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Game Preview #82: New Jersey Devils @ Washington Capitals

The Devils go to DC for the final regular season game of the season, a game of substantial consequence for the Devils with the Division title potentially up for grabs. Learn more about tonight’s matchup in this Devils game preview.

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NHL: Washington Capitals at Montreal Canadiens
Darcy Kuemper: the obstacle
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (51-22-8) versus the Washington Capitals (35-37-9).

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - NBCSWA, MSGSN

Recent Washington Play

Coming into the season, status quo was the rule in Washington, as their roster remained relatively unchanged from last year, with management looking to simply roll it back and get into the playoffs on the back of their aging stars. Things did not turn out that way, as they were sitting 22nd in points percentage in the NHL by the trade deadline, on route to that sad spot of being the first team on the outside looking in. Therefore, they shipped out at the trade deadline, losing Lars Eller, Erik Gustafsson, Marcus Johansson, Garnet Hathaway and Dmitry Orlov. Per NaturalStattrick, since the trade deadline, they have been 27th in points percentage with 0.361. Before the trade deadline, they were 22nd with 0.524. Comparing these two paces, basically, they are gaining 2 * (0.524 - 0.361) = 0.326 fewer points per game since, which translates to almost 6 points in their 18 games. If you give the Caps an extra six points in the standings they would jump up three or four spots depending on their tiebreaker with Ottawa. Certainly not a negligible difference, as they now have 5% rather than 0% at Bedard, per the Athletic, and 5.3% per MoneyPuck. I give the Capitals’ front office a lot of credit for realising that they weren’t going to make the playoffs and therefore made the correct decision of selling and tanking the season. They gained a lot of assets and will certainly be players in free agency this summer and a dark-horse contender for next year.

Either way, they have been playing very poor hockey since the deadline and have very little to play for: other than thanking their fans with this being their last home game of the season, as well as not wanting to lose the last game of the year, not much hinges on this game (from the players’ point of view, you can bet management wants the team to lose badly). However, I am not sure how strong these incentives really are, certainly not stronger than the Devils’ desire (I hope) to win the division. The Devils should want it more, and they should show it.

The Team

As with all bad teams, a lot of players have been out with injuries. The following is a list of players expected back tonight, but I doubt we will see all of them:

Charlie Lindgren, Nic Dowd, Alex Ovechkin, Anthony Mantha, Trevor van Riemsyk.

Clearly that is an important group of players for the Caps. For what it’s worth, given that many of the following might not play, here is the Washington roster (The Athletic):

Although the roster is lacking in talent, the forward group is still highly balanced, in the sense that there isn’t a great deal of difference in on-ice product between, say, the fourth and third and the third and second lines. I am not sure, of course, how much this matters in practice when the base level quality is not very high, but it is certainly better than having a top line well below league average while having bottom-six lines well below league average. as well

TJ Oshie is out for the season, so he is one inclusion in the above which will not be involved tonight. Thankfully. I think Oshie is a wonderful player, and that is despite him destroying the Devils for years on end (I actually looked into this, turns out he is not a Devils-killer: he has 33 career games versus the Devils, scoring 8 goals and 15 points for 0.242 goals per game, 0.455 points per game, both lower than his career numbers of 0.303 and 0.699. But either way, happy he isn’t playing). One guy who is omitted above but played in the last Washington game is defensive MVP John Carlson. This year, with Carlson in the lineup, the Caps are 20-16-3, for a points percentage of 0.551. Without him, they are 15-21-6, giving 0.429. That’s a pretty big difference for one individual player. He’s in the lineup tonight.

As always, the Caps will live and die by Alex Ovechkin and how he performs. As long as he is in the NHL, the Caps will be contending, trying to both give him another chance at a cup, but mainly nowadays to help him beat Gretzky’s goals-scoring record. On that note, per NaturalStattrick, this season Ovi is 13th among NHL players with at least 500 minutes in goals per 60 in all situations, 10th in shots per 60, and 16th in individual xG per 60. He is a +5% finisher per HockeyViz which is around the top percentiles. Yeah, he is still going strong, retaining the ability to score at will.

The trade deadline was not all stripping it bare for the Caps, as they acquired Rasmus Sandin from Toronto in the Gustafsson trade. There was much uproar about his first couple performances for Washington as he scored points and had unbelievable rates being given a top-of-the-lineup role for the first time in his career, having been mostly burried in Toronto. However, after his initial burst, he has settled down to more normal play. The following, from HockeyStatCards, is his 5-game moving average game score (game score, basically how well he plays in each game) this year

His last game with Toronto was the 26th of February, his first with the Caps on the fourth of March. The point after the 2-26 point was thus his first game with the Caps. His first four performances had game scores of 3.09, 1.13, 0.59, 3.13. All of these are great, being positive, and the large ones are exceptional. However, his next games were -1.96, -2.95, -1.75, -3.84, and his moving average plummeted below 0. Since that initial start, per this chart, he was fantastic, unusable, and is now basically average or perhaps slightly above. Nothing to be afraid of tonight, I shouldn’t think.

