Taylor Hall is the most talented skater on the New Jersey Devils. Taylor Hall is a star. No, Taylor Hall is a superstar. What is the difference? Popularity is usually cited as one. Being among the best in the world is more common. But there’s that special something that sets some players apart from the rest - and that something isn’t totally out of nowhere. Taylor Hall displayed something special that gave the New Jersey Devils a 4-3 overtime win over the Washington Capitals.
In overtime, Washington took possession. They missed a shot on net. They tried to recover. T.J. Oshie sent a Evgeny Kuznetsov dump around the boards. Sami Vatanen hustled to chip that puck past Dmitry Orlov. Taylor Hall, charged after the loose puck. With just one hand, he knocked it ahead past Kuznetsov. Hall had no one else in front of him. He collected the puck, he settled it as he darted towards the net, and just before Orlov could even touch him and just as Hall left the right circle, he roofed the puck over Braden Holtby’s glove. This was all in one fluid motion. This was like watching the AI player in a video game just take over. This was glorious. This was beautfiul. This was the sort of play where you just tell anyone and everyone around you that they just saw a superstar move. Superstars make superstar moves. Hall is that special. And even if you want to quibble about whether he’s a “True Superstar,” then you can surely agree with this: Adam Larsson would never score that goal.
That goal didn’t just get me hyped. I stayed hype all the way to the keyboard and while I’m typing this recap. Hall’s overtime winner was not just a gorgeous overtime winning goal. It made it a rare Devils win over the Washington Capitals. The Devils have not beaten the Capitals in New Jersey since April 4, 2014. The Devils have not beaten the Capitals at all since December 29, 2016. After a big 4-1 win that ended a winless streak and gave the Devils their first regular season victory ever in Brooklyn, the Devils ended another run of futility. Tonight was a recently rare win over Washington. Now the Devils have won in two in a row and could get a streak going with another measure of revenge on Saturday.
The OT winner also salvaged what could have been a heartbreaking result. The Devils went into the third period against the Capitals with a 3-2 lead. That it went to overtime was a bit of a shame. Allow me to provide some context.
Up until that third period, the Devils played a fabulous game against the Caps. The Devils ended the second period with only eleven shots allowed and 25 shots on net. While it was a one-shot game, the Capitals struggled to even get a shot when they were able to go forward. Washington was coming off their bye week and inclement weather yesterday denied them a chance to practice. Still, they were (more than) well-rested and able to connect passes and such. But the Devils were just superior in making defensive plays, disrupting movements in the neutral zone, and denying opportunities before they were even realized. Those wins in their end and in the neutral zone led to a myriad of offensive opportunities for pretty much the entire roster. Every unit got something going at some point. The only real fault after two periods was that Keith Kinkaid probably should have stopped Orlov’s shot in the second period and that the Devils’ power play was lacking in both power and plays. Still, holding a very talented team to so few shots while giving them all kinds of fits in their own end is impressive. At one point, the Devils were up 31-15 in shots. That’s how dominant the play was at times.
However, things faded in the third period. The Devils’ offense started to struggle to put pucks on target. Granted, the Caps started getting in the way to turn potential shots into misses. And as time went on, the Devils had to go a bit conservative to avoid being caught out by the Caps. But those Capitals were able to pin the Devils back for a few shifts. There, they looked more like the Washington team that decisively beat the Devils twice this season. There weren’t too many of those shifts, but one did them in. The team had opportunities for a clearance and they failed. The last one, I think, was by Drew Stafford. This was notable as he was slow to get to Brent Connolly in the slot when Kuznetsov threaded a pass to him. Connolly wired a low wrister in to make it 3-3 with less than four minutes remaining. The Caps started to threaten a bit more as the Devils were sort of trying to play out the game. I know I feared the Capitals getting a fourth goal. I held my breath with Matt Niskanen fired an open and high shot at Kinkaid with less than thirty seconds. Kinkaid made the stop then. Still, what could have been a big regulation win had to go to overtime where it was up for grabs. And in OT, seeing Washington win the draw and attack first made me nervous.
That nervousness was transformed into euphoria thanks to Pavel Zacha, Sami Vatanen, and Taylor Hall. Zacha got onto Oshie to force Oshie to just keep that puck moving. Vatanen, who was great tonight, made a great hustle play to knock the puck past Orlov along the boards. That led to Hall displaying greatness like few can do in this world in this sport. Those down feelings from a not-so-hot third period and a lost lead made watching that play be even more glorious. Hall alone did not win the game, but Hall alone made it a win. That’s what superstars can do.
The Opposition Opinion: A short recap by Geoff Thompson is available at Japers’ Rink. Here is a key part of it:
The Devils were the quicker team all night and their speed led to offensives opportunities. Washington was outshot by their hosts 31 to 19 through regulation.
He’s right. The Devils were able to get onto more pucks and they were able to dictate the pace of the game for most of regulation.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Three Breakaways, Three Goals: Breakaways, be they fully-clear-to-the-net or partial-guys-behind-you-while-going-one-on-one, can be big moments in games. They don’t always happen in games. The Devils were able to get three of them tonight and all three were goals against an excellent goaltender in Braden Holtby.
