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Devils Go Back and Forth With Capitals, Coughing Up 4-3 Loss

The New Jersey Devils took on the Washington Capitals to start a back-to-back set against them. It was competitive and close throughout.

First Period

On the very first shift, which was the Zajac line against the Kuznetsov-Ovechkin line, Yegor Sharangovich was set up at the edge of the faceoff circle and rang the first shot attempt of the game off the post. On the following shift, Vitek Vanecek misplayed a puck and Nick Merkley stepped between him and John Carlson, poking the puck past Vanecek and into the net. 1-0, Devils.

The Devils shortly after got hemmed in by the Capitals, and after MacKenzie Blackwood poorly played a puck, causing the Devils to lose the puck to the Capitals forecheck, Dmitry Orlov shot through a multi-man screen. The shot rang off the pipe and into the net – 1-1.

Yegor Sharangovich was called for hooking after turning the puck over off a neutral zone draw. He did not handle a pass well, knocking it into the Devils’ defensive zone, where it was taken by the Capitals. Sharangovich did too much in the process of attempting to take the puck back, and the Devils went to the penalty kill.

The Devils sent out Zacha and Zajac with Kulokov and Vatanen. The Capitals set up, and Jakub Vrana got a shot in tight after a cycle, which was blocked away by Blackwood. Travis Zajac then cleared the puck, and the Devils changed their penalty killing unit. At the end of the first minute, Andreas Johnsson got a clear, and the first kill unit came back on. Vatanen quickly got a clear from behind Blackwood, sending it down the ice. With 22 seconds, the Capitals were called for offsides. Off the draw, Vatanen cleared the puck again, The Capitals could not penetrate the forechecking of Michael McLeod quick enough to counterattack, and the kill was successful.

After Yegor Sharangovich nearly created a goal for Travis Zajac with a centering pass from below the goal line, a shot by Ty Smith was gloved by Vitek Vanecek. Brendon Dillon gave Sharangovich a few shoves after the whistle, and it seemed like Sharangovich was starting to be noticed by the Caps. The Zajac line had a very good shift following the next faceoff, which resulted in Janne Kuokkanen having a prime opportunity coming down toward the slot, but his shot was deflected by Vanecek’s glove wide of net.

The Hughes line then drew a penalty during their cycling, which also featured a Jesper Bratt shot that was deflected wide. The Zacha line came on with the extra attacker, and they passed around the zone for awhile, failing to set up a shot before the Capitals touched up the puck. The penalty was for Palmieri’s stick being slashed out of his hands by Zdeno Chara.

With the Devils power play on, the Capitals quickly took the puck and forced the Devils to take it back in the neutral zone. Getting back in the zone, Kyle Palmieri shot a puck that was deflected out of play 30 seconds in. The Devils then sent out Zajac with Hughes, Merkley, Subban, and Severson. Hughes gained the offensive zone after the Capitals cleared, and a one-timer from Subban was stopped. The Devils then crashed the net, and Miles Wood and Jack Hughes got several attempts at the puck, but the Capitals kept the puck out of the net. Wood took a high stick behind the net, but no call was made despite him bleeding from the stick from Dmitry Orlov. The Devils should have been on the power play for nearly four more minutes, but the Capitals instead killed the remaining 15 seconds of the power play after an offsides call.

Janne Kuokkanen stripped a puck in the neutral zone and slid it to Yegor Sharangovich, who was unable to make anything happen in the Devils’ offensive zone. It was unfortunate – Kuokkanen made a great defensive play. However, Sharangovich would not be denied an opportunity after a re-entry. After sailing a wrist shot just high of the net, he took the puck away behind the Capitals’ net and forced Vanecek to stop a quick wrap-around.

Ty Smith drew a penalty in the offensive zone, getting tripped up as he got past Jakub Vrana at the blueline. With just 1:45 left in the period, the Devils went back to the power play. The Hughes unit came back on, and after the draw Zajac got off for Wood. Nick Merkley was nearly offsides on the entry, and the Devils started to cycle arund the zone. A pass from Hughes to Severson down low skipped over Severson’s stick. The Devils then had two shots go wide. The other power play unit came on, and Pavel Zacha had a chance to score off a rebound from a deflected Ty Smith shot. However, he couldn’t shovel the backhand, and the puck was steered away by the Capitals, ending the period at 1-1.

