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Devils Fall Short of Matching Capitals' Star Power in 5-3 Defeat

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In a game where the Devils rested five of their most integral players against the Capitals, they fought back but let the game slip away in the end.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals
One of the better moments.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

First Period: The first minute of the game featured a very scary moment when Miles Wood deflected a pass across the neutral zone. It rose up and hit Evgeny Kuznetsov in the face. Fortunately, he was not seriously hurt and stayed on the bench.

Cory Schneider made a great save just over two minutes into the game on a partial breakaway for Alex Ovechkin. Just seconds later, Kuznetsov passed it across the zone to the circle, and the Ovechkin one-timer lasered past Schneider. Mirco Mueller was playing very loose, and he was not in position to either block the pass or the shot, nor could he take the body on Ovechkin. He needs to know better if he wants to stay in the lineup.

Mirco Mueller failed to exit the zone with a pathetic pass a few minutes later, and the intercepted pass turned into another Ovechkin one-timer. It missed the net, and the Devils responded with a chance by Pavel Zacha. His skating got him around defensemen and into the zone, but his shot missed.

Schneider made a huge stop six minutes and 30 seconds into the game. Nicklas Backstrom had a breakaway, but Brian Gibbons didn’t give up and pressured him from behind. Schneider was able to make a stop, hitting the puck from the goal line with his stick.

Schneider made a big blocker save on Tom Wilson a minute or so later. On the other end, Jesper Bratt almost created a goal with a great move, but Hischier just missed with a backhand. Seconds later, Damon Severson gave Patrick Maroon the puck behind the net. Maroon passed to Hischier - and his shot didn’t miss that time. This was a perfect run of events. As I said in the game preview:

Nico Hischier will be the only player to play in every game this season. He is one goal away from the 20-mark, which is pretty significant as I don’t recall many people expecting better than the 10-15 range at the start of this year...I hope that Jesper Bratt looks more like himself again next to Nico Hischier, as they can combine for some great sequences of offensive skill.”

A couple minutes later, the Devils’ Europeans plus Andy Greene were putting on a cycle show. Mueller spun away from Andre Burkakovsky, getting the puck to Jesper Bratt, who passed to Greene, and the puck got to Nico Hischier. Hischier was hauled down by Matt Niskanen. It looked to be a clear trip or hook, but after Ovechkin had some words with Hischier, he may have convinced the referee it was embellished. I don’t think it was, but Hischier did go down hard. Regardless, I don’t think it was worthy of the call. The Devils and Capitals played four-on-four, and out of the box Hischier got a shot on Holtby that was covered.

Soon after, Nico Hischier made a quick pass down low to Drew Stafford alone near the crease. Holtby was able to stuff the shot, but Hischier was threatening every time he was on the ice.

The Devils failed to clear the zone in the last minute, turning the puck over when the Capitals cycle the puck. With 30 seconds left, the puck got to a cutting Backstrom, who roofed the puck on Schneider.

It was a chaotic period, and it was hard not to notice how hungry some of the young players were, especially Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. Damon Severson looked better than usual other than his turnover in the last minute, and Mirco Mueller looked good other than a couple mistakes early on. I imagine that John Hynes did a good job at motivating the team to attack hard, but defensive execution was not perfect. Cory Schneider played his part well. There wasn’t anything he could do on the goals, and it wasn’t like he failed to make any game-changing saves in the first period. If it was the Cory Schneider from March 20, Eddie Lack would have been in the game by the end of the period. Instead, it was a one-goal game after one period.

Second Period: After a chance for Niskanen hit the post, a shot by Alex Ovechkin was saved by Nico Hischier, as Schneider was not in position for the shot. Unfortunately for the Devils, the Capitals took a 3-1 lead when Michael Kempny blasted a shot from high through traffic. It probably was tipped, and I doubt Schneider really saw it.

The Devils got their first power play when Miles Wood was cross checked by Kempny from behind against the boards. With no Hall, Zajac, or Palmieri; the Devils put Zacha, Maroon, Bratt, Noesen, and Will Butcher on the first wave. After some good puck movement, Pavel Zacha got a good shot on Holtby at the end of the first minute. The second wave featured Hischier, Moore and Severson, Boyle, and Stafford. They didn’t get much going, and I thought it was a mistake to put two defensemen on the second wave. After the power play, Patrick Maroon, Alex Chiasson, and Brooks Orpik got into a scrum by the wall. Maroon and Chiasson got two minutes for roughing.

