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Game Preview #44: New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals

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The New Jersey Devils enter the weekend with a very difficult back-to-back set. The first game is against the first place team in the NHL: the Washington Capitals. This post previews the game and reminds you that, yes, the Capitals are a really good hockey team.

NHL: DEC 20 Capitals at Devils
Good luck covering this man. No, not Travis Zajac. Alex Ovechkin.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The good news is that Our Favorite Team will not be wearing their 1980s uniforms. The bad news is that the opponents are still likely to out-class them again.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (15-21-7) at the Washington Capitals (30-10-5; SBN Blog: Japers’ Rink)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+ 2, NBCSWA; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the New Jersey Devils visited Our Hated Rivals. The game featured plenty of scoring, defensive mishaps, and one defenseman stunting on the Devils all night long. Anthony DeAngelo, or Tony DeAngelo or the imaginatively-named Tony D, put up a five-point effort with a hat trick. Yes, a hat trick. Yes, it was horrible. The Devils did keep the game close-ish. A sloppy first period ended 2-3 due to Kevin Rooney jamming in a puck and Blake Coleman tipping in a shot by Damon Severson. Jacob Trouba managed to kick in a puck by accident as he put Coleman into the goal in the second period. A video review confirmed that the puck crossed the line and it was 3-3. Shortly thereafter, DeAngelo scored his second of the game to make it 3-4. A stupid too many men on the ice penalty followed by a Nico Hischier high stick led to DeAngelo scoring his third of the game to make it 3-5. The goal led to Mackenzie Blackwood getting yanked for Louis Domingue. The Devils fired a lot of rubber at goaltender Igor Shesterkin - and nothing else would beat him. A counter-attack in the third period gave Jesper Fast a chance to score and he finished the only goal to not involve Mr. DeAngelo this evening. The Devils lost 3-6. It sucked. Chris’ recap of the loss is here.

The Last Capitals Game: On Wednesday, the Capitals went to Philadelphia. The Capitals were coming off a win while Philly were winless in four straight. But the home team flipped the script on any expectations when Travis Konecny scored an early goal in the first period. Washington would answer back minutes later with a goal by Nicklas Backstrom. Washington went up 2-1 thanks to Jakub Vrana later in the first. But within the final minute of the first period, Robert Hagg scored his first of the season to make it 2-2. Then the game became a frustrating one for Washington. They had five power plays and not only did they not score on any of them, they conceded a shorthanded goal to Kevin Hayes with only few minutes left in the second period. And I do mean conceded; John Carlson could have received an assist for it. The Caps tried to find an equalizer but they could not get one. They lost 2-3 to Philadelphia. Christopher M. Gordon had this recap at Japers’ Rink.

The Last Devils-Capitals Game: The Devils hosted Washington on December 20. The Devils won their previous two games and had a chance to have their first three-game winning streak. They did not succeed. They donned their vintage uniforms and by night’s end had fans wonder why they do not just put them away. More seriously, the Capitals flexed on the Devils as the game went on. It was favorable early on. Kyle Palmieri converted an early power play goal. The Devils seemingly held it together until they did not. Late in the first period, Backstrom set up Alex Ovechkin to score to tie it up. About a minute later, Backstrom scored on a deflection of a shot by John Carlson to put the Devils down 1-2. Coleman and Nikita Gusev would combine on a rush with Coleman being taken down by Backstrom as he scored on Ilya Samsonov. It was 2-2 and the Devils would hold on - until a 4-on-4 situation ensued near the end of the second period. This went awry. Dmitry Orlov found Backstrom open, who was standing behind Mackenzie Blackwood to make it 2-3. The game would cease being close in the third period. In the first minute of the final period and still in this 4-on-4 situation, Carlson streaked down the middle of the Devils’ zone and one-touched a puck from a pass by Michal Kempny to make it 2-4. Later in the third, Jonas Seigethaler sent a long shot past a screening Will Butcher and Miles Wood to make it 2-5. Shortly after that, Blackwood was replaced by Gilles Senn, who made his NHL debut. Senn was welcomed to the NHL by being beaten by Richard Panik off a feed by Lars Eller to make it 2-6. The Devils could only find consolation at this point as the game was decided. Miles Wood scored in the final minute to make the final score 3-6. The Devils were indeed out-classed. My recap of the loss is here. For the other side, Alex Ervin had this recap at Japers’ Rink.

