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Plenty of Problems Present in New Jersey Devils’ 3-6 Loss to the Washington Capitals

The New Jersey Devils had rays of hope but ultimately failed to catch the Washington Capitals on the scoreboard tonight. They lost 3-6 with two empty-netters to boost the score. This recap goes into the problems the Devils had, Tom Wilson’s blindside cheapshot of Brett Seney, hockey culture, and more.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals
I feel the same way too, Keith.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know if you know this, but the New Jersey Devils are now winless in their last four games. They lost again tonight to the Washington Capitals by a score of 3-6. The score does not really reflect how the game went. While the Devils were close at two points on the scoreboard, their own issues blew up in their face and that allowed Washington to pull ahead and take another win. There were plenty of problems by the New Jersey Devils tonight.

First and most likely foremost in the eyes of the fans will be the power play. According to the official Game Summary at the Devils had a power play for 11:04 of this game. Not only did they not score, they did registered a whopping four shots on net. Worse, Tom Wilson blindside cheapshot of Brett Seney in the second period provided five of those eleven minutes and change of power play ice time tonight. The Devils squandered the five-minute major across the end of the second and the beginning of the third period with poor zone entries, poor puck possession, poor puck distribution, and poor decisions on the puck. It was like their other power plays tonight. They were about as threatening to goaltender Braden Holtby as a wet paper bag. I’m not writing that the power play solely cost the Devils this game because that is not entirely true. But the power play was a problem tonight.

Second, the Devils did not get a good performance out of their goaltender. Tonight, that was Keith Kinkaid. He gifted world class scumbag Tom Wilson a shorthanded goal to start the second period when he took a puck behind the net and flung it around to nobody on his team. Even if someone was supposed to be there, Kinkaid absolutely has the experience to know to make sure he’s not just putting the puck up for grabs. That goal against made it 0-2 within seconds of the second period. Kinkaid would be better outside of the crease. Inside of the crease, while he made some good saves, I thought he could have been better on the other two goals he allowed after handing this generation’s Tie Domi a goal. Andre Burakovsky beat him straight up after he beat Andy Greene like a mule off the rush to make it 1-3 in the third period. Later, thanks to Sami Vatanen giving Washington a two-man advantage for two minutes, Nicklas Backstrom froze Kinkaid on a short-side shot. Maybe being critical for the last one is harsh - it was a great laser - but the Devils have all of their eggs in the Kinkaid basket when it comes to goaltending. So when that basket is weak, some eggs break all over the Devils. I’m confident Kinkaid will be better in his next game (Monday against Tampa Bay, most likely) and he alone did not cost the Devils this game. But he was a problem tonight.

Third, the team had suffered in the third period. After a sloppy first period where a terrible line change ended with Backstrom scoring and some waster power plays, the Devils would finally get going minutes into the second period. A turning point was a shorthanded goal by Travis Zajac. Zajac sprung Blake Coleman for a 2-on-1, Coleman’s shot was stopped, and Zajac potted in the short rebound right at the tail end of the penalty kill. The Devils followed that with some amazing shifts and started to really put the Caps on their heels. Their defense started making stops earlier, which allowed them to find forwards behind the Capitals skaters for some great counter-attacks. There were some amazing individual efforts, such as Brett Seney setting the game to Rookie for a moment and turboing past Capitals only to be robbed by Holtby’s right pad. The Devils flipped the script and played like one would expect the Capitals to play like. The Devils were owning the shot count (14-8 in 5-on-5), chances (high danger was 6-1 in favor of NJ), and attempts (22-16). The Devils forced Holtby to be real good. At least until the Devils had a power play. So he was only beaten once in the second period; but that put the Devils within one. The second period ended with a 1-2 score. There was reason to be hopeful. Then the third period began.