Second Period

The Devils could not do anything with the 15 seconds of carry-over penalty time, but maintained possession after the penalty expired. The Zajac line had a lengthy shift, and just couldn’t tee up a shot despite a lot of zone time. The Devils changed after Daniel Sprong received a stretch pass the other way, who was defended well by the Devils.

The Zacha line fought its way into the offensive zone a couple minutes later, but a shot by Nick Merkley was deflected wide. At the end of their shift, Pavel Zacha tried to reach Jesper Bratt with a pass from the defensive zone to the far blue line, but it was just off. On the following shift, the Hughes line, Kulikov, and Subban played back and forth with chips and dumps between the Devils and Capitals for nearly half the time they were on the ice.

MacKenzie Blackwood made a big save shortly after Tom Wilson went around the net with the puck, setting up Zdeno Chara in the slot. On the other end, Miles Wood snuck a shot past Vanecek. Wood shot the puck at a terrible angle, but the puck banked off Vanecek’s back and past the post. 2-1, Devils.

Right after the Devils’ goal, they failed to get out of the zone against the Kuznetsov line. Pavel Zacha passed to Mikhail Maltsev at the blueline, but the puck was poked away by John Carlson. Daniel Sprong got the puck low in the zone, and he played it across to Ovechkin, whose one-timer got past Blackwood. 2-2.

After the Devils failed to do anything following a shot by Dmitry Kulikov that was knocked around, Alex Ovechkin tried to take the puck through the neutral zone toward Blackwood, but was stripped of the puck at the last minute by Janne Kuokkanen. The Zajac line quickly turned it around and kept the puck in the offensive zone for most of the rest of their shift.

Play slowed down for a few minutes, but the Capitals suddenly came in fast and determined with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov on the ice. Ovechkin’s initial slap shot was saved, but Kuznetsov picked up the rebound after it was gloved away by Sami Vatanen and scored as Blackwood had trouble finding the puck through the bodies in front. 3-2, Capitals. The Capitals had three goals on 11 shots.

The Devils turned the puck over in the defensive zone again, and TJ Oshie cut through the middle for a shot that was saved by the end of Blackwood’s pad. The Zacha line had a good shift against the Kuznetsov line, but it only resulted in a shot from Damon Severson that was deflected out of play. Merkley could have hit Maltsev or Zacha going to the net for a shot after the zone entry, but he went to the far side instead, and generated nothing. The McLeod line got hemmed in for awhile, but kept play mostly to the outside of the zone before clearing it after a blocked shot, causing an offsides.

Most of the rest of the period was slow and uneventful. Neither team did much with the puck, and the Devils did not complete a lot of thir passes. Still, they had an opportunity with the McLeod line. Johnsson had it poked away as he cut from behind the net, and Miles Wood had a wrist shot that was saved by Vanecek. The Caps eventually pushed play out of the zone, and the two teams went back and forth in the last 30 seconds of the period, which ended at 3-2. The Devils had 17 shots through two periods, and the Capitals had 13.

Third Period

The Capitals took the puck off the draw, and the Zajac line went to work on defense, winning the puck out of the corner but struggling to leave the defensive zone. Travis Zajac was high sticked coming through the neutral zone, and went down, but no penalty was called. The Devils fought back into the offensive zone, and got a shot on Vanecek. Zajac was not happy and turned back to give an earful to the referees as he went to the bench.

Connor Sheary got a breakaway opportunity on Blackwood nearly five minutes into the period. Sheary got a pass on an odd-man rush and was all alone, but Blackwood gave him no room with his pad covering the low part of the net, forcing Sheary to hit the side of the net. A couple minutes later, Blackwood made another huge save on Ovechkin, who had the puck right outside the crease after a lengthy Capitals attack.

The line of Jesper Bratt, Mikhail Maltsev, and Nick Merkley nearly tied up the game, as they got a possession off a Capitals breakout turnover. Bratt set up Merkley low, and he went wide on Vanecek, pulling him out of position but not scoring as the shot went wide after going through the five hole. Maltsev, on the other side of the net, missed out on the rebound opportunity, as Maltsev’s shot from close to the goal line was steered wide by Dmitry Orlov.