The Goal: For the love of the good and beautiful in the world, pay attention to the defensemen. Anthony DeAngelo looked like the second coming of Brian Leetch on Thursday night. And it was due to a familiar sight with Devils hockey over the last few seasons: few Devils are pressuring the point men on defense. This is sometimes by design - see how the Devils set up on offense in 5-on-5 - but more often than not the five skaters are deep in their zone and watching the puck instead of where the flow of the attack could go. It is akin to a penalty kill. This means there has been a lot of space for defensemen to do plenty. They can blast away from the point. They are in good positions to deny zone exits from clearances. They can change the point of attack. They can even move in 10 to 20 feet for more dangerous shots and plays. Washington has plenty of defenders who can take advantage and one of the best in the NHL right now in John Carlson. Carlson is way better than DeAngelo and he has been remarkably productive as he is Washington’s leading scorer with 13 goals and 41 assists per NHL.com. And if not Carlson, then Orlov, Kempny, or even Radko Gudas can take advantage. The Devils need to adjust in this regard to at least avoid a repeat of Thursday night. Washington’s forwards are already a handful to deal with. They need to keep the defenders back from overwhelming them.

Also, A Goal: Discipline, discipline, and more discipline. The Devils’ discipline in their performance against Our Hated Rivals was a real problem. There is no system or coach or even special talent that would keep a player from taking someone a few feet away from them, tie up a stick, or battle to win a loose puck. Those are all aspects of playing defensively that are in sole control of the player and the Devils lacked in that big time jn their last game and in general this season.

The penalties were also a problem. Even if the penalty is killed, it is still time where one team has to largely play one-way - in their own end. It would be one thing if the ref was being picky. But, no, these include avoidable calls like too many men on the ice on a play way away from the bench, Wayne Simmonds cross-checking an opponent down in front of a ref during a delayed call, and Miles Wood hooking a player in an attempt to defend him and nearly failing at even that. Just stupid penalties that only serve to make the game harder on New Jersey. For a match-up like this one, they do not need any more challenges than necessary. The mitigating news for this game is that Washington’s power play has hit a lull since the Devils last played them. Specifically, they are 5-for-31 (16.7%) since December 21 including going 0-for-5 in their previous game per NHL.com. The Caps have not been burying teams with PPGs as of late. Still, it is not worth the risk to give Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, and Evgeny Kuznetsov (and now Jakub Vrana on the first unit per Tarik El-Bashir on Twitter yesterday) needless opportunities tonight to turn it around at the expense of the Devils.

If the Devils can play a much sharper and smarter game in these respects and keep the Captials defensemen from being involved as much as they could, then I think the Devils may have a kind of a chance tonight. The issue is that the Capitals remain as the league’s best team by record for a reason.

Yeah, The Capitals Are Still Quite Good: There is not much in the way of a weakness among the Capitals. In 5-on-5 play, while they are not dominant in any specific category, they are above 50% in attempt, shot, scoring chance, and expected goal differential as per Natural Stat Trick. Their team goaltending in 5-on-5 is a bit below league median at 91.60% but that is hardly bad or even an issue. Especially since the Caps have the fourth highest team shooting percentage in 5-on-5 at 9.52%. This means this is a team that can often out-score its opposition even when the goaltending is not up to par or if the special teams are not so successful. While the team’s power play has not been so productive recently, the team still boasts a success rate above 20% per NHL.com. The Capitals’ penalty kill is among the most successful in the NHL at 83.7% per NHL.com; and their on-ice against rates are quite good as per Natural Stat Trick. Washington may not be the most dominant in any one area, but they are not at all bad at anything. Combine that with a solid coaching staff and a never-say-die attitude (ask San Jose about that) and it is easier to understand how the team has a fantastic record of 30-10-5.

As with a lot of good teams, they do have their top players and plenty more behind them. Carlson is a stud. Ovechkin and Backstrom are future Hall of Famers. You know all three will play large roles for the Caps tonight. Carlson will play a lot, Ovechkin will shoot the puck a lot, and Backstrom will do a whole lot pretty well. You should know Backstrom can be a nightmare to play against from the last Devils-Caps game. But, wait, there’s more. Evgeny Kuznetsov has as many points (42) as Ovechkin this season. Jakub Vrana (19) and T.J. Oshie (18) are very close to joining Ovechkin as Capitals with at least 20 goals this season. When he is not doing stupid things, Tom Wilson can play hockey pretty well and he has 30 points in 44 games. Lars Eller has been among the best skaters in 5-on-5 play for Washington this season per Natural Stat Trick and he has 11 goals and 26 points to go with it too. Panik and Nic Dowd have not been productive but they have pushed the play forward when on the ice for their shifts in depth roles. The aforementioned Orlov, Kempny, and Gudas have all chipped in from the back too. There are several players who can make it a long night for any team, much less the Devils. And many of them featured in that 3-6 loss to them back in December. Backstrom had a four-point night. The thing is, they do not need him or Ovechkin or Carlson to be extra productive; they have plenty players who can put up plenty when they are not taking a shift.