Capitals backup Charlie Lindgren, who was on the list of potential returnees for the Devils game tonight, went out injured from the Boston game. He is the backup and was injured, so I would be shocked if he plays tonight. Expect to see starter Darcy Kuemper. The following are the reigning cup-winning goalie’s stats for the year from HockeyReference: 0.909 save percentage, 0.509 quality start percentage, 7.8 goals saved above average, 10.1 point shares (leads Capitals). He is clearly having a solid solid season with the Caps, playing above average NHL goaltending. His quality start percentage is below league average (0.53) but that can be attributed to being on a bad team, I would say. The following is how he has stopped shots this year in all situations, HockeyViz:

He struggles mightily from just around the crease and the slot area, so forcing the puck in there should be a priority for the Devils. In terms of game-stealing ability, Kuemper has five shutouts in 56 games played this year. He has eight futher games with save percentage above 0.950, and has seven further games with save percentage above 0.925. Thus, his save percentage is above 0.925 in 35.7% of his games, above 0.950 in 23.2% of his games, and is perfect in 8.93% of his games. So he clearly has the potential. I would not take this goaltending matchup lightly.

The Devils

For my part, there are basically two things riding on this game, one highly significant and one which I would like to see happen, but certainly not at the expense of the first. Winning the Metro and Jack Hughes hitting 100 points.

With a Devils win and Carolina not winning against Florida — even a Carolina OTL would suffice — the Devils finish first in the Metro and would play Florida. Any other permutation of outcomes and the Devils play the Rangers. MoneyPuck has Devils at 37.5% of winning the division, while The Athletic gives them 11%. For the individual games, by MoneyPuck, Florida has 55.2% to beat Carolina, the Devils have 58.0% against Washington. Bookmakers, as I write this, give the Devils roughly 62.5%, Florida 51%. So by any metric, it is a long-shot that the Devils win the division. Notwithstanding, I would say that, if the Devils put their minds to it, they could easily beat Washington, if they only are motivated for it and play as well as they can, as we know they can. Given that the Devils do beat the Caps, suddenly there is a greater than 50% chance that they win the Metro. The Islanders beat the Montreal Canadiens last night to leapfrog Florida in the standings, eliminating Pittsburgh. Florida are guaranteed a playoff spot, but if they lose to Carolina they will face Boston... not an enviable prospect. As such, I imagine the Panthers will be highly motivated to come out and beat the Canes (Carolina will also be motivated, of course, much rather wanting to play the Islanders than the Rangers, or, in the case that the Devils lose, much rather playing the Islanders than Florida). These are all various different scenarious where only one will occur, of course, but the point is that the Devils have a real chance to create a much more tractable path to the conference finals, and it all starts with beating the Caps.

Moving on to Jack Hughes hitting 100 points, he is currently at 97, meaning he needs three points of any description against Washington. The following are games with 3+ points for Hughes this season:

Fri 4/7 vs CBJ, W, 4 points

Sat 3/25 @ BUF, L, 3 points

Mon 3/13 vs CAR, W, 3 points

Tue 2/7 vs VAN, W, 3 points

Sat 1/14 @ ANA, W, 3 points

Sat 1/7 vs NYR, W, 3 points

Sun 11/27 vs WSH, W, 3 points

Wed 11/16 @ MTL, W, 3 points

Looking at this data from different perspectives, relevant to the context of tonight’s game versus the Capitals, he had 3+ points

8 times out of 77 games, for 10.39%;

3 times out of 41 away games, for 7.32%;

6 times out of 44 games against non-playoff teams, for 13.64%;

4 times out of 27 games versus divisional teams, for 14.81%;

7 times out of 51 won games, for 13.73%.

Here too, then, whichever way we slice it, we are looking at a pretty long shot. Encouragingly, he has already done it versus Washington this year, when he scored his first career hattrick back in November. Alas, I wouldn’t expect it to happen tonight.

This is the last regular season game for the Devils in what has been a remarkable turnaround year. If the Devils get even a point tonight it will set an NHL record for largest turnaround points-wise one season to the next. Win and the 52 wins on the season would be a franchise record. Whatever happens, we can be proud of our team for a fantastic year where they have made a lot of fans believe again, fans that previously were convinced that the team had been cursed with eternal misery. The playoffs start next week and irrespective of who the Devils face they are legitimate contenders. I for one can’t wait.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of tonight’s matchup? Honestly, I would be shocked if the Devils fail to take care of business tonight, having someting to play for while the Caps do not. Then it is up to Florida to give us a hand. What are your thoughts on Darcy Kuemper in net for Washington? A guy who can potentially goalie you, or just a solid keeper who will stop 91% of shots he faces and let in the rest? Will the Devils win the division? Do you even care if they do or not? Will Jack hit 100 points? He was phenomenal against Buffalo, so I am slightly frustrated that he didn’t come out of that one with at least two points rather than one: leaving three for tonight will be tricky. With this being the final regular season game of the year, what are you favourite memories of the season? The 13-game win streak? Beating the Rags in the season series? One of the many OT-winners or goals tying it late with an empty net? Something else completely? Let me know in the comments, and thank you for reading and supporting the site!