decide.
The Worst Players: In 5-on-5 play, the Capitals out-shot the Devils 14-11. Ten of those shots took place with John Moore on the ice. While it’s not all on Moore, he’s had high SA/60 rates with the Devils last season and this season. Nights like this remind me of those facts; that oppositions just fire away when #2 is out there. Yes, his teammates weren’t so helpful, but he managed to be the only player on the ice to witness ten shots either for or against them in 5-on-5 play. As for the Caps, well, Tom Wilson did draw a call in the first period, took a retaliatory penalty in the second that reminded the world that he’s a big jerk, and really didn’t do much in between. Amazingly, he was with Ovechkin and Backstrom. OK. Whatever works, Caps.
The Picky Refs: Dan O’Halloran and Kelly Sutherland called a very weird game tonight. They let some pretty clear fouls go, such as Michael Cammalleri tripping a Cap late in the second period. But then they would make a clear call, such as giving Tom Wilson a roughing minor for running over Cammalleri from behind after that non-call. I got the sense that they didn’t know what they wanted between being stern and relaxed about the rules. I wouldn’t say that the calls they made were poor calls; just some of the non-calls - even if that benefited New Jersey a few times.
I did feel bad for when Holtby accidentally trapped O’Halloran into the back of the net at the start of the third period.
The Debut of Rooney: Kevin Rooney went from being an AHL player to a NHL contract and making his NHL debut in this season. He won’t forget this one. Rooney was protected as he centered a fourth line for 9:20 tonight. The good news is that the run of play was positive when he was on the ice. The not as good news is that not a whole lot happened by Rooney or that line. He wasn’t bad, but he didn’t do anything to make himself stand out either. It was OK.
The Next Potentially Injured Devil: In the third period, during a delayed penalty call on Joseph Blandisi for foolishly and unnecessarily taking down Orlov while chasing down a puck, Michael Cammalleri went into the side boards hard with his right shoulder. Cammalleri went right to the locker room. Cammalleri did take to the ice and played one more shift during the Devils’ waste of a four minute power play for 1:04. Then Cammalleri did not return for the rest of the game. When the penalty ended, the game was near the end of regulation and then there was a penalty kill shortly after that. I do not know whether that was by decision or because he was still hurt.
A Different Perspective: If you want a positive slant on this game, then you should see this game with a tanking perspective. To that end, this was great. The Devils didn’t get hammered by Washington and, more importantly, didn’t pick up any points in the process. Zero results mean zero additions to their lead over Carolina and Detroit in the Eastern Conference standings. Those teams were off, but Buffalo won tonight (over Arizona, who nobody is catching, so that’s OK) so the Devils are now three points behind the team ahead of them. That kind of help is good for those who want the Devils to get as low as possible. Losing streaks won’t last forever, but other teams pulling away will keep the Devils from going in the wrong direction if/when they win.
Bold: After Wood’s cross-checking penalty, John Hynes pulled Schneider for an extra skater while the Caps were trying to breakout on their power play. Amazingly, the Devils didn’t pay for that decision. A couple of key blocks, a miss at the empty net by Ovechkin, and the Devils tried to scramble late for a chance. They did get an offensive zone faceoff with ten seconds to go, but they couldn’t generate anything after said draw. Although I wish he pulled Schneider when the Devils at least had the puck on their stick, I have to credit Hynes for at least making an effort for the equalizer.
In Retrospect: This game could be summed up for the Devils with a shift in the first period. Near the end of the first period, the Zajac line pinned back the Caps. A Capital lost their stick and the Devils kept the puck in play so much that they changed lines. The good news is that the pressure continued until Brooks Orpik tripped Devante Smith-Pelly behind the net. The bad news is that during all of that pressure, the Devils didn’t register one clean shot on net. Every attempt was deflected away, blocked by someone, or missed the net. If I’m wrong, then whatever shot Holtby did save wasn’t particularly dangerous and/or memorable. In retrospect, I should taken that shift as a sign that it wasn’t going to be the Devils’ night to score.
One Last Thought: No, seriously, the Devils had the hottest power play in the NHL in February. The Capitals penalty killers were great, but the Devils’ power play units just looked lost tonight. Clearly, they have cooled off.
Your Take: The Devils were defeated by a score of 0-1 to Washington for their fifth straight loss. I’m strangely not that torn up by it; that’s because this season is lost anyway so it’s a whole lot of whatever at this point. That’s my perspective at the moment. What’s yours? How do you see this loss? What did you think of the Devils performance? Who was the best non-goaltender in your eyes tonight? What, if anything, can the Devils do to improve their performance for Saturday’s game in Boston? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.