Blame it on the match-up. Blame it on the facts that the New Jersey Devils are not a good team and the Washington Capitals are arguably the top team in the East Division this season. Blame it on the situation that the Capitals got wrecked last night by the Islanders and wanted revenge. Blame it on the lack of finishing. Blame it on the power play. Blame it on the turnovers. Blame it on the defense giving up bucket loads of shots. Blame it on the coaches. Blame it on Jack Hughes. Blame it on Damon Severson, the Softest Soft that Ever Softed. Blame it on whomever. Blame it on the third jerseys the New Jersey Devils keep wearing in games that they rarely win. Blame it on whatever you want. Or do not want. The result will not change either way: the New Jersey Devils lost 1-2 to the Washington Capitals in overtime and are now winless in seven games against the Capitals.
Given that every game between these two have ended with the Capitals getting the win, there are a lot of points of comparison for this loss. This one was more of a disappointment among the seven losses out of seven games so far this season. The Devils’ performance in regulation can be best described as lackluster. New Jersey had no games on Wednesday and Thursday night whilst the Capitals got bulldozed by the crew led by Barzal last night. You would not have known that from how the game carried out. The Devils did not dictate the play or the pace to the Capitals. The Devils often missed the target; only 23 of their 51 shooting attempts tonight made it to Vitek Vanecek. The Devils did nothing - seriously, no shots on net - on their two power plays. The Devils came out so sleepy in the second period, it took a goal by John Carlson - which was created by a turnover after a Devils faceoff win - to remind them that the period begun given that the Caps ran up at least 10 shots within the first 8 minutes. There was a lot left to be desired.
That being said, the Devils did well to at least drag this game into overtime. The primary reason for that was named Mackenzie Blackwood. Of all the people and things you can blame, I insist that you should not blame Blackwood for this game. Blackwood was simply great in net. He did everything he could to keep this game at 0-0, 0-1, and later 1-1. He ended up facing 40 shots in a little over 64:30 tonight. I feel like I should send him a sympathy card or a fruit basket to comfort him. To let him know he is appreciated since the 18 men in front of him failed to do right by him and score more than one goal. He was so solid in net against a barrage of rubber from one of the most talented teams in the division and he does not get a win from it. I’m sorry, Mackenzie.
As much as I do not want to credit a defensive effort that conceded 37 shots in regulation, I will point out that they did try to limit the the Capitals from just doing whatever they wanted. Out of 61 shooting attempts allowed, only 4 were high-danger scoring chances. None of those four went in. That is another reason to be pleased with Blackwood’s performance. However, credit does go to the Devils skaters for cleaning up loose pucks, making sure players like Alex Ovechkin are not wide open in the offensive zone in 5-on-5, and not conceding potential back-breaking odd man rushes. The team needs to work on not conceding so many opportunities and their poor offensive performance contributed to that.
Despite the poor the Devils’ offensive performance was this evening, they did tie up the game and pull it into overtime. Minutes after Carlson’s score, Michael McLeod put back a rebound by Jesper Boqvist to make it 1-1. It was a nice bit of effort from the fourth line center, who scored his second goal in as many games. Even as the Capitals were forcing saves from Blackwood, the fewer opportunities for the Devils were a bit more dangerous than them. The Devils, believe it or not, won the high-danger chance count 6-4. Despite being out-shot in the third period 7-13, the best opportunity for a goal between both teams was when Jack Hughes stole a puck from a Capital, pulled it into the slot, and fired a hard wrister past Vitek Vanecek only for the post to deny him. I wish that went in; but I’ll take opportunities not going in over opportunities not happening - of which the Devils greatly suffered from this evening.
Overtime was a different beast. Whereas regulation was mostly in the Capitals’ control with Blackwood locking it down and the Devils keeping things measured, the 3-on-3 situation was wide open from the start. Defense is always contentious in these situations and I am sure both coaches were not pleased with their team’s efforts on them. The opening faceoff had a wrestling match ending with Conor Sheary getting a breakaway and forcing a big pad save from Blackwood. The Devils had some glorious chances to score in OT. Jack Hughes found Andreas Johnsson - who had a big scoring chance go awry for him earlier - all alone in front only for the snakebitten winger to lose the puck before a shot on net. Damon Severson sprung Hughes for a breakaway. Hughes tried to round Vanecek’s left, but the goaltender stayed with him as Hughes fell over trying to get around what was not there. At the very end of the game, P.K. Subban made a killer pass across the slot to a cutting Travis Zajac that I want to believe Vanecek robbed him on.
Alas, that led to the killing blow of this game. Dmitry Orlov took the rebound, charged up ice, fired a hard wrist shot that may have went off Yegor Sharangovich’s stick, and the puck went past Blackwood and into (and quickly out) of the net. With 20 seconds left and after a second straight “Grade A” scoring chance for the Devils, Orlov handed the Devils their seventh ‘L’ in this series. Technically, it is their second ‘OTL’ in this series. Still not a win.
I had zero confidence in the Devils had the game gone to a shootout. Yet, I wanted Orlov to not score then. I wanted Zajac to slam that puck in off the rush. I wanted Hughes to finish his breakaway. I wanted Johnsson to score his first goal in months. I wanted the Devils to somehow snipe a win despite an unimpressive performance because it was still there for the taking. I wanted the Devils to finally get one, just one, win over the Washington Capitals. As with a lot of things with the 2021 Devils, I did not get what I wanted. I received disappointment and the cruel reminder that the Capitals could very well sweep the season series on Easter Sunday.
In a sentence: Blackwood deserved a whole lot better than this.