The Devils wasted the remainder of Wilson’s major penalty. Shortly after that, Burakovsky torched Greene, blew past Damon Severson, and beat Kinkaid to make it 1-3. I thought it was a backbreaker of a goal. It kind of was as the Caps continued to press on and attack. It seemed like the Devils settled the game down, but then Miles Wood took a butt-ending call. He had to serve all four minutes. Vatanen took down Jakub Vrana during this penalty kill, so the Caps had a full 3-on-5. Backstrom scored to make it 1-4. A massive turnaround, but the Devils had another lifeline. After the remainder of Wood’s penalty ended, Hall took the puck to the net on a power move. Nico Hischer powered in the rebound to make it 2-4 with under 10 minutes to play. Maybe the Devils could respond and make it interesting. While they ultimately did, the process wasn’t easy. The Capitals kept the Devils somewhat honest in their own end and their defense stepped up to keep the Devils to just five shots in 5-on-5 play in the whole third period. I know there were penalties, but that’s not good enough when multiple goals are needed. The Devils obtained another lifeline from Marcus Johansson dunking in a pass from Hischier to make it 3-4 with 1:50 left to play. Kinkaid was pulled for an extra skater and Alex Ovechkin scored an empty net goal shortly thereafter. Kinkaid was pulled again and Backstrom got his hat trick to make it 3-6.

That’s a third period where the Devils were put in a deeper hole than when they started the period. That’s a third period that showed a notable drop off in performance after a largely good second period. That’s a third period where despite their efforts to get close, they did not equalize and the opposition secured the win.

Fourth, the Devils paid steep price for their on-ice mistakes. The Devils’ underlying numbers look pretty good. By the expected goals model and GAR, the Devils should be better than their record. So what gives? The Devils’ mistakes have done them in dearly. While this was not a top-tier performance, we’ve seen worse games out of the Devils. But they keep taking these regulation losses from OK-ish games because they get lit up when they make an error. A bad line change? That led to a goal against (plus Vatanen’s not-defense on Backstrom, but mostly the line change). A bad decision behind the net by Kinkaid? That led to a goal against. Greene and Severson being owned off the rush like the Nick Leddy goal last week? Another GA. Wood taking a rarely-called penalty because it’s rare that players do it plus Vatanen upending a Capital right in front of the referee? You guessed it, another GA. It’s not that the Devils were punished for all of their mistakes or that the Capitals never made any, but it’s remarkable how I can point to one or two things going really wrong that contributed to a goal against tonight.

The mistakes even went into the extra skater situations. First, Johansson decided to not use his teammates upon gaining the zone and tried to slide a puck through Ovechkin’s legs. It failed and so Ovechkin had the puck and sailed in a long ENG that sealed the game. Second, John Hynes believed the Devils could get two goals with even less time on the clock. So Kinkaid was pulled. A literal bad break - Vatanen’s stick breaking on a slapshot attempt - ended with Ovechkin and Backstrom against Hall and an empty net. You know the result of that play. It’s downright demoralizing with the three other factors, it’s easy to understand that the Devils lost this game with a decisive 3-6 score.

The thing is that the Devils actually competed tonight. They didn’t get steamrolled by the Capitals. They weren’t jobbers. If you wanted energy and effort, the Devils (and Caps) had plenty of those. But from my standpoint from the couch was that the Devils made this game easier for the Capitals than it needed to be with these problems. These four stood out to me. The Caps took advantage of the Devils’ problems tonight, which we have seen on several other nights. They took advantage in a big way. And now the Devils are winless in four, they have Winnipeg tomorrow, Tampa Bay on Monday, and ending that slide is not looking good at this moment. Which has now become a big problem.

The Game Stats: The Game Summary | The Event Summary | The Play by Play Log | The Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Jason Rogers has this recap at Japers’ Rink. He’s got a talent. Here is a quote:

4. The second period was kicked off with some big boomin’ fireworks courtesy of handsome hydrogen bomb Tom Wilson. Just twenty seconds into the middle stanza and with Washington minus a man on the penalty kill, ol’ Tommy Two Fists ripped a sharp-angle shorthanded snipe that squirted ‘twixt Kinkaid’s wickets and in to make it 2-0 Caps.

Well, that is one way to describe that play, yes. Granted, it was a 100% Grade F mistake by Kinkaid, so I understandably have a different perspective.

The Game Highlights: From, here are your highlights should you want them:

Let’s Talk About Culture: Officially, 17:39 into the second period, Tom Wilson was given a match penalty for a blindside cheapshot on Brett Seney. Wilson just trucked him from behind. The hit was way, way, way away from the puck. This was entirely unnecessary and reckless. This gave the Devils a major penalty. Seney would go on to play; thankfully, he was not injured by the cheapshot. By rule, the NHL Disciplinary Committee will have a word with Wilson.

There is an argument of sorts that this should not be a suspension. This tweet is an example; it comes from former Flyers reporter and current TSN reporter, Frank Seravalli.