On the four on four, the Devils looked decent in the first 20 seconds. After that, the Capitals put on a patient cycle attack for almost a minute before the Devils took away the puck. It was a good job of not letting chances come from possession.

It seemed halfway through the game that the Devils were playing with more control, and the chaos started to dissipate from the game’s feel.

After not much going on Patrick Maroon had the puck behind the net, and the Capitals just could not take the puck away. He passed it to Miles Wood, who put it home.

Third Period: Patrick Maroon scored the tying goal at three. Miles Wood knocked the puck down, and Pavel Zacha made a sweet cross-crease pass that Maroon finished off.

Alex Ovechkin answered back a few minutes later. He gloved the puck and I thought may have held it too long, but when he placed the puck down it was in a perfect spot for him. He ripped the puck and scored his second of the game to make it 4-3.

Almost halfway through the final period, Ovechkin got a step on the Devils defense. With a breakaway, Schneider stacked his pads to make it difficult for Ovechkin to score at the speed he was skating, and the shot went wide.

Unfortunately, the Devils could not get the next goal. Andre Burkakovsky was all alone in front of the net, and a pass came from down low to him. He had time, and Schneider couldn’t make a stop. Soon after, the Devils took a penalty. It was Jimmy Hayes, on a slash. They killed the call, but the Caps got another on a Nico Hischier trip of Andre Burkakovsky with just over five minutes left. At this point, the only way for the Devils to win would be to get a shorthanded goal and then pull Schneider.

Brian Gibbons almost scored a goal, and was slammed into the boards immediately after. I thought it could have been a negating penalty, but the refs kept their whistles in their pockets. I was pretty offput by it, because it was the type of hit that could give someone a bad concussion as Gibbons’ head hit the boards.

Miles Wood took a one-timer from a pass from behind the net that Holtby never saw. It hit the pad, and the Devils were running out of time. Maroon almost scored soon after, and the Capitals countered. They were tying everything imaginable to get Ovechkin’s 50th goal, but couldn’t. Unfortunately for the Devils, they couldn’t even continue to threaten to get within one goal. The game finished 5-3, Capitals.

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 Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Jasper’s Rink will have the recap for the Capitals view.

A Complaint: This was a piss poor job by the referees. After giving an embellishment to Nico Hischier for being tripped, hooked, and held by Matt Niskanen, they gave the Capitals an unnecessary advantage in power plays. I took no issues with the penalties to both Jimmy Hayes and Nico Hischier in the waning minutes of the third, but what seemed to me to be a John Carlson elbow to Brian Gibbons’ head on the boards is the type of play I hate seeing. Gibbons did not have the puck, and Carlson targeted him rather than play it himself. Carlson thus hit a vulnerable player chasing after a puck, causing him to slam his head on the boards. I thought that judging from the non-broadcast side angle, Carlson clearly had body positioning and only had to continue skating at the puck to counterattack. Instead, he chose to throw his body sideways into Gibbons, and his elbow went high. Perhaps I’m still sensitive because of the appalling lack of response to the Tom Wilson-John Moore incident, but I disliked that play.

This sort of activity is the exact type of reason I’m happy we won’t be facing the Capitals in the first round. I think the Devils are better off not having to deal with Ovechkin’s one-timer, as players like John Moore, Damon Severson, and Mirco Mueller have a tough time taking it away from him. Ultimately, the Devils lost this game at five-on-five, and they deserved it. But the referees were not great, in my opinion.

The First Round Matchup: The Tampa Bay Lightning were defeated in overtime by the Carolina Hurricanes. The Boston Bruins won today. This means that the Devils will learn who they play in a best of seven tomorrow night, when the Bruins play the Florida Panthers. The Devils won all three of their games against the Lightning this season, and went 0-2-1 against the Bruins. Despite that, I am not as wary of a Bruins matchup as some may be. Because the Lightning got a loser point in overtime, the Bruins have to win for the top seed.

