I’m not sure what I should have expected.
Tonight, the New Jersey Devils hosted the Washington Capitals. The Capitals are aiming to take first in the Metropolitan Division. They also had a bigger, higher-profile game against Tampa Bay tomorrow. The Devils have had little to play for in 2019 and they are still ravaged by injuries. On paper, the Capitals should mop the floor with the Devils. In reality, the Capitals mopped the floor with the Devils.
It was not a total beatdown for sixty minutes. The first period ultimately went well for the Devils. Sure, the Devils conceded the first goal of a game; a well-placed shot to the far post by Andre Burakovsky past Eric Tangradi and Mackenzie Blackwood. Sure, the Devils took the first penalty; a needless penalty by Kurtis Gabriel. Sure, the Devils killed the penalty. Sure, the Devils looked like a team that struggled to create offense at times, But they would create it - and a lot more than Washington. As the period wound down, the NBC SN broadcast picked up on how the Capitals had only four shots on net and had none in the previous eight mintues. Meanwhile, the Devils were making gains and taking more attempts towards Phoenix Copley. With one second left, a broken-up pass by Joey Anderson ended up above the high slot. Kenny Agostino took the puck for a shot, Kevin Rooney screened Copley, and Agostino scored with a second left on the clock. The goal tied up the game and capped off an under-the-radar good period by the Devils.
Unfortunately, this would not continue. Washington has plenty of talented players, a smart coaching staff, and clearly received a reminder that losing to New Jersey does not help their cause to take the Metropolitan. The message was sent and the Capitals would flex their collective muscle on the Devils. After being out-chanced 7-3 by the Devils in the first, the Caps out-chanced the Devils 9-2. After being out-attempted 16-10 by the Devils in the first, Washington out-attempted the Devils 15-8. After an easy period for Blackwood, the goaltender would get a lot more work. It yielded some massive saves such as a flashy glove stop on Nic Dowd in the slot and robbing Jakub Vrana on his right with a pad. But the damage was coming and it was inflicted on the Devils.
The damage began when Christian Djoos found Brett Conolly at the crease ahead of Connor Carrick after a faceoff win by Washington’s Lars Eller in New Jersey’s end. Connolly stashed in the puck before Blackwood could get across. 1-2. The Devils settled the game somewhat but the Caps kept on rolling forward. Eventually, Vrana chipped a puck out of his zone past two Devils and into space for Evgeny Kuznetsov. He led a 2-on-1 and slid the puck in between Blackwood’s legs. 1-3. A little over a minute later, the Capitals had a 3-on-2 rush. Ovechkin had the puck in the high slot but instead of rifling a shot, he passed it to his right to Tom Wilson. Mr. Boarding slammed in a one-timer past Blackwood at an angle. 1-4.
The Devils struggled to muster up a response to any of these goals. Their one power play had some threatening moments, but it was not happening. In 5-on-5 play, the Devils had all of four shots on Copley. Blackwood would want the Kuznetsov goal back, for sure. The skaters could not help him out. The first ended with a tied score and the hope that the Devils would make it a tough night for Washington. The second ended with a decisive score and the reality that the Capitals are significantly better than the Devils.
What did the third period wrought? A whole lot of not much. Why would there be? Washington went up by three goals in the second period and just needed to take care of business. They needed to avoid making big mistakes. They had to stay structured and focused off the puck to keep the Devils from clawing their way back in. They had to reserve something for tomorrow night while not blowing this game. It worked splendidly for the Capitals. The third period totaled just 20 shot attempts between both teams, the Caps still led there 11-9, and they out-attacked the Devils. Blackwood made all of the stops and nearly coughed up a free goal outside of the net. The Devils very much looked like the AHL-heavy forward group they have with a defense that has had issues all season trying not to be completely discombobulated by the Capitals. The Capitals cruised in the third period and the Devils did not do much to force them to do something else.
There were some surprises in the game. Ovechkin passing up a legitimate scoring chance for a goal was one. The Devils’ two power plays not being the very worst ever, despite not scoring. The biggest one is that this was effectively a defensive struggle. The shots on net ended at 22-21 in favor of Washington. We can understand it in New Jersey’s case; just look at their roster. Washington has several talented players that can ruin a goaltender’s night if they get going. Just 36 shot attempts and 21 shots is a surprisingly small amount from them. But they did not need to make it rain rubber on Blackwood. They rebounded from a lackluster first period, they scored three in the second to establish a sizeable lead, and then they locked down the game in the third. The Devils were not likely to come back given how they were playing in the second and third periods and they did not. The now-first-in-the-division Washington Capitals outclassed the Devils this evening. That should have surprised nobody. I certainly was not.