First, and perhaps most surprising, Drew Stafford got a breakaway and scored. Orlov whiffed on a puck and Marcus Johansson collected it. Stafford was in between two Caps and Johansson hit him in stride. Devante Smith-Pelly almost caught Stafford, but the veteran winger had inside position on him and warded him off. Stafford went towards his left and beat Holtby with a backhander to make it 1-0 in the first period. It was a great pass by Johansson and an even better effort by Stafford, who is certainly not fast. It was a lovely move all the same. If it wasn’t for how the equalizer was scored, I think there would be more praise for Stafford. In any case, I think he’s safe to play for another night.
Second, Devils had to kill a Brian Boyle instigator penalty and Miles Wood served the minor. After the penalty was killed, the Devils were under some pressure and so the puck was iced. What happened next was a rare occurrence. Nico Hischier won the draw and the puck came back to Vatanen. Wood and Brian Gibbons charged forward as Vatanen lofted the puck ahead. Normally, this sort of thing is just to give the Devils some space and maybe get a couple fresh guys on. But this puck dropped right into the neutral zone behind and in between Orlov and Niskanen. Wood with space in front of him and a chance at the puck? You know he went right for it. Wood blazed ahead of Orlov, fired a low shot, and Holtby only got a piece of it as the puck bounced into the net. Wood getting a one-on-one is not so rare. Wood scoring on a one-on-one is less common. This goal came after a Devils icing, which is also not common. The goal made it 3-1, which was great until Orlov made it 3-2 about fifteen seconds later.
Third, Hall’s overtime winner! Let’s see it again!
In any case, the breakaways broke the right way for the Devils tonight. That’s big.
Big Time Performances: Hall did not just score an OT winning goal that makes me overrate his night. No, Hall was great again in the run of play. The line of Hall, Hischier, and Jesper Bratt was very successful at out-attempting and out-shooting their opposition. They also created the non-breakaway Devils goal tonight. In the second period, Hall gained the zone, protected the puck away from Alexander Ovechkin, and just sent a puck towards the net. The puck hit off a defender tied up with Hischier. It caromed right to a cutting Andy Greene. Greene tucked a shot under Holtby’s left armpit for a goal that made it 2-1. A fortunate bounce, yes, but Hall picked up the primary on that one. In terms of shots, Hall had four, Hischier had five (!), and Bratt had one. That line was commonly going against Brooks Orpik and Madison Bowey tonight and they crushed them with eleven attempts and seven shots in 5-on-5 play compared to one Caps attempt and no Caps shots against. Hall made the superstar move in OT, but the line as a whole was great.
Speaking of wildly disparate attempt differentials, the third pairing of Ben Lovejoy and Will Butcher was excellent. They both snuffed out a lot of potential danger. I feel bad for Butcher in that Brett Connolly’s first goal came off a long Oshie shot deflecting off his skates. That was just a bad break. But in terms of moving the puck forward and making stops in 5-on-5 play, the pairing was very efficient.
I really thought Vatanen had a great night in both ends as well. It was not an accident that he was the first defenseman on the ice for New Jersey in overtime. He played a great game next to Greene, who was not at all too bad what with his goal and all. While the attempt differential was small (13 for NJ to 12 against NJ), the shot differential was much larger (11 shots for NJ, 4 against NJ). He picked up three assists, he played in all situations, and he was great in one-on-one defending. The defensive effort in general was very good, but the play of Butcher-Lovejoy and Vatanen really stood out among the blueline.
As a whole, I want to give a lot of love to the penalty kill. The Devils gave the Capitals five power plays. Giving Alexander Ovechkin ten minutes with one fewer defending player on the ice is never a good idea. While some of those calls were weak (e.g. Damon Severson tripping Tom Wilson, who fell down easy), they were prime opportunities for the Caps to get back in the game or at least get some offense going. The grand total: five shots on net and no goals. Ten minutes out of five opportunities and the Devils limited them to just one mere shot per opportunity on average. Everyone on the PK did their job and did it well. From Brian Gibbons and Ben Lovejoy to Pavel Zacha and Nico Hischier to John Moore and Travis Zajac and all of the rest. They should be absolutely proud that they dulled one of the fearsome power play units and kept one of the greatest power play forwards of all time to just two shots on net. Two words: Bra-vo.
I could go on more and more because the Devils did play a very good game against a very good team for the most part. Despite losing the lead in the third period, the Devils did a lot right tonight.
Lesser Performances: Only two aspects of this game, aside from the game needing overtime, stuck out to me as being less than good.
First, Travis Zajac has been criticized by some here. Tonight, well, he earned the criticism. Zajac did have some good shifts here and there and he was excellent on faceoffs. Yet, he was a net negative tonight. His two minor penalties were not the most egregious of penalties but they could have both been avoided. Whereas Johansson and Stafford had good shifts, Zajac struggled in the run of play. Every Devil was at least 50% CF% (percentage of shooting attempts for over total shooting attempts, it’s good to be over 50%) tonight. Zajac was the sole exception with eight attempts for and nine against. That is not so bad, except this was in a game where the squad out-attempted the Capitals 47-28. In the run of play, Johansson and Stafford were more successful away from Zajac tonight. And Zajac’s contributions for offense was winning some faceoffs, getting one shot on net, and that’s it. This was not a good night for #19.