The Opposition Opinion: For the other side, Geoff Thompson has this happier recap at Japers’ Rink.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Accuracy Also Left Something to be Desired: I have to reiterate that the Devils were really poor at getting their pucks to Vanecek at all tonight. Again, 23 shots on net out of 51 shooting attempts meant a lot of wasted opportunities from a lot of Devils. Washington put 40 out of 61 in comparison. While most were not particularly threatening, it is impossible to score without shooting. Sharangovich was stuffed four times. This was not only more than any Devil tonight, but he was the only Devil credited with more than one attempt blocked. While that was a sign that it was not the best night for the Belarussian, the issues with not putting the puck on target were team-wide. Similarly, only Hughes ended up with two missed shots on net per the official Event Summary and that included his post-ringing shot in the third period. All other Devils had one miss. Again, it was a team issue.
Speaking of Sharangovich, Wince at the Zajac Line: One of the standout lines last month was the combination of Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, and Travis Zajac. They were split up in the Boston game on Tuesday. They had a reunion tonight - sort of. They did not stay together throughout the game. This was good because they were picked on this evening. Per Natural Stat Trick, the line had 8:07 of ice time in 5-on-5 and when they were on the ice, the Capitals out-attempted them 6-11 and out-shot them 2-7. While Zajac did see a lot of Ovechkin, he and his linemates were bodied in the run of play by Washington’s fourth line of Garnet Hathaway, Nic Dowd, and Carl Hagelin. Even though Zajac line did not get scored on, it did contribute to how the Capitals out-shot the Devils by large margins in this game. It was not a good night for that unit. All three forwards ended up at or near the bottom in terms of CF%, SF%, and xGF% with Sharangovich having a particularly pathetic xGF% of 9.74%. I did not misplace that decimal point. It was that unproductive of a night for #17.
Oh, I Guess I Can Praise This Too (and then Complain More About the Power Play): The Devils’ penalty kill was successful for their third straight game against the Capitals. They killed both penalties. Both were not really good calls. Zdeno Chara bodying Jesper Bratt into Vanecek really should not have been called as goaltender inteference on Bratt. Sami Vatanen going off for a high stick on Ovechkin was iffy as well. While the Caps did put up seven shots on Blackwood, the Devils were able to deny them backdoor plays, deny them plays off the rush, and make some clearances to give themselves a little time to catch their breath. So that went well.
It would be good if the Devils coaches would pay more attention to Washington’s power play and try to do what they do on theirs. They are not doing exotic drop passes to one or two Devils. They are not leaving the puck carrier over the zone on an island with no one to pass it to upon entry. They are not just settling for blasts from 50 feet away in the hopes of a puck getting by or through traffic. Given that the Devils had a practice yesterday, I continue to be bemused at the Devils’ power play efforts. To repeat Dan’s title of the latest Garden State of Hockey episode, throw the power play into the Sun.
Other Lackluster Performances: I get the immediate criticism of Hughes not finishing plays. He was a #1 overall draft pick. The Devils will be building around him. I get it. The expectations are higher for him. However, he at least came close to scoring. What in the world did Kyle Palmieri do with his one shot out of three attempts? Why is it seemingly OK that Pavel Zacha has reverted to his infamously inconsistent self in a shotless performance? (Aside: Why did he get 19:44 of ice time and managed to put zero shots on net? And for those who have a problem with Hughes on faceoffs, I point out that Zacha went 7-for-21 tonight on draws.) Who was the man wearing #63 tonight, because he did not look like the guy I just named as the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of March 2021. He, too, was shotless. As much as I agree that the Devils should not be settling for long shots after working hard to gain the zone, it was off putting that the defensemen combined for four shots: two from Dmitry Kulikov, one from Vatanen, and one from Ty Smith. The Devils could have used some more looseness on where to fire it from seeing that they ended up with just 20 shots on Vanecek in regulation. This is all not to say that you cannot be displeased with Hughes or annoyed that Johnsson did not score on his five shots tonight or whatever. Again, I get the complaints about Hughes. I want him to score too. I am sure he wants to as well. This is to say that there were plenty of other Devils whose offensive performance left a lot to be desired this evening.
Credit Given Where Due: Washington played a perfectly smart game after getting hammered last night by the Isles. They identified that the Devils were going leave lots of space for longer shots and they did. Past games taught them that the Devils would cough up the puck in a bad spot and it happened to Lars Eller’s benefit, which became Carlson’s benefit. They knew that if Vanecek was not going to give up two stinky goals to the Devils, then he could be in a good position to get the result. Vanecek played quite well and the one goal scored by McLeod was a rebound goal, which was not really his fault. As much as I pointed out how the Devils did not let Ovechkin get away on his own, he still ended up with six shots on net. Likewise, Orlov’s goal was his sixth shot of the game too - he and Carlson benefitted from all that open space from the points.
My Confidence Level for Sunday’s Season Series Ender with Washington: Abysmally low. Again, the Devils could have pulled out a win tonight with a more dominant or even a luckier third period. Or even in OT. They were close. Close is not enough against the top team in the East.
My Personal Scapegoat: The Reverse Retro jerseys. It is not near St. Patrick’s Day so wearing those might as well have meant penciling in a ‘L’ for the Devils. If it were me, I would have trashed them weeks ago.
Your Take: The Devils are now 0-5-2 against the Capitals this season. Orlov provided the latest disappointment in a 2021 full of them against Washington D.C.’s team. What is your take on tonight’s loss? Who on the Devils impressed you? What can the Devils do between now and Sunday afternoon to prepare for Washington and somehow, someway get one win against them to deny them a series sweep? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the overtime loss in the comments.
Thanks to Jenna for the game preview this morning. Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog during the game on Twitter. Thanks to everyone who commented in and followed along in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.