The New Jersey Devils are not a good hockey team. They are 30th in the NHL, a league with 31 teams. Even if some stats suggest they are not that bad, they are certainly not good. Certainly not like the Washington Capitals, who have the best record in the NHL. They are a very good team at a minimum. The New Jersey Devils hosted the Washington Capitals tonight and I do not think many people expected the Devils, a not-good team, to beat the Capitals, a very good team. They did not. They lost 3-6 to them this evening. What I think was unexpected was how it happened.
The word that comes to mind is outclassed. It is a familiar word for the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils. The domination was apparent in the first period. According to Natural Stat Trick, there were only 12:35 of 5-on-5 ice time and the Devils were out-attempted 3-27, out-chanced 1-18, and out-shot 2-11. This was not a simple case of the Capitals’ best players swarming it up on the Devils. Every line did the deed. Someone called Nic Dowd was crushing the Sami Vatanen-Will Butcher pairing like Dowd was another Nicklas Backstrom in disguise. The good news was that the Devils got on the board early with a power play goal and Mackenzie Blackwood looked sharp. The bad news is that the Capitals are the Capitals and they eventually find ways to make you pay for even the smallest errors - or even when none was made. Near the end of the first, Alex Ovechkin torched Blackwood with a strong wrist shot above the left circle; and a little over a minute later, Backstrom tipped in a long shot from John Carlson to make it 1-2. The score was close but the run of play was anything but. Washington owned that period and it set a tone for the rest of the game.
The Devils would even up the run of play in the following two periods. The Caps were not frequently pinning the Devils back as much. But when they did, the Devils just frequently lost their position. They often defended their zone like it was a penalty kill. That works against power plays that want to run particular plays from a structure. That does not work well in even strength situations where there is more fluidity, more movement, more chaos, and less structure. The defensive effort from the skaters was horrid when push came to shove. This resulted in multiple goals against that sunk the Devils tonight.
Near the end of the second period, an on-ice beef between Miles Wood and Garnet Hathaway resulted in a 4-on-4 situation. The Devils lost their position and saw 2-2 turn into 2-3 with Backstrom tapping in a pass from Dmitry Orlov from behind Blackwood. Early in the third, Mirco Mueller faltered for the umpteenth time this evening and no one picked up Carlson in the middle. Not Mueller, not Palmieri, no one. Carlson was open to one-touch Michal Kempny’s pass past Blackwood to make it 2-4 within the first minute of the third period and near the end of the 4-on-4 situation. The 4-on-4 situation cost the Devils on the scoreboard.
The pain continued in the third period with more mishaps. The PK-style of get in front of any shot for a block led to Butcher and Wood being in Blackwood’s view as Jonas Siegenthaler’s long shot eluded him to make it 2-5. Gilles Senn made his NHL debut a little after that goal and he saw his first goal against when both Travis Zajac and on-coming Butcher saw Lars Eller’s pass to Richard Panik in the slot, who then dragged it to his right and beat Senn five-hole. At that point, the game was already out of doubt but the Devils had to demonstrate that they could be lax in their backchecking as well as their in-zone defending this evening. They certainly succeeded at failing there.
Look, I respect the talent and quality differences here. I am not saying that the Devils should have won the game outright. But they could have been far more competitive just by performing with more effort and more focus on taking care of simple things on defense away from the puck. The concept of five men looking at the puck carrier and trying to defend just the “high danger” area - which did not keep the Caps from putting up 13 of them tonight - and trying to clear or make a zone exit after a block or a save by Blackwood is not a working one. When players do not pick up open men or tie up sticks or recognize players going to the net in transition or in motion, they are at risk of giving up goals like this one. I feel bad for Blackwood and Senn. Their save percentages for this game look abysmal and an outsider may look at them and conclude that they are the problem. Tonight, the goals were the fault on the men in front of the goalies. They were bailed out multiple times for bad giveaways, misplaying pucks and passes behind the net, and constantly chasing Capitals players while ignoring what was going around them to little avail. The goalies were hung out to dry. But they will get the blame because their Sv% was kneecapped by the team’s performance. Such is the harsh reality of goaltending and its analysis.