OK, Maybe He Could Be Doing Better: The Devils saw Ilya Samsonov on December 20. They will not see him tonight. According to Tarik El-Bashir of The Athletic, Braden Holtby will be in net tonight. He is Washington’s starter. His season has some room for improvement. According to NHL.com, his even strength save percentage is only 90.7% - far lower than Samsonov’s 93.2%. His shorthanded save percentage is a decent 86.7% but nothing to write home about. However, Samsonov has him beat there too. Natural Stat Trick lists Holtby’s 5-on-5 save percentage at 9.08% with a Goals Saved Above Average of -6.82. He has been better in the past. It has not been a real issue for the Caps because they have been doing well in other areas, most importantly in scoring goals to make up for any sub-part play by Holtby. This is not to say he cannot be good in the future or tonight. Yet, by the percentages, it is in the Devils’ favor if they saw Holtby this evening.

Speaking of the percentages, Blackwood’s outing in Manhattan saw them take a hit. The heat may be off Blackwood, or at least he cooled a bit. They are still much better than Louis Domingue’s for this season per NHL.com. Then again, with the Devils hosting Tampa Bay tomorrow, I can understand if the Devils want to give Domingue the start tonight so Blackwood can play at home tomorrow. I can also understand it if they flip it around. With the Devils being where they are in the standings and given this weekend’s games, I definitely understand that it may be a moot point.

Please, Please, Please: The Devils were off on Friday so in lieu of thoughts about what we will see from them, here are some things about the Devils I want to see other than what I already mentioned.

Damon Severson needs to clean it up. Statistically, he will do well and he will have plenty of good, if unremarkable shifts. Then he makes a bone-headed error that makes one wonder what kind of player he is. Especially if it ends up in the back of the net. To be fair, a lot of other defensemen have not been up to snuff this season - I’m looking at you, Will Butcher - but Severson’s have been costly as of late. I know he can be better than what he has been over the past few weeks. Please be better.

I hope Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes are healthier and able to play soon. Not that either were keystones of the forward corps but their absence loomed large in recent games. Yes, they put up close to 50 shots in their last game but imagine what Bratt or The Big Deal could have done with all of that space instead of, say, Wayne Simmonds. Their absence has also ensured that Kevin Rooney and John Hayden are in the lineup. While Rooney finally scored on Thursday, I do not think they have been good enough to be regulars on this team. Say what you want about Jesper Boqvist or Pavel Zacha in the bottom six, but they give the Devils more skill in their depth roles. That has been exposed in recent games. To that end, I hope one or both of Bratt Hughes return. Please be healthier.

Please work in some closer shots. I get that on some shifts, you have to take what is given. However, long shots are not likely going to be the ones that get through in general. Even with a screen or four. They are not likely going to help the Devils keep up against a Washington team that can score a lot. Sami Vatanen and P.K. Subban can sure rip it. I wish they would go in about five to ten feet more often and give themselves a better chance to score. I really wish they would maneuver the puck to create shots from more advantageous locations. Washington can defend far better than Our Hated Rivals so it will be a challenge. But I think that will be more fruitful than just bombing shots from the point and hoping they get in. Please get closer for shots.

Food Drive on Sunday: The Devils’ will hold their second and final date of the season for the annual Food Drive tomorrow. Details on what to bring (non-perishable food items) and how many food items you would need to bring for a ticket voucher for two tickets (four) are here.

One Last Thought: The bye week is not far away. But it is going to feel like a long time with Washington tonight, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Washington again, and Columbus coming up. In a word: Oof.

Your Take: The Devils have a difficult game tonight against one of the league’s best in Washington on their rink. Good luck to them. What do you expect to see in tonight’s game? Who or what about the Capitals concerns you the most for tonight? If you think the Devils can take this one, how do you think they will go about scoring more goals than them? Who or what will need to excel tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.