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Game Preview #17: New Jersey Devils vs. Washington Capitals

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Welcome to the end of February and the last game of the month for the New Jersey Devils. Will it end with a third loss to the Washington Capitals? Or will they attain revenge and end the month on a high note? Get prepared for today’s game with this game preview post.

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils
The Devils will try again to get something against Washington this season.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils have a chance of ending February still above 50% in points percentage. To do so, they will need to do something they did not do yet this season: get points against the Washington Capitals.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils vs. the Washington Capitals (SBN Blog: Japers’ Rink)

The Time: 3:00 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG, NBCSWA; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network (Radio.com)

The Last Devils-Capitals Game: Yesterday, the Devils hosted the Capitals for the first time this season. Unlike their previous three games, the Devils did not start the game well at all. They were beaten in the run of play and on the scoreboard by the Capitals in the first period. Washington went up early with goals by Garnet Hathaway, Daniel Sprong, and Lars Eller within the first 14 minutes. Hardly the names you would have expected from the Capitals, but that only underscored how poor the start was. However, a lifeline was provided by team captain Nico Hischier with a power play goal (!) late in the first. In a much stingier second period, the Devils performed better and clawed even closer to evening up the game. Pavel Zacha continued his torrid streak of production with a goal to make it 2-3 in the second period. The Devils turned up the pressure in the third period in looking for an equalizer. But Washington would blow the game wide open when Jakub Vrana blew by in between two Devils skaters and beat Mackenzie Blackwood - who faced his first shot in a long, long time at that point - to make it 2-4. It ended up being a backbreaker for New Jersey. The Devils tried to get back into it, but to no avail. A late third period power play was a good opportunity in theory, but it ended with Hischier taking a deflected shot to the face and Kyle Palmieri taking a penalty. While that was killed, Carl Hagelin and Nic Dowd forced a zone exit against six Devils skaters late and Dowd iced the game with an empty net goal. The Devils lost 2-5 to Washington. Devin recapped the game here at All About the Jersey. For the other side, Bryan H. Stabbe wrote this recap at Japers’ Rink.

The Season Series So Far: The Devils are 0-2-0 against Washington this season. Here are those scores:

The Goals: Normally, I would highlight one aspect of the game the Devils would need to accomplish in order to best help their chances to win the game. This is not a normal season and so I will give you two. One that the Devils obviously failed at yesterday but did do in their first game against the Capitals. The other is something the Devils did do yesterday but definitely did not do in their first game against the Capitals.

The first goal is to actually get started off well. As much as I can appreciate the comeback effort in Saturday’s game, the Devils’ terrible start to the game was the reason why they had to make a comeback effort at all. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Capitals out-attempted the Devils 22-19, out-shot them 14-8, out-chanced them 11-6, and out-high-danger-chanced them 7-2. The Capitals controlled the run of play and cashed in big time with three goals. Even if they only scored once, they limited the Devils’ opportunities to respond to even just one goal. Had Sheary not tripped Travis Zajac, it could have been 0-3 after the first period. While I like seeing the Devils not giving up on a game, I think it is important to play consistently well as possible for as long as possible against a team of Washington’s caliber. This means they need to start the game off well and not just skate about like they are in a fog. It is also not at all impossible. The Devils demonstrated this in the first game against Washington last Sunday, where they controlled the first 10-11 minutes and even were up 1-0. While the Caps came back in terms of possession in that first period, the good start put the Devils in a better position to possibly succeed. I think they will need to do that to do so today.

The second goal is to continue being positive on special teams. The Devils melted down in a 3-4 loss to Washington largely because of their abysmal penalty kill getting lit up. It was a game where if the Devils had a decent penalty kill, then they could have at least grinded a point out of Washington D.C. Believe it or not, the Devils had the performance of one yesterday. Not that there were a lot of penalties for either team, but the Devils killed one full power play for Washington and the abbreviated one late in the game. That’s two for two on kills. For a team currently rocking a historically low success rate on penalty kills, that is an achievement. And the Devils’ power play, which has deservedly not earned a lot of praise this season, was also successful as Hischier’s goal was a PPG. Going 1-for-3 is another step in the right direction for them. More important for this game, special teams were a legitimate net positive yesterday. It made a comeback effort more possible, which did happen throughout a large portion of the game. If the Devils can manage to come out ahead in special teams today, then that would absolutely help their cause against Washington. And any other opponent since the Devils have thrown away points thanks to an epic-level disaster of a penalty kill.

If you combine both, the Devils will put themselves in a really strong position to at least get something out of today’s game. Hence, I think both goals are equally valuable.

Keep Rocking: Despite the loss, I do think there were some Devils yesterday who just need to keep doing what they are doing.

  • The line of Pavel Zacha, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt. Hischier converted a power play and set up Zacha’s second period goal. Zacha’s goal continued his point streak that began on January 30. It was the Devils’ lone 5-on-5 goal yesterday. The line created the most attempts (16) and shots on net (9) in 5-on-5 play too. Bratt did not have one of his better performances but he was far from the worst among Devils forwards yesterday. There should be some changes in the roster for today’s game. This line should not be one of them.
  • The pairing of Damon Severson and Ty Smith. While both saw a 5-on-5 goal against yesterday and did not have a good first period, the Devils were at their best in 5-on-5 when either was on the ice. The pairing has been fantastic since its formation and should also not be touched.
  • The combination of Jack Hughes and Andreas Johnsson. The Big Deal and Johnsson had some great 5-on-5 results, while they were quieter than their offensive outburst against Buffalo. I think Johnsson needs Hughes more than Hughes needs Johnsson. But given that those two have been quite functional so far together, I would not split them up yet. I did not forget a third person, by the way.
  • I would not be so concerned about Mackenzie Blackwood. As poor as the Vrana breakaway goal was in retrospect, I think Blackwood has more than earned enough respect to think he will be fine. Because he will be fine. If that was a truly bad game for the goaltender, then the Devils are set in net with Blackwood. Do I think he will play today? That is a different question.