Additionally, the Devils were just out-played for much of the game. While the Devils made it look more respectable in 5-on-5 shots and high danger chances in garbage time, the team was still out-attempted by a 2:1 ratio: 26 to 52 per Natural Stat Trick. As good as the Capitals are, that is absolutely shambolic. I suppose the silver lining was that the Devils went into the third period just down one goal, with that goal coming within the final minute of that second period. But the dark cloud overwhelmed that too with that quick goal by Carlson and two more by the Caps to just hammer home the point that they are just on another level and at a level that this Devils cannot obtain seemingly anytime soon.
I was right to think that the Capitals were going to . If you felt that way, then you are right as well. It does not make me feel any better about tonight’s performance and how they lost. Even with nothing to play for this season, correcting these issues is going to be necessary for the team to take another step towards being competitive. As good as the last two wins felt, tonight was a sobering reminder that they have a long way to go.
The Opposition Opinion: Alex Ervin has this recap up at Japers’ Rink.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
What (Kinda) Worked: The Devils’ special teams were a success overall tonight. They took all of one penalty against Washington and kept their power play to just two shots with no shots from the Ovechkin Zone. That is a success. The Devils had the benefit of three power plays and converted one of them. The game’s scoring was opened when P.K. Subban kept a puck in the zone, sent it down to Nico Hischier by the right corner, who saw Kyle Palmieri open on Ilya Samsonov’s left. Palmieri re-directed the pass for a score and ending the long point and power-play-point droughts for Subban. The other two power plays did not generate a lot but six shots overall with a goal out of three advantages is not a bad night at all from them.
Out of the Devils’ four lines, the unit of Zajac, Blake Coleman, and Nikita Gusev was the best tonight out of the four. They were the only line to not be out-shot in 5-on-5. Gusev picked up two assists and Coleman had a total of six shots to lead the team. The duo even created a goal in the second period in a 2-on-1. Gusev found Coleman getting ahead of Backstrom. Coleman got off a short, low shot as Backstrom took him down - and then took Samsonov into the net with the puck trickling. The goal was good and it tied up the game 2-2 then. This is not to say these three did not have their errors. Zajac’s and Coleman’s coverage at times left a lot to be desired. Gusev had a really heinous turnover up the middle of the ice from the left corner that led to one of Blackwood’s many bailout saves. Still, out of the forwards, this line worked. The rest - nope.
Blackwood was a huge reason why the Capitals did not score six in the first period. So was a lack of accuracy as only 11 out of 28 shooting attempts in all situations were on target.
Fail, Fail, Fail: Mirco Mueller was absolutely dreadful to watch tonight. And the 5-on-5 numbers support that with a miserable 28% CF% and roughtly 32% xGF% for #25 tonight. Mueller was bad on the puck and bad off the puck. He was oil compared to the water that was his partner, Damon Severson. This is to say, the pairing did not work well together at all. I am still baffled why he took a shift in the 4-on-4 situation. It did not last long, 15 seconds into it Carlson scored while Mueller was way out from where he possibly should have been. I am similarly baffled how he got over five minutes of Ovechkin in 5-on-5 play tonight. I should not have to type this, but Alain Nasreddine, you’re at home - avoid that matchup. I think Connor Carrick is off IR now; I would not be surprised if he came in for him in Columbus. I would support it.
The pairing of Will Butcher and Sami Vatanen was similarly not good. Both were a total non-factor at both ends of the rink. Both were steamrolled by Eller, Carl Hagelin (who notably skied a penalty shot in the first period), and Panik. Both were steamrolled by that fourth line led by the aforementioned Dowd. Both were just rolled over in general this evening. I am trying to remember, but were they really that bad in the past together? I know the Caps are good and I expect it when they saw their best, but the Caps’ depth smacked them around too.
The concept of offense was a failure in the first period. The team would not get a shot on net until their first power play, which was at least a few minutes into the game. After that Palmieri goal, the Devils took over three minutes for their first 5-on-5 shot of the game (a wraparound try by Coleman), then about nine minutes for the team’s fourth shot of the game which was on a power play, about 45 seconds later for the fifth shot - also on a power play, and then with one minute left in the period, Hischier’s tip of a pass from the neutral zone was counted as the team’s second 5-on-5 shot of the period. That is pathetic. Especially as the Caps suffered some bizarre bounces and turnovers in the first period. The Devils would do better in the second period and after the Caps turned the game into gabarge time. But this was truly a sight to behold - only that there was not much other than the goal to actually behold. Yuck.