Second, the power play as a whole was poor. Zajac is a part of this. So is Bratt, who struggled to maintain possession on that first unit. So is Butcher, who did a decent job moving the puck up but was not really so good at helping to set up the unit. So is Kyle Palmieri, who was kind of invisible in this situation where he should be thriving. So is Hall, who was great in everything but 5-on-4 play. The second unit did not change much either. The Devils had three power plays and generated all of three shots on them. Their best chances often ended up being deflected out of play by a defender. The Devils’ offense stalled when they were up a man, which was odd since they were beating on the Caps at even strength for most of the game. Adding pain to the lack of results was that the power plays were chances to break the game even more open. That third period power play yielding little offense at all, nevermind a goal, was a failure to really secure the game. I don’t think the issue is so simple as moving Zajac and Brian Boyle to different units or not at all on the power play. When the team’s most talented offensive forward is hampered by the power play, then something is wrong with the process. Sort it out, John Hynes and Geoff Ward.
17 Minutes: Tom Wilson is a jerk and, like jerks, decided to plow into Brian Gibbons hard into the sideboards. Maybe it was a charge. All the same, it wasn’t anything illegal. After the hit, Brian Boyle immediately grabbed Wilson and engaged in a fight. Boyle lost that fight. Since Boyle initiated the whole fracas, he received two minutes for instigation and a misconduct on top of the five minutes for fighting. I thought that was fair enough. Thankfully, it did not cost the Devils in what was then a 2-1 game.
What of the Wood-Zacha-Palmieri Line?: This line killed it against the Islanders. Tonight, I was not really enthused by Palmieri tonight. He was one of two Devils to not register a shot on net. That said, I was pleased with how well Wood and Zacha played in their limited minutes. Despite receiving less than ten minutes of ice time, Wood scored a goal and had four shots on net. Zacha nearly played eighteen minutes, earned a shift in overtime, did well on the PK, and played with good energy with two shots on net. They were not a dominant line but it was ultimately a positive night for two out of the three players of that line.
Second Straight Start for Kinkaid: Keith Kinkaid did well against the Islanders on Tuesday. While the Devils returned Ken Appleby to Binghamton, John Hynes went with Kinkaid again instead of giving Cory Schneider the start. It could be something as simple as giving Schneider another night to fully recover from some illness. Kinkaid did not face a lot, but he made a number of tough saves. The first goal against was off a fluke bounce. The third goal against was not a bad one in that it came from an uncovered man in the slot. The second one, well, Kinkaid could have done better on that one even if it was a fantastic shot by Orlov. Still, Kinkaid was not a liability in net and he did not get cold when the Capitals went on long, shotless stretches of the game. I think we’ll see Schneider take back the net this weekend, but this game and the last one should be good boosts for Kinkaid after a rough go of it in November and December.
The Best Cap: Brett Connolly’s first of his four shots on net was a wide open shot in the slot due to a breakdown in Devils defensive coverage. Those would be few and far between, but Connolly was up for this game from his first shift onward. I don’t think I ever thought I would be more worried about Connolly than, say, Nicklas Backstrom or Alexander Ovechkin. But outside of the power play for Ovechkin, Connolly was the stand out player in 5-on-5 play. He scored off a lucky bounce in the first period, he scored a huge equalizer, and he just kept on moving his feet to force New Jersey to respect him. That’s even more jarring when you realize that Ovechkin was held to no 5-on-5 shots and the Caps had a whopping two shots total when #8 was out there in 5-on-5 play.
UFA Watch: John Carlson was forced to play a lot of defense. I didn’t think he was all that and a bag of chips out there. He did have five individual shooting attempts and played just over 24 minutes tonight. He also struggled a bit when Zacha and Hischier were on the ice too. Not that one game should decide whether someone should get a fat seven-year contract, but further viewings should be warranted for Mr. Carlson.
One Last Thought: While going to OT gave Washington a point, it was more important that the Devils won. Not just because they got two points and are now ahead of Columbus with games in hand. No, they picked up another ROW. Regulation/Overtime Wins are a key tiebreaker. In a division as tight as the Metropolitan Division, they could absolutely make a difference should the division remain tight into the beginning of April. The Devils may be six points clear of sixth place, but the only team in the division with fewer than 20 ROW is eighth-place Carolina. New Jersey getting another ROW is a good thing. And how did they get it? With this beautiful goal:
Your Take: The Devils beat the Capitals, 4-3 in overtime. Hall is a superstar. The Devils finally beat the Capitals for the first time in quite some time. What did you think of the performance? Who impressed you? Who did not impress you? What do you think the Devils should take away from this game in preparation for their next game in Philadelphia? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.