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Special teams yet again down Devils, as they fall to the Capitals 4-3

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New Jersey Devils v Washington Capitals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Insanity, is the Devils, with an AWFUL 63.2% penalty kill heading into this game, continuously running the same motions over and over and over again, and expecting it to all of a sudden click. News flash, it failed spectacularly.

To Alain Nasreddine - Your penalty kill was, somehow, even worse than usual. Changes need to be made - please figure it out.

First Period:

The Devils started off blazing. The Capitals clearly were not prepared for this fast start, as they very much looked like a team suffering from the last minute time change and back-to-back games.

Only a minute into the game, the Devils found their first dangerous opportunity. Jack Hughes was able to get a puck through John Carlson, who unsuccessfully attempted to press the blue line. Hughes and Johnsson then found themselves on a two-on-one, where Hughes used his nasty puck-handling skills to juke through the other Capitals defender, and blast a wrist shot at Craig Anderson. The shot was saved, but multiple opportunities proceeded it, where Severson himself found a shot at an goalie-less net which was blocked by Carlson, keeping the game scoreless.

Almost immediately afterwards, the surging Kyle Palmieri found himself flanking down the left side, choosing to take on his defender himself. He found himself a step ahead of the defender and drove the net, but was matched by Craig Anderson, as Palmieri was unable to generate lift on the tight shot.

The Devils dominated the pace of the play for the next four minutes, before the Hischier line was able to draw a high-sticking penalty at the eight minute mark. On the power play, the Devils looked very fluid in their passing, as the puck cycling eventually found Johnsson, who fired a low shot through Anderson’s five hole for the 1-0 Devils lead.

After this goal, the beast that is the Capitals woke up, resulting in more of a back-and-forth to end the period. Dell held strong through the blitzes, as he was able to notch a couple of nice saves on Kuznetsov and Hagelin throughout the period. With just under three minutes left, Miles Wood drew a slashing call, giving the Capitals their first power play. Dell yet again held his own, as he stopped a Kuznetsov shot before himself and the Devils defenders negated any other opportunities for the Capitals, with the first concluding with a 1-0 Devils lead.

Period Two:
The start of the 2nd period saw the Capitals continuing to figure out the Devils, thus planting the seeds for success. They blitzed the Devils with shots, figuring out the weak point of the Devils defense was that Capital defenders could shoot from the blueline at will. Dell was incredible today - at this point in the game, he was doing his best to lead the Devils through the charge, as the Capitals struggled to figure out how to solve him. Evgeny Kuznetsov was able to take away the puck from Zajac early in the period, with the Devils dodging a bullet as an Alex Ovechkin shot rang off the pipe. Following this, the Johnsson and Hughes line were able to use their speed to intercept a Capitals pass and charge on a two-on-one. Johnsson found Hughes in front, who fired a tricky backhand shot past Anderson and into the top right corner for a 2-0 lead.

If there’s any joy that can come from this game, it’s the nickname that PK Subban and the NJ Devils have given to Jack Hughes.

Continued back and forth play following this goal saw many chances on both sides. Dell was able to stop Hagelin in the slot, before stopping a John Carlson point shot as well. The Devils were able to have some sustained time in the Capitals zone, but all of their shots missed the net. A Garnet Hathaway penalty led to a lot of nothing from the Devils powerplay, before Sami Vatanen was called for hooking Richard Panik.

The same mistakes from previous game penalty kills were yet again seen in this game. No one tied up TJ Oshie in the slot, as a John Carlson shot was tipped freely by Oshie and past Dell for a 2-1 score. This was a pretense for what would occur in the rest of the game - the Devils had nothing on the penalty kill.

For now, however, Dell held strong for the rest of the period, as the second period ended with the Devils still up 2-1.

Period Three:
The 3rd period looked good to start, it really did. Gusev and Maltsev were able to blitz Anderson early, with Gusev finding a loose puck only to unfortunately clang it off the post. Some more back and forth play followed as the period went along, but with around 15 minutes left in the game it was all Capitals from there. The Devils continuously struggled to get the puck out of their own zone, as any attempts to clear were either met with icings or interceptions from Capitals players. With that in mind, it was no surprise when a Carlson shot from the point, where Dell was completely screened, found its way past him to tie the game at 2.

