This afternoon, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals met his destiny in scoring his 700th career goal in the third period in Newark, New Jersey. It would turn out to be an equalizer at the time and if the Caps had won the game, then that goal would deservedly be touted for its importance. The New Jersey Devils had other ideas. Thanks to Michael Kempny’s anger against Kyle Palmieri, the Devils had a late power play extended. Defenseman Damon Severson scored the Actual Most Important goal of the afternoon. Severson buried a shot off Ilya Samsonov’s glove and into the net after a great pass by Nikita Gusev. The PPG held up as the game winner in a 3-2 win. Congratulations to Ovechkin. He leaves New Jersey with his 700th career goal and a big, fat regulation loss to the worst team in the Metropolitan.
Since the start of this month, the New Jersey Devils have been an utter disaster in the run of play in 5-on-5 hockey. They were not good before then, but this month has been a horror show with the Devils’ goaltenders facing bucket-loads of shots at even strength alone. For a team to prevail whilst giving up a ridiculous 37 shots per 60 minutes, they need to convert their opportunities and have their goaltenders play out of their mind. The Devils have done that, but how long would that hold up? Especially against a good team like Washington? On paper, the expectation was that Washington would do the Devils what Columbus, St. Louis, and even San Jose did to them earlier this week. On the ice was a different story.
Believe it or not, but the Devils actually hung with the Capitals in 5-on-5 this afternoon. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Devils actually out-attempted the Capitals 40-37 and out-shot them 21-18. They also edged them in scoring chances in 5-on-5 situations. After a sluggish first period where it seemed like Mackenzie Blackwood would have to impersonate another goalie with the initials M.B. for the Devils to have a chance, the Devils played a much sharper game. They were winning pucks in the neutral zone. They were taking opportunities at Samsonov at mid to short range locations instead of settling for blasts from the point. They were helping out Blackwood just by not playing half of the period in their half of the rink. This continued into the third period until Ovechkin’s goal. Then, the Devils lost their way and were at risk of being rolled over until the penalties came late. It was not a perfect performance. But it was a much better for the team - and for me, as a fan watching this - that they were competing and competing well against one of the best teams in the East.
What was not good at all was the discipline. Say what you want about the refs, but the Devils shot themselves in the foot with most of the penalties they took this afternoon. Connor Carrick went for revenge on Tom Wilson for a hit and took a roughing penalty. After that was killed, Travis Zajac took an offensive-zone high sticking penalty. In the second period, John Hayden was battling with John Carlson behind the Capitals’ net and hugged him from behind with a ref watching him. That was an easy holding penalty. During a 4-on-4 situation, Dakota Mermis got his stick around Lars Eller’s midsection and Eller held onto the stick to draw the hook. Near the end of that one, Zajac took another offensive-zone high sticking penalty. Wilson may have sold it like Disgraced Racist Daniel Carcillo, but his stick did not need to be anywhere near the big man’s visor. Giving any team six power plays and over ten minutes of power play time is a bad idea. Giving that much to the Capitals, who have a legendary goal scorer playing a lot of those minutes, often ends in disaster. Washington took fourteen shots and Blackwood did have to be locked in. (He was all-game too.) He largely was, thankfully. But the Devils have themselves to blame for five of those six power plays and could have avoided at least some of them. It was fortunate that the Capitals did not bury the Devils with their power play.
The Caps did score one power play goal. Ironically, this was from the one Devils penalty that was defensible. Colton White undercut T.J. Oshie’s legs to deny him a chance at a rebound off a post. Had he not done that, Oshie had a chance to score. I can respect a foul to deny a goal. Alas, John Carlson ripped a slapshot and Tom Wilson, who was standing like a statue in front of Blackwood, tipped down the shot for a goal. It was what it was.
What I certainly did not expect was that the Devils’ own power play would end up being more productive than the Capitals. They did not have nearly as many chances. Their discipline was, well, not called all the time but also not so egregious. But the Devils punished them for two of their three crimes that the refs called out. It ended up giving the Devils, first, a 2-0 lead in the second period; and, second, a 3-2 lead with two minutes left that held up. That the Devils scored two power play goals alone is amazing on its own given this season. But the Devils actually did a great job on all of their man advantage situations to possess the puck, win loose pucks and rebounds from missed or deflected shots, keep the puck in the zone, and attempt good shots. Their power play was a big reason why they won this afternoon and it was more than just scoring goals. They actually performed well.
