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Game Preview #13: New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals

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After a 3-2 loss to Buffalo, the Devils have a quick turnaround and look to beat the Capitals in their first matchup of the year.

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils
Captain
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (6-4-2) at the Washington Capitals (8-5-3). SBN Blog: Jaspers’ Rink

The Broadcast: TV - NBC

The Time: 2:00 PM ET

Goaltending Matchup

MacKenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek suited up for the Devils and Capitals, respectively, yesterday afternoon. Vanecek has played 14 games for the Capitals this season and holds a 7-4-2 record with a 2.92 goals against average and .907 save percentage. Ilya Samsonov has only played in two games this year, sporting a 1-0-1 record with an .868 save percentage and 3.36 goals against average. Samsonov last played on January 17. Prior to their game against the Rangers yesterday, the Capitals moved Samsonov to the taxi squad and elevated Craig Anderson to the main roster. In Craig Anderson’s one appearance this year on February 7 against Philadelphia, he gave up two goals on eight shots in 22:45 in relief for Vanecek, picking up the loss. The Capitals have a packed schedule in the upcoming week, with games on Tuesday and Thursday versus Pittsburgh before they play back-to-back against the Devils next weekend. Therefore I do not think it is likely that they play Vitek Vanecek this afternoon. The move of Samsonov to the taxi squad may lead some to believe Anderson will get the nod, but that may have been so Samsonov would not have to risk coming in for relief less than 24 hours before he would start.

Assuming the Devils are not intent on running MacKenzie Blackwood into the ground, I would expect Aaron Dell to make his Devils debut this afternoon. Since Scott Wedgewood is still on the main roster, I would hope the Devils dress him as the backup and let Blackwood watch without having to worry about needing to come in at any given time.

Zajac at Center, Zacha at Wing

For those who watched the game against Buffalo yesterday, we all saw what happened. Travis Zajac was not a good fit at right wing for Jack Hughes - and an even worse fit for Nico Hischier. Simultaneously, the third line of Janne Kuokkanen, Pavel Zacha, and Yegor Sharangovich had a terrible game together. Lindy Ruff finally had enough of Zajac at wing and changed it for the last 20 minutes, playing Zacha with Hischier and Bratt and moving Zajac down to the third line. While the Hischier line worked with that group, Zajac’s line was still not great in the third period. A reshuffling may be in order.

If I were making the calls for the Devils, I would switch Sharangovich out of the lineup for Nikita Gusev, and consider switching Miles Wood and Janne Kuokkanen so Wood is reunited with Zajac and Kuokkanen plays again with McLeod and Bastian. That would result in the following lines:

Zacha-Hischier-Bratt
Johnsson-Hughes-Palmieri
Wood-Zajac-Gusev
Kuokkanen-McLeod-Bastian

I know some may be hesitant to break up that fourth line - but Zajac could definitely use that speed on his line. Kuokkanen has looked better of late playing the puck around the boards, which could suit him to McLeod and Bastian’s possessive style. If it does not work, Ruff can always switch it back - but I would like to see Zajac’s line be capable of matching up against Backstrom’s line at times today, allowing Hischier to take the Kuznetsov-Ovechkin line. That strikes me as a more important concern.

New Worries About the Defense?

Will Butcher had a great start to his season, with a goal and an assist in two games while playing some positionally sound defense. However, his pairing with P.K. Subban took a turn for the worse last time out against Buffalo, getting outshot 11 to six and suffering in the quality-of-chances department. Their 0.13-0.76 xG ratio was worst among the defense at just a 14.86 xGF%. They did particularly poorly playing the Hall-Staal-Cozens line, against whom Butcher and Subban were on the ice for a goal against.

Meanwhile, Ty Smith and Damon Severson continued to be a very good pairing and were the only Devils pairing to break even in possession (65.22 CF%) and xG (57.61 xGF%). They are not a concern for the New Jersey Devils. Dmitry Kulikov and Sami Vatanen took a moderate step back, with a goal allowed, a 46.67 CF% and a 31.79 xGF%. I think that Kulikov and Vatanen will be fine together - as this was Vatanen’s second game back and some rust is to be expected from him. Kulikov, too, was due for a not-great game.

The issue is whether Butcher and Subban can be relied on as a second pairing for this team. The Devils have also continuously failed on the penalty kill, and Butcher has not made an appearance on either special teams units in his three games. If Ryan Murray is ready to play, I think it’s time for him to return to the lineup. Kulikov has been much better this season than Butcher has shown in his few games, so it’s a tough break for Butcher. However, I would like to see the best pairings the Devils can put out, and Ryan Murray should be able to help more in defensive situations.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about today’s game? Do you think the Devils will bounce back from their loss yesterday? Do you think Nico Hischier shook enough rust off? How do you think the lines will look? How do you feel about the Devils getting a nationally broadcast game? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Addendum

Travis Zajac will be playing his 1000th game today. He is only the fourth New Jersey Devil to play 1000 games with the franchise and has solidified himself as one of the best Devils of the 21st Century. Zajac is also only the second player from his draft class to play 1000 games, after Alex Ovechkin - though there should be a few joining them next season. Zajac has played with the team through some good times and many tough times, and has persevered nonetheless. Here's to a great game for our longest-tenured Devil.