You can’t let Sheary get that close to Dell without trying to clear him in some way. If Zdeno Chara can knock Devils players down without drawing a call (except a very blatant one later in the period), then surely the Devils defenseman can find someway to zone Sheary out of the way on this play.

Almost immediately after this goal, Kyle Palmieri was called for holding, when he really didn’t have to commit that penalty. The Devils penalty kill was yet again unable to stop anything, as TJ Oshie received a pass wide open in the slot, wristing the shot past Dell and in for a quick 3-2 lead.

The following minutes saw the Devils try to find a way to break into the Capitals zone, only to be stifled throughout as the Capital players could better read the Devils offensive strategy at this point. Jack Hughes did find a way to drive the net, but was stopped by Anderson while Zdeno Chara was simultaneously called for interference of Jesper Bratt.

The Devils power play had a lot of shots, but many of them were blocked or missed the net, resulting in no true opportunity for the Devils. A defensive breakdown then occurred, where Ryan Murray hauled down Hagelin for yet another penalty kill on the Devils. The Devils yet again lost an important faceoff and Ovechkin got his goal only seven seconds into the power play.

With this, many Devils fans likely turned off the TV and bemoaned an awful penalty kill yet again. If you did, nothing changed in terms of the outcome. However, Nikita Gusev was able to pot his first goal of the season with 9 seconds left in the game. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come for his production. Regardless, the Devils lost their second game in a row, as they fell 4-3 against the Capitals in a too-little too-late situation.

The Game Stats

The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Positives

Penalty kill aside, it can genuinely be argued that the Devils were the better team in even strength. The team is still incredibly fast and explosive and the youth is still showing up.

Aaron Dell had an excellent first game. Despite allowing four goals, it’s tough to truly fault him for any of the goals - they were all either defensive breakdowns or he was completely screened.

The Gusev - Zajac - Maltsev was our best line in even strength. The trio were able to hold the ship down when needed, as they recorded the best CF%’s amongst Devils forwards not named Pavel Zacha, as they all were at least 50%.

Jack Hughes is still trending towards future stardom. His skills are legit and the extra muscle he put on has helped him tremendously this season. He’s an exciting player for the Devils looking forward.

Lastly, I did think the power play looked better today. There’s still some hesitancy to shoot and poor passing when trying to get it to the slot, but the results are starting to show as the players are getting more confident.

The Negatives

Obviously, the penalty kill is a massive problem that needs fixing immediately. As mentioned in my blurb in the beginning, we entered the game killing only 63.2 percent of penalties. We ended the day even worse, at 59.5%. For reference, the average penalty kill for any NHL team not named the Devils is around 80%.

What is the cause of this problem? Likely a couple of factors, but one definite problem is the Devils inability to win faceoffs in crucial moments. Whenever the Capitals had a power play, it was almost expected that they would win the puck back to their blueline, thus setting up the play they were looking for. Then, even if Dell were to save a shot and ice the puck, the Capitals would proceed to just win the puck again and start yet another cycle. Furthermore, the inability to recognize which passing lanes to clog, as well as what seems to be reluctance to engage with Capital players looking for easy tips, has definitively hurt the Devils consistently throughout the season. Nasreddine needs to make changes.

While not necessarily bad, this was likely the most invisible the Wood-McLeod-Bastian line has and will look all season. Tom Wilson, Zdeno Chara and other physical Capital players used their physicality to match the trio whenever possible, which negated the trio’s presence more than other teams would likely to be able to. Look for this to be more of a one-off game.

Lastly, Kuznetsov, Sheary and Vrana had their way with the Devils whenever they wanted to. While they weren’t the goal scorers, they were the ones pinning the Devils in their zone and tiring defenders. All three ended with CF%s over 75% and outworked the Devils across the boards.

Final Thoughts

While I’m pessimistic about the penalty kill and have some fear that teams are beginning to solve the Devils offense, it’s impossible to ignore that on five-on-five the Devils held their own against an excellent Capitals squad. Changes do need to be made, but the Devils now have two games to figure out a plan against less talented Sabres squad on Tuesday.

What were your thoughts on the game? Who did you think played well? Who struggled? What do the Devils need to change? Let me know in the comments below and have a good night.