I remarked to my brother during the first game against Boston of this season that the Devils always seem like they have tension with the Bruins teams. Given the mirror image of surprisingly good young players helping to carry both teams this season, I thought they could turn into rivals if they were to meet in the playoffs. And here we are. Since I originally thought that, the Brad Marchand-Marcus Johansson incident set fire to the state of relations between the two teams. To say the 0-2-1 record during the regular season means they’re a bad matchup completely overlooks how close the games were, and what might have happened if certain moments were different by matters of inches. From bounces, stick positioning, to flying elbows, both teams could have won each game, and the Bruins consistently had chance in their favor. It was not a black and white season series, and it would only be fitting for the teams to meet once more, against the apparent odds.

Nico and Jesper: By far, my biggest hope for tonight’s game was Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt rekindling a connection. After an extremely promising first period, their collective hunger and creativity seemed to fade. By the end of the game, Jesper Bratt had a 40.00 CF%, and Nico Hischier a 34.38 CF%. However, they played best against the top line of the Capitals, playing the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Wilson line better than the rest of the team by a considerable margin - even out-possessing that line at even strength, and scoring a goal when Maroon was in the place of Drew Stafford, who I believe was the weakest link of the line this game. I hope that John Hynes saw enough in Bratt, even if mostly just from the first period, to give him a chance in the playoffs. He looked decent in the limited time he received on the penalty kill. Therefore, he should be given the chance to play in place of Michael Grabner, given that young players such as Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt, and Nico Hischier were significantly better than him in that regard. Among the 16 Devils who played a minimum of 40 minutes on the penalty kill, they made three of the top four players in terms of CA/60. No current Devil had a more detrimental effect on the penalty kill’s defensive efficiency than Michael Grabner, who was on-ice for a rate of 8.86 GA/60 with the Devils on the power play.

Pavel Zacha - With Mates Like These...: The final two Devils goals of the game came with the same five players on the ice: Will Butcher, Ben Lovejoy, Patrick Maroon, Pavel Zacha, and Will Butcher. I’ve been a huge defender of Pavel Zacha in his extremely young career. I still lament the fact he only played one game with Patrik Elias, because aside from a run of good play with Stefan Noesen last season and some flashes earlier this season, he has never been able to get settled with a consistent pair of wingers, and his linemates historically have been abhorrently bad finishers with him on the ice. However, he finished the season with three points in two games with Miles Wood and Patrick Maroon on his wings, giving him six points (two goals, four assists) in the final nine games of the year after returning from an injury. Zacha had a tendency to get on the scoresheet in bursts this year. After, he had five points spread across just three his first 19 games when he failed to mesh with linemates after being bumped off the top line the seventh game of the year despite playing well with Taylor Hall, his points came in a stretch of 11 games where he had six points, a stretch of 13 games with eight points, and the final stretch of nine games with six points. Between the first and second sets, he had nine scoreless games. Between the second and third sets, he had eight scoreless followed by six games missed with injury.

Streaky is an understatement when it comes to Pavel Zacha’s season. Ultimately, his points per game rate went from 0.34 to 0.36, which seems insignificant if you don’t account for that increase coming despite having less power play time. The following is very Natural Stat Trick-heavy. so bear with me. His even strength points per 60 minutes tells a much more nuanced story. Last year it was 0.8/60, and he nearly doubled it. At 1.42/60, Pavel Zacha is undeniably becoming a better player. He also massively improved defensively, going from 0.95 takeaways per 60 minutes to 2.24/60 this year. Both of those outpaced Travis Zajac, who had 1.28 points and 2.2 takeaways per 60 minutes; Brian Boyle, with 1.31 points and 1.7 takeaways per 60 minutes; and Adam Henrique, who had 1.41 points and 2.21 takeaways per 60 minutes before being traded for Sami Vatanen. Furthermore, Pavel Zacha owned the best on-ice goals against per 60 minutes among the 13 Devils who averaged at least one minute per game played on the penalty kill with an amazing 2.47/60 - a stunning -4.88 relative rate to the team. He not only deserves to play in the playoffs, but he deserves confidence in his ability to vindicate the decision to select him at sixth overall.