I could not disagree more. For the NHL to actually make some strides about player safety that has some proverbial meat on the bone, there cannot be this unwritten rule that only headshots should be punished beyond penalties. Dangerous plays of all kinds should be reviewed and should be suspended as needed. As this was a blindside hit where Seney had no opportunity to brace for impact or do anything about it, this could have easily caused other damage. Especially to the shoulder he clipped. As great as it is that more and more understand that concussions and head shots need to be massively reduced (if not eliminated outright), this does not mean it is open season for players to get away with other awful acts. That a reporter needs to specify it wasn’t a headshot points to this aspect of the culture of hockey needing to be changed.

The other arguments about how Wilson tried to move or tried to get out of the way are laughable and should be mocked. This was not a bang-bang play where Wilson had no where to go. This was in open ice. Wilson had time to not skate directly into Seney. Wilson skated at least ten feet to make contact with the skater. This was not an accident. It was intentional. However much Wilson “tried to make himself small,” he utterly failed since all he had to do was do anything but skate in a straight line at Seney. Fans want to defend their players, but that doesn’t mean the defenses deserve any respect.

Further, the reputation Tom Wilson has is entirely earned by nonsense like this. Tonight, he provided evidence that previous punishments have not worked. That is more than enough justification to give him something more than a fine and a talking to by the league. So please also disrespect any whining about how Wilson is only going to get anything because he’s Wilson. That’s part of the point. If it takes sitting his fat behind for 7-8 suspensions before someone in the Washington organization tells him he needs to change how he does business in this league, then it’s going to take 7-8 suspensions. If it takes 11, Wilson will surely do enough to get to 11. Just give him time because he is exactly that kind of player.

Here’s the bottom line: A player, be it a Devil or a Capital or a Ranger or a Flyer or anyone, shouldn’t have to be given a concussion or take a blow to the head to warrant a suspension for the player who caused it. For those who demand that hockey culture must change, then they should see this as an opportunity by the NHL to do just that.

Did Anyone on the Devils Do Well?: Yeah. I’d say so.

While it took some time to get cooking, the line of Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt were among the New Jersey’s best attackers. Despite utter power play failure, Hall launched 11 attempts of his own and got four on net. He got a secondary assist on Johansson’s late goal and he did a lot of the work to create Hischier’s goal, although he was uncredited. Hischier had a goal and set up Johansson’s late goal that provided some late hope. When Bratt was on the ice, the Devils were usually attacking - especially after the shorthanded goal by Zajac. The line did well. I expect we’ll see it together tomorrow.

I also appreciated how Zajac and Coleman played. While they did not dominate the attempt or shot differential in 5-on-5 play, they did come out ahead. They faced Ovechkin, Backstrom, and pre-ejection Wilson a lot in 5-on-5 and they did reasonably well. Coleman had created New Jersey’s best chance in the first period, he was solid on the 4-on-5 PKs, he took three shots out of five attempts, and his shot led to Zajac’s shorthanded goal. Zajac, who also did well in the run of play with a difficult matchup in 5-on-5, went to the net was ultimately rewarded. Zajac also came out just ahead on faceoffs and kept things moving.

Defensively, I liked Will Butcher. I didn’t like him on the power play. But other than that, I thought he was OK.

Did Anyone Else Do Poorly?: Excepting the power play units (they were all awful), Kinkaid (already explained), and some mistakes, here are some players who had contributed little to tonight’s game:

Pavel Zacha was definitely not a positive factor in tonight’s game. When he was on the ice, the Devils had the lowest proportion of attempts among all skaters. The regular matchup against Vrana, Tim Connolly, and Evgeny Kuznetsov was not the issue. But those few shifts against Ovechkin, Backstrom, John Carlson, and Michal Kempny, among others were just bad ones. Going forward, Zacha didn’t do much. At least his PK work was OK.

Kyle Palmieri was also not contributing very much either. While he took four shots, he failed to really threaten with most of them. Seeing that he’s a big part of the power play and the power play was utter trash tonight, I cannot really praise the man’s performance tonight. He was on the ice for two Devils goals he had nothing to do with. That’s as much as I can say about him. I think Palmieri may be missing Hischier and Hall. Unfortunately for Palmieri, the feeling may not be mutual at the moment.