Among them, the stand outs were Damon Severson, Nikita Gusev, and Jesper Bratt. Bratt and Severson already a highlight in this game. In the first period, Severson intercepted a pass by Eller and threaded a needle to a wide-open Bratt at Washington’s blueline. Bratt went in, broke Samsonov’s ankles with his dekes, and scored to open the game’s scoring. On the power play, Gusev sent a pass to Bratt to re-direct on net. This re-direction beat Samsonov low but not the post. Wayne Simmonds was in the right place at the right time to put home that rebound. Two well-earned assists for Bratt and Gusev. On the game winning power play goal, Gusev saw Severson open in the left circle. Severson received the pass and hammered the shot before Samsonov could get fully over to the left post. Ovechkin may have scored a historical goal for himself from the left circle, but Severson scored the final one in the game.
The Devils have been effectively a spoiler for two months this season. Any realistic playoff hopes died much earlier in this campaign. What they can do is disappoint their opponents and frustrate their fans. I was afraid they would be jobbers to a superior team this afternoon akin to what happened in St. Louis. The Devils showed they had some pride and they can knock off a superior team for a day. That they also did it in a game where they were not pinned back in their own end for over half of the game and needed miraculous goaltending and finishing makes it even sweeter. Well done, Devils.
The Opposition Opinion: Christopher M. Gordon had this recap at Japers’ Rink. He claims the Capitals were blinded by the light. I think they were blinded to the concept of discipline since Michael Kempny gave the Devils an opportunity that they totally answered. This may shock some hockey fans, but you cannot hit a player down four times, put him into the net twice, and slash them in the third period and hope to get away with it.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, re-live Bratt’s amazing goal and Severson’s huge PPG:
Also for the 700th Time, a Breakdown: Ovechkin’s 700th goal irked me. I did expect it to happen. I should have also expected how it happened as it came from the Devils being exposed on their weak side. It all started with a little decision that was not smart. A puck was loose in the neutral zone and Mirco Mueller decided to not step up for it. OK. But the Caps rolled forward and the whole play broke down into a mess. Meanwhile, no one was watching Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin slid into the left circle as all five Devils were focused behind their net or to the right (Blackwood’s right) side of the zone. Kuznetsov found Ovechkin waiting in the circle and Ovechkin hammered a perfect shot. Simmonds came over late, Blackwood was not going to get over in time, and I am sitting on a couch baffled why no one would account for #8. The Devils have struggled all season with their off the puck defending. It has burnt them constantly in this season. This will be immortalized by Capitals fans and hockey historians given the milestone Ovechkin achieved on this play. At least the Devils ensured that those same people have to also remember that the Capitals did not win this game.
As an aside, it felt so wonderful to see Severson score and the Devils hold onto the lead until the end of regulation.
I Hope Vancouver (And Others) Was Watching: Simmonds scored a power play goal from the side of the net - which is where he belongs on a power play; he took four shooting attempts with one on net and one in the net; and the Devils out-attempted the Capitals 13-8 when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 today. Only his linemate Ryan Merkley had a higher proportion. While Simmonds will be immortalized on that 700th goal, he scored as many as Ovechkin did this day. It was a mostly good game for the Wayne Train. With the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline on Monday, it was a good time to have one.
The Surprising Performances: Dakota Mermis is not going to be confused for Will Butcher anytime soon. But he did have a good performance this afternoon. He was fourth among Devils defensemen in 5-on-5 minutes; he received over four minutes of penalty killing time; and the Devils were often attacking when he was on the ice. Mermis’ lowest moment was the penalty. His finest came in the second period. He threw a perfect check on a Capital that separated the puck in the neutral zone. This allowed Nico Hischier to swoop in and take that puck to the net. Alas, Kyle Palmieri slammed the rebound attempt into Hischier’s back, Jack Hughes’ attempted missed, and Hughes hit the post hard a few seconds later. (Aside: These three were good on special teams and in the second period. Less so in the other two periods. The points will come from Hughes. But, uh, Palmieri, pick it up a bit, please.) But that check was a picture-perfect example of how effective a well-placed hit can be. Perhaps most impressively is that Mermis’ most common forward line he saw at 5-on-5 was the top line of Kuznetsov, Wilson, and Ovechkin and the Devils won that matchup.