Patrick Maroon: One of the reasons Pavel Zacha performed well to end the season, Patrick Maroon has showed us his ability to be an elite player behind the net. I noted to my brother in text messages during last night’s game that his production with the Devils isn’t a fluke, considering his dominance when he gets the puck down low, because the team properly values his ability to make dangerous passes from behind the net. That was before tonight’s display. Per Abbey Mastracco of Fire and Ice, John Hynes had this to say about his forward after the game:

“He’s one of those who can fend a player off the puck and still know where the next play is going to be. Not everyone can do that in those confrontational situations and that’s why he makes such nice plays below the goal line.”

With the Devils, Patrick Maroon finishes the regular season with 13 points in 17 games (versus 30 points in 57 games for Edmonton), having points on all of the team’s final five goals over the final two games. Each one of those points were primary, which is absolutely amazing. Not only did he score much more than most expected with New Jersey, it took the Devils a mere seven games to get more power play production from him than Edmonton, whose 14.42% effective power play used him as a secondary option. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Devils power play scored 15.83 goals per 60 with Maroon on the ice. Only three other current Devils were on the ice for better than 10 goals per 60 minutes while on the power play: Travis Zajac (!) at 12.39/60 (!!!), Taylor Hall with 12.05/60, and Kyle Palmieri with 10.7/60. Surely, the Devils coaches know how to get the most of their players previously in Edmonton. Due to his play with our team, Patrick Maroon has also set a new career high in points with 17 goals and 26 assists for a total of 43 - one better than last season despite playing seven fewer games. I very much hope that Ray Shero retains him for next season. The element he adds to this team is golden to our playoff hopes.

The Tale of Two Cory’s: I’m conflicted on the performance of Cory Schneider. From afar, nothing has changed. His save percentage was .808, meaning he has not had a game with better than a .900 save percentage since December 27 versus Detroit (he did hit .900 exactly with 27 of 30 stops January 22, also versus Detroit), the last time he won a game. He moves to 0-10-2 with three goals or more allowed in every game he’s played since December 29, as his save percentage in that span drops to .863 with this game, with a goals against average of 4.03. On the whole season, he finishes 17-16-6 with a .907 save percentage and 2.93 goals against average. Tonight may have been his last game of the season, but it may have been his best game since New Year’s. He saved goals, he stopped breakaways, he wasn’t slow to react to the puck, and at the end of the night, he just couldn’t stop some unstoppable shots. The Devils only allowed 26 shots, but far too many of them were extremely high-danger chances for the Capitals. Many of them with a certain player on the ice: the only player who did more damage to his spot for the playoffs…Mirco Mueller vs. Ben Lovejoy: Boy, oh boy, did veteran experience have a victory over raw potential tonight. Mirco Mueller did not understand the basic rule of covering Alex Ovechkin. He gave the greatest goal scorer of the generation all the room in the world, leading to Ovechkin scoring both of his goals with Mueller on the ice, as the team gave up scoring chances, three high danger chances, six shots, and two goals when the scoring young defenseman was on the ice with Ovechkin. As the right side defenseman, he had to be ready to do one of three things at all times - take away the pass to Ovechkin, take the body on Ovechkin, or block Ovechkin’s shot. While the second goal might not apply, as it came from another area, it does not change that the Capitals assaulted Mueller. Greene was not great, but it may not have been coincidental that he and Ben Lovejoy allowed one shot and no scoring chances in 2:15 of penalty killing together. There was nothing he could do when his partner had no grasp of positioning. By comparison, the player who was benched for Mirco Mueller was the only player on the Devils to be on the ice for none of the goals against, and he funnily enough was also on the ice for all of the Devils’ goals for. Ben Lovejoy had a 59.26 CF%, versus Severson’s 42.86 and Mueller’s 31.25...We’ll see how that translates into playoff lineup spots.

Your Take: What do you think? Did the Devils do better than expected? Who should get the playoff chances? What do you think I got right and wrong in my takes on the game and broader situation of the team? Leave your thoughts below.

Thanks: It’s been a pleasure helping to give previews and recaps for this season. So, thanks to John for giving me this opportunity, and thanks to everyone who followed with us tonight and for the entire regular season, whether in gamethreads or @AATJerseyBlog on Twitter. Goodnight, and see you in the playoffs.