Everything about that 4-on-4 situation. Forget about the Devils “losing momentum” from the Backstrom goal near the end of the second period. That suggests the Devils had any. They did not in that entire situation. They were not rolling in the period when the penalties happened that led to the 4-on-4. The Caps just took advantage of the looseness and lax effort.
Nastiness: The Devils were frustrated and the Capitals were more than game to be nasty. There were a number of notable flare ups. After Orlov gave Wood a sneaky cross-check, he and Wayne Simmonds - who played tonight, I assure you - were tangled with Hathaway on the ice. Hathaway threw a punch, Wood (on top of Hathaway) punched him back, a Cap tried to come back, Simmonds shoved him away. That led to the 4-on-4. After the second period ended, Zajac and Evgeny Kuznetsov were beefing and T.J. Oshie tackled Blake Coleman after Coleman tried to intervene. In the third period, an actual fight happened after Nick Jensen upended Wood so Wood felt he needed to punch someone and so he threw Jensen down. If you wanted the Devils to throw hits and even some fists, then you got it tonight. It meant nothing in the game and it did not lead to any impact, other than that the 4-on-4 was a disaster for the Devils.
What is notable about this is that amid all of the squabbles, scrums, and other stuff was that Tom Wilson and Radko Gudas were not part of any of it. They were good citizens tonight. I will take that over seeing them throw questionable to outright dangerous hits. It is still odd.
Consolation: By the way, Wood scored on a re-direction of a pass from Severson to make it 3-6 instead of 2-6. Hoo-ray.
In Net: Again, I do not pin this loss on Blackwood or Senn. Both were hung out to dry. Blackwood has played so well as of late that I do not think it would be right to see the 21-for-26 save count and assume he’s now done. Senn made his NHL debut and was put in a bad spot for Panik’s goal - which was his second ever shot against in the NHL. I would not take it to mean that Senn cannot be anyone. He was just given a taste of the NHL in his first pro season in North America.
What was curious was that Blackwood was pulled for Senn about a minute and a half after Siegenthaler’s goal. I initially thought the goal was not a good one until I saw the video of it and noticed two Devils in his way. So I was initially wrong. Still, the goal against did not give him the hook. So why then? I guess it could be to give him a little rest so he can be more ready to start in Columbus? But is sitting the last 11:35 of the third period really going to help him out? I don’t know? We shall see.
Milestones and Streaks: The droughts for Subban are over. He earned his first power play point of the season and his first point since November 2. It was a secondary assist and it was a legit assist. Out of the six defensemen, I suppose he was the least problematic although he too was forced to play a lot of defense - which suggests the defensive play was not good. Then again, the forwards largely struggled to do their job on defense too. Anyway. Milestones were hit tonight. Greene played in his 900th game and Zajac played in his 956th game. 900 is a nice round number. 956 puts Zajac in a tie with Scott Stevens for the fourth most games played in Devils history. Zajac has a shot at breaking the 1,000 mark by the end of this season.
Speaking of milestones, future Hall of Famers Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin played in their 900th game together tonight. Backstrom also broke the 900 point-plateau as part of his four-point night. Yes, Washington’s stars, Backstrom (2 G, 2 A) and Ovechkin (1 G, 1 A) and Carlson (1 G, 1 A) crushed the Devils on the scoresheet tonight.
One Last Thought: The Devils did not lose this game because of their 1980s heritage uniforms. They still often lose while wearing them. I will continue to state that they should not wear them for a very long time. Unfortunately, a print ad at the Rock stated that they will wear them again for the January 7 game against the Islanders. Cynical as it reads, I am already expecting another ‘L.’
Your Take: The Devils lost 3-6 to the league-leading Washington Capitals. Again, it’s not that they lost that bothers me, but how they were outclassed and out of position in the process of losing that does bother me. Alas, the Devils actually cannot dwell on it. They will be in Columbus on Saturday night for another game. They have to move past it and prepare whatever they can for the next game. Before that game, let me know in the comments what you thought about this loss. Did anyone play well for the Devils tonight that was not a goaltender in your eyes? What should the Devils learn from this game before their game in Ohio on Saturday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this loss in the comments.
Thanks to Jenna for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.