The fourth line of Hayden, Joey Anderson, and Rooney also had a positive afternoon in the run of play. Hayden’s penalty was stupid but he was inoffensive outside of that. Rooney played a smarter game, he was more active with three shots on net, and the penalty he drew ended up being successful. Rooney played over five minutes on the PK and came out unscathed. Anderson also received over five minutes on the PK this afternoon and even had an impressive shift with the Devils holding onto the lead in the dying mintues. His forecheck with Pavel Zacha not only kept the Caps back for about fifteen seconds but it resulted an offensive zone faceoff. The fourth line was by no means dominant or easily impressive, but it was one of their better outings in a season bereft of them.
Lastly, Damon Severson played a very, very good game. He was not only impressive in his production. He was good at the other little things as well. Severson did not take a bad penalty in a game where his teammates took quite a few. Severson did not cough up the puck only for Blackwood to bail him out or the Caps to score. The game was high-event in 5-on-5 when he was on the ice compared to other Devils. However, the Devils won in those regards; the Devils out-attempted the Caps 20-17 and out-shot them 14-6 when Severson was out there. He has earned plenty of criticism this season. It is only right that when he has a very good game, that it should be highlighted. That he scored the game winning power play goal and created Bratt’s beautiful breakaway should make it easy. Today’s Attending Media recognized him as the First Star of the Game. I can agree with that.
Never Scratch Him Again: Jesper Bratt created Simmonds’ goal and scored a wonderful one himself. While the run of play was not always positive for Bratt, he provided a goal in a first period by New Jersey that otherwise had little opportunity for one to be created. On that breakaway goal, Bratt’s speed and puck control were smooth and Samsonov fell on his wallet from the dekes. It was, dare I say, consistent in its movement.
The Hot Streak Continues: MacKenzie Blackwood is running away with Devil of the Month. That probably is not a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the Devils in February. Today, he stopped 33 out of 35. The Devils actually helped him out with a far more reasonable workload at even strength; just 21 shots against. The penalty kill, well, it was Washington’s power play so 14 against is not a total shock. Still, Blackwood was superb again. Per Natural Stat Trick, he has the league’s highest save percentage in all situations in February at 97%. Yes, 97%. To quote Will Scouch, that is absolutely bonkers. He has only been beaten seven times in February, including this game. The Devils skaters were much better today about helping him out. I liked how they really kept the Capitals from doing not much in the second period as well as defending the game when the Caps pulled Samsonov for the sixth skater. But, please, reward this man’s excellence more as they enter the final week of the month.
Dare I Suggest This? I Dare: The Devils will go on a five-game road trip starting next Tuesday. They will go to Detroit, San Jose, and Los Angeles next week. They beat all three of those teams this season. We could very well see a winning streak from the Devils after the Trade Deadline. It could be great.
The Sherman Abrams Section: So I’m sure you’re not happy about this one, Sherman.
No. But I cannot be that mad.
Really. This is a surprise from you. You rage over Devils’ successes in past seasons.
That is because I can see the future.
No, you can’t.
I have seen the team’s schedule in March. My ways will ultimately come about. The tanking is entirely possible. They are not catching Detroit and Los Angeles may be out of reach in 30th anyway. Even if they sweep next week, I will have my ways starting in Las Vegas. Look at it. Do you see this team winning even five games next month?
Site News: The Trade Deadline Open Post will be up on Monday morning to cover any activity for the Devils and around the league. There will also be a deadline recap after the dust settles on the day that night, posts about any deals, and even a new episode Garden State of Hockey in the evening. Feel free to hang out with me and other People Who Matter on the site on Monday.
One Last Thought: You’re welcome, Pittsburgh.
Your Take: The Devils beat Washington in regulation. Ovechkin hit his milestone and, again, holds a big ‘L’ with his squad for his efforts. Severson was the hero on the power play with a late conversion that ultimately decided the game. What did you think of today’s win? Did it also invigorate you when Severson scored and/or when time ran out? What do you think the Devils should take away from this game as they prepare for a road trip next week? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today’s game in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who followed along with @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter and/or in the Gamethread here. Thank you for reading.