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Game Preview #6: New Jersey Devils vs. Washington Capitals

A surging Devils squad takes on an aging Washington Capitals team that has struggled enough through the start of their season to rank last in the Metropolitan Division.

New Jersey Devils v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils vs. Washington Capitals

The Time: 7:30 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TNT, MAX

The Opposition: Russian Machine Never Breaks

Bent But Not Broken

The Devils are a bit banged up heading into tonight’s game. They’ve had some small bad luck on the injury front early in the season, but they’re also fortunate the injuries have not been worse. Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock drove Nico Hischier into the boards in their matchup against the other New York last Friday.

At first, when it was reported that Hischier was injured, the potential prognosis seemed grim. Hischier’s shoulder, neck, and head crunched against the boards, and he did not play the remainder of the game. However, though he missed one practice between games, Hischier played against Montreal last night and appeared no worse for wear. In fact, on a new line alongside Jesper Bratt and Ondrej Palat, Hischier scored his first goal and point of the season in the Devils’ commanding 5-2 victory.

Erik Haula, after sustaining an injury that was not disclosed by the coaching staff or Haula himself, also played last night. His line was a negative from a possession perspective, but they were the only ones that didn’t seem to click on a Devils squad that was firing on all cylinders. I don’t expect full-scale line changes, as three out of their four lines hammered Montreal, but I’d like to see a better defensive game (or some offensive contributions) from the Mercer - Haula - Holtz line tonight.

Vitek Vanecek, who made 24/25 saves against the Canadiens last night, will likely not play the second half of the back-to-back. Expect Akira Schmid to suit up tonight. Schmid has played twice this year, registering an .892 SV% and a 3.30 GAA. I thought Schmid played pretty well his first game of the season, and I’m optimistic he can stand tall against a struggling Capitals team tonight.

What’s happened to the Washington Capitals?

The Devils last played the Capitals on April 13, 2023 in the game that Luke Hughes scored his stunning overtime-winning goal to carry New Jersey to a 5-4 victory.

The Capitals have struggled through their first four games, going 1-3-1 with a -12 goal differential—which is good for the second-worst goal differential in the league. It’s still early days, but the Capitals haven’t been able to keep the puck out of their net. As of 10/23, Darcy Kuemper has posted an abysmal .868 save percentage, while backup Charlie Lindgren has managed a marginally-better .886 SV%. With Lindgren suffering an upper-body injury and the Capitals—like the Devils—having played the first half of a back-to-back yesterday (and falling to the Leafs 4-1), it appears that Hunter Shepard will make his NHL debut tonight.

A career minor-leaguer, Shepard has done just fine in the AHL but—at age 27—is nothing more than a third-string goalie at this stage of his career, even accounting for the development curve of goaltenders.

The Capitals played against the Maple Leafs last night. These were their lines:

While Washington made a couple offseason acquisitions that could aid them down the line, both Joel Edmundson and Max Pacioretty are on long-term injured reserve, Edmundson with a hand injury and Pacioretty still out from his most recent Achilles tear. If Pacioretty rediscovers his scoring flair from the recent past and can stay healthy, then he could serve as part of an upcoming Capitals resurgence. But for now, he won’t factor against the Devils tonight.

Whether they would’ve played against the Devils or not, Edmundson and Paciorietty were hardly enough to account for the talent-drain the Capitals experienced last season. Connor Brown, Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary, and Dmitry Orlov all departed the nation’s capital, leaving the team with a collection of spare parts and window dressing to hang around the greatest goal scorer who ever lived. You can argue that none of the above players—aside from perhaps Orlov—were true difference makers, and you would probably be right. But the fact remains that this is a Capitals squad that has less talent and less depth than they’ve had in a long, long time. There are players to like on this team outside Ovechkin. Dylan Strome, Rasmus Sandin, John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, and Darcy Kuemper (if he rediscovers his form) could all serve as pieces on a Stanley Cup contender. But by themselves? This team is lacking depth and star power, and they could be poised to take a massive step back if they don’t get their season on track soon.

Your Thoughts

Do you think the Capitals are a playoff team, or are they poised to take a massive step back this season? Will the Devils manage to start on time against the Metropolitan’s current-worst team? Let us know in the comments below!