Shape Up and Soon Please: There were more Devils who I want to see more from today because they were poor yesterday and/or lackluster this season.

  • Nikita Gusev. The Goose has been cooked? No, that would imply he was hot earlier. Gusev has been lost. Despite scoring two consolation goals last week, he has been a non-factor. If Gusev gets scratched soon, then do not be shocked. And should his play rebound similar to last season, do not act like the Devils did him wrong by scratching hi.
  • The line of Gusev, Travis Zajac, and Yegor Sharangovich. Per Natural Stat Trick, somehow the Devils out-attempted the Capitals 8-4 but were out-shot 0-3 in 5-on-5 with this line on the ice. The Devils also failed to register even one shot on net when Zajac and Sharangovich were with others. Zajac was performing so well in January that is shocking that he has been this poor in February. He needs to be better. He has been better in 2021. It is very much possible. Sharangovich is in that taxi squad situation where every game should be treated as a chance to get more ice time with New Jersey. He faltered to command more minutes; I would not be surprised if the Devils bring in someone else - Mikhail Maltsev? Nick Merkley? - in place of Sharangovich today.
  • Related to the last bullet: Lindy Ruff, please pick a better unit than the Zajac line to match up against the one that has Alex Ovechkin. To say the Devils lost that matchup would be an understatement.
  • Sami Vatanen. While Will Butcher, his partner, was not at all helpful to the cause yesterday, Butcher was brought in to replace an unavailable Ryan Murray. I am a little more sympathetic for Butcher. But Vatanen has been a regular since he was able to play and he has yet to show why he was worth signing. I understand a slow start for Vatanen between the lack of camp activities and joining the team during an outbreak. Still, Washington Capitals skaters were feasting on the Devils when he took a shift in 5-on-5. His past errors on the PK plus performances like that are enough to warrant a benching. I hope he turns it around before it happens.
  • Related to the last bullet: Masisak reported after yesterday’s game that Murray was a healthy scratch. I think he may draw back into the lineup in place of Butcher today, but we shall see.
  • The line of Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian. The “energy” line did not really bring or generate much of it. I do not think they should or will be changed; I just think they should try to be better today.

Notes from the Capitals Performances: From yesterday and last Sunday’s game, the Capitals were big fans of taking long shots from the points to try to generate offense. It was the right point last Sunday. Yesterday, it was the left point. While Washington scored goals far closer than those areas in each game, often a shot from there was the catalyst for the scoring play. If there’s a team adjustment I would want to see today, then I would want to see the Devils to at least pressure the point men more. At least make those shots harder instead of letting them have all that free real estate. Especially in the case of John Carlson, who had 7 shots in the two games against New Jersey - tied for the most by a Capital against the Devils along with Vrana. The Devils need a better answer for Carlson than what they have had so far.

The Devils should be careful about firing long shots of their own. The Capitals have been able to win some their attempts of pressure by the blueline (say from the line to about 15 feet in). When that happens, odd man rushes and breakaways follow. It led to the empty net goal that iced the game yesterday. It led to Sheary leading a 3-on-1 that ended with the eventual game winning goal of the day. It has been a source of concern for their power plays all season as opposing penalty kills know they can challenge the Devils’ pointmen and win pucks to end their attacks. Washington is no different. Unless they have a lot of space, the Devils need to be quicker in their decision making with the puck in that part of the offensive zone. Whether they shoot it, pass it, skate it in (or even out of the zone), they just need to commit to quickly before the pressure comes. It is something of particulate note for Washington as it seemed to me that Hagelin, Dowd, Hathaway, Sheary, and so forth have succeed quite well at it.

I would also still make discipline a priority. The first game saw the the Capitals’ power play turn the game around and take it. The Devils’ penalty kill allowed zero shots on net yesterday, which is great. Even better was that they only took two penalties all game. I do not know if the refs will be as lenient today, but the Devils should not run the risk of going down a man or two to this Capitals team. If they want that net positive on special teams again, this will help.

Guesses at Goaltenders: As this is a back-to-back set for both teams, I would not be surprised if we see different starting goaltenders today. That would mean Aaron Dell for New Jersey. It depends on what transactions are made for Washington. Craig Anderson backed up Vitek Vanecek yesterday. However, Ilya Samsonov was moved to the taxi squad yesterday morning, so he could be in the mix. As I think Dell is not as good as Blackwood, I think the Devils need to be careful about this game turning into a free-wheeling offensive game.

One Last Thought: I hope Nico Hischier is available to play today and Pavel Zacha remains hot. If nothing else, it would ensure that the Devils will have at least one threatening line today.

Your Take: Will the Devils get revenge for yesterday’s (and last Sunday’s) loss? What do you think they will need to excel at today to out-score the Capitals? What changes would you make if you were Lindy Ruff? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading. Go Devils!