I should note that Zacha and Palmieri played on the same line. When they were together, the Devils were out-attempted 1-9. Ouch. At least shots were 1-3, but still ouch for what is meant to be an offensive lines with Johansson. Johansson at least got a goal near the end of regulation (and, uh, set up Ovechkin’s ENG).

I didn’t think much of the fourth line since they played so little, but Miles Wood’s disappointing 2018-19 continued with a four-minute penalty for butt ending. Again, that’s a rare call in today’s NHL. He had to be pretty blatant to get whistled for it. Unfortunately, Wood is the sort of player who plays on the proverbial edge and that yields going into dumb stuff. He’s not near the Tom Wilson zone of being a total stain on the league and a threat to most player’s safety. But Wood’s lack of discipline reared its ugly head tonight and that contributed to the loss. I’ll be patient; it’s all I can do.

Defensively, while Greene and Severson looked like chumps on the Burakovsky goal, I thought Vatanen struggled on and off the puck. He could have tied up or fouled Backstrom to try to stop the first goal; he didn’t. He had zone exit attempts picked off and lost pucks that kept the Caps going. While the Devils out-attempted the Caps when he was on the ice in 5-on-5, the Caps out-shot the Devils at the same time. He upended Vrana right in front of a ref during a penalty kill, which gave the Caps a huge opportunity to score - and they did. This was not a good night for #45.

The Return of Mueller: Mirco Mueller replaced Egor Yakovlev tonight. Mueller played a game of hockey tonight. He did not make any critical errors that set the team on fire. He did not really help the tide of the game for the Devils. He was just a guy on the ice who played mostly in his own end. He was unimpressive, to put it succinctly.

The Debut of McLeod: I don’t have a lot to say about the NHL debut of Michael McLeod tonight. Namely because McLeod did not play a lot. He barely played a little. McLeod took eight shifts for 5:36 tonight. I understand there were plenty of special teams activity, but this is almost in a zone where one wonders why he was called up at all. He was present on the ice for one Devils attempt (a shot), one Capitals attempt (a shot), and that’s it. The only other thing is that he went 1-for-6 on faceoffs, which I merely shrug at. I can’t say he was good, bad, average, or much of anything. We’ll see if he plays tomorrow. Maybe he’ll get at least ten shifts.

The Coaching: I’m going to dive deeper into how bad the power play was in the November Month in Review post that should be up on Monday. But it’s at a point where Rick Kowalsky needs to reassess everything he’s been doing because it simply has not been working lately. Seeing Greene and Severson taken on by one man and getting beaten by one man for the second time within a week makes me wonder what Alain Nasreddine is doing. I couldn’t even tell you Mike Grier’s role in all of this. And I’m sure Roland Melanson facepalmed at Kinkaid’s giveaway to start the second. The team is being beset by similar issues game to game and finding ways to suffer big for mistakes instead of trying to limit the damage or even make less severe errors. And John Hynes is...not really changing much.

This was another game where I really wonder what the coaching staff is doing. Then again, the 2018-19 Devils may truly be Bad and a new set of coaches isn’t necessarily going to fix that.

One Last Thought: At least Hynes isn’t as stupid as Todd Reirden, who said this after the game:

Tom Wilson skated over 10 feet and straight into Seney in open ice. The hit took place at the top of the right circle (Kinkaid’s right). There was no wall to follow down. Seney had no idea Wilson was behind him. This was not a simple contact of brushing bodies, which is usually what incidental contact is. To avoid him, he just had to skate anywhere else or even slow down to a stop. This was no accident. That Reirden states on the record that Wilson is doing everything he can to play the right way suggests that Reirden is afflicted with cognitive dissonance. Even a child can tell you that Wilson can try a lot harder than this to play the game of hockey. And Reirden is going on about other hits from other games and implying about how unfair it all is to his team is just the cherry on this garbage sundae.

Maybe it’s me and Reirden really believe it’s raining when he’s peeing on my leg. The media surely doesn’t question it, but hockey media is softer than whipped cream so they wouldn’t dare question any coach, GM, player, etc to their face. They just get their quotes and move on to the next set of talking points and the next game.

Your Take: The Devils were beset by problems tonight and lost 3-6 to the Capitals. The Devils are now winless in their last four. They play Winnipeg tomorrow night. What did you think of this game? What would you change before the next game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments.

Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for running the @AAtJerseyBlog account. Thanks for all of the people who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.