To that end, I’m not sure what else I should have expected.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Japers’ Rink, Alex Ervin has this recap from a Capitals perspective.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, these sure are some “highlights:”
Not So Mack-tastic: Mackenzie Blackwood had some issues tonight. The third goal against was stoppable. While Tangradi was sort-of in the way of the shot, the far post shot by Burakovsky did not look so hot. Seeing him lose the puck outside of the net made me wince a little. I have appreciated Blackwood’s season so far. Even tonight, he made some incredible saves based on his athleticism and large frame. But this was not one of his better performances. He has had done better with similarly lackluster skater performances in front of him. I am not super-concerned for his future; I think it was one not-so-hot night.
A Positive New Jerseyan: Kenny Agostino was arguably New Jersey’s best player tonight. He did score a goal at the end of the first period. He also demonstrated a lot of strength as there were multiple instances of him powering through a defender to chase a puck or keep a play going. Agostino is not particularly big and definitely not physical, but it was a sign that he was up for this game. It is not a surprise to see that when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils actually out-attempted Washington 17-11 and out-shot them 9-6. Likewise, I was not surprised to see him lead the team in shots on net tonight with four. Agostino may have had good fortune for his goal, but I was happy he got something of value out of this game.
Agostino’s line ended up being with Rooney and Joey Anderson after Palmieri was knocked out of the game. The line did very well in the run of play. Rooney and Anderson each saw seven or fewer than attempts against in 5-on-5 play tonight. The trio created New Jersey’s lone goal. They each displayed a good pace in a game that could be best described as plodding at times tonight. In one case, Rooney’s speed allowed him to take a close shot to the net and he was tripped up after by Michael Kempny. If you’re looking for positives, then you will find them with Agostino followed by Rooney and Anderson tonight.
Get Well Soon, Palmieri: Palmieri took a blind shoulder by Nick Jensen. It looked more like an accident than an intentional or flagrant shot to the head. Palmieri went down, got up to go to the bench, went to the locker room, and that was that.
The Devils need another injury at forward like one needs a hole in their head, so this is definitely bad news. What’s more is that Palmieri was one of the few NHL-caliber forwards still available to play. The team will be worse off without him, even if it is for a few games. For those looking for something to follow as this season ends, one could have hoped Palmieri would reach 30 goals. He has 27. That is now in doubt.
Ice Up: Referee Jeff Brenk went down on the ice after Connolly fell into his leg by accident. Brenk eventually got up, skated around a bit, and stayed in the game. He is quite tough. Now he needs to heal up. Hopefully, he did not sustain anything significant from that accident.
At Least There Was Discipline: You know that stupid penalty Gabriel took? That was the only one all night by New Jersey. That’s really good on its own. It is even better that the Devils killed the penalty without giving up a shot on goal, which is impressive given Washington’s personnel. Normally, keeping Washington away from the PP would be a big help in trying to beat them. Alas, the Devils are not normal.
The Sherman Abrams Section: Sherman wanted me to pass on the following.
I’ve had a rough day. But I am pleased with this result. The Devils seemingly stopped at nothing against the Caps at the Rock and stayed there. Good! More failures, please! My supporters will be happy to learn that Detroit won their game in regulation. Now the Devils are only one point ahead of Detroit and Detroit has a game in hand. The Devils have an advantage in ROW, so the goal is for Detroit to have more points. Let’s go, Red Wings!
One Last Thought: While Corsi-wise, Stefan Noesen was the worst, I continue to marvel at how inept Blake Pietila and Drew Stafford are. Pietila, I sort of get it. There is a reason why he was not called up earlier and played longer than he did. He just has trouble handling pucks and he is not so quick to make up for any miscues off the puck. Stafford was just not contributing much of anything yet again. He is not quick, he is not good on defense, he has not created a lot of offense, and he took just one shot on net tonight. I want neither of these two in the organization next season; even if it is helping the ongoing tank of 2018-19.
Your Take: The Devils lost 1-4 to Washington and I am counting down the days to the end of the season. That’s where I am at with this game whereupon the Devils jobbed to Washington. What did you make of this loss? Who stood out to you? Who really struggled tonight? What can the Devils learn, if anything, before hosting Boston on Thursday?
Thanks to Chris for the game preview; thanks to CJ for running the @AAtJerseyBlog account on Twitter during the game; thanks to everyone who commented and checked out the Gamethread; and thank you for reading.