With half a period left to play, the Zajac line created an offensive zone possession. After a one-timer was saved, Zajac prevented the Capitals from clearing the zone and pushed play back to the corner, where Yegor Sharangovich was taken down in the corner, getting the Devils a power play. It was not as blatant a penalty as the two missed high sticks, but the referees made up a call anyway. Nick Jensen went off for cross-checking.

The Devils quickly went to work on the power play, passing around the zone with determination and speed. Pavel Zacha found Jesper Bratt across the zone, and Bratt played catch with Ty Smith from the circle to the point. On the pass back, Bratt one-timed it past Vanecek. 3-3.

The Capitals came fighting back, but the Devils forced the Ovechkin line to settle for a point shot that was deflected wide. As the Devils cleared the zone, TJ Oshie crunched Michael McLeod near the blueline. The Capitals quickly re-established possession, and Evgeny Kuznetsov got his second of the game as his redirection from the slot went off Damon Severson and into the net. 4-3, Capitals with 7:54 to play.

Sami Vatanen took a penalty with 7:34 to play, as he hooked Garnet Hathaway as he tried to get a loose rebound that trickled wide of net. The Devils got a quick clear, and the Capitals entered the offensive zone with 25 seconds elapsed. Jakub Vrana was quickly set up in front, but Blackwood sniffed it out. The Devils cleared, and the Capitals had to re-enter again. Travis Zajac blocked a shot, and P.K. Subban cleared the puck. In the last 45 seconds, Wood and Bratt killed with Severson and Kulikov. Wood did very well to get the puck down ice, skating through multiple Caps. The Devils successfully killed the Capitals’ power play. They then had a little over five minutes left to tie the game.

The Hughes line, with Zacha, got into the offensive zone but had to re-enter after being chased out. Kyle Palmieri then had to cede the zone as he was tied up on the boards, and the Devils changed lines for Zajac’s. They could not get anything going, and ceded a sharp angle-shot that Blackwood covered with four minutes to play.

With a bit over three minutes to play, the Zacha line got the puck behind the Capitals net, and a stretch pass to Ovechkin was wide and called for icing with 3:05 to play. The Hughes line came on, and they circled around the zone. Zacha cut to the slot and shot, falling over a diving TJ Oshie and forcing a save by Vanecek. Zacha couldn’t get on the rebound due to being taken down. The Devils then had the McLeod line take a defensive zone faceoff with 2:31 to play.

The linesman took forever to drop the puck, and eventually Andreas Johnson won it back. The Devils got up ice quickly, shooting from the point and forcing a save. However, they had trouble keeping possession and had to take it back with two minutes to play. With Zajac’s line on, the Devils pulled Blackwood and fought for the puck on the offensive zone wall. However, Tom Wilson cleared down ice and was called for a deflection. Nonetheless, the Devils got back in. Sharangovich got it back to Smith at the pointm, but he had to send it blindly in to prevent an offsides. The Devils then had to re-enter with under 30 seconds to play, and finally got a shot from Ty Smith that was deflected wide. Hughes got the loose puck and shot from the slot, but it was blocked low. The Caps iced it with 3.6 to play, and Lindy Ruff called timeout.

Zacha, Hughes, Wood, Bratt, Smith, and Palmieri took the ice. Zacha won the draw back, but a shot from Ty Smith was blocked by Alex Ovechkin. The Capitals took this one 4-3.

Competitive? For the Most Part

The Devils owned possession in the first period with a 64.29 CF% and an 8-3 shots advantage at even strength. In all situations, the Devils led in shots 11-4 through the first. The Capitals adjusted after the first intermission, limiting the Devils to 13 shots for the rest of the game. Shut out from useful offensive zone puck possession in the second and third period, the Devils hung around in this game through timely opportunism. Wood’s second period sharp-angle goal was vital to keeping the Devils’ effort up going into the third, and Bratt’s power play goal was the product of decisive, strong puck movement on the power play. However, after the Capitals’ lucky fourth goal, which took a double deflection, the Devils were mostly shut down. The Devils were not credited for any shots at six-on-five, but had a couple opportunities during it. Still, the Capitals had more attempts after the game winning goal than the Devils, ultimately winning the Corsi battle with a 50.56 CF% at five-on-five. The Devils need to be more aggressive with the puck in the offensive zone, and their effort needs to be consistent. They did not move the puck with as much authority after Kuznetsov scored late in the third, right after they tied the game. If the Devils bounced right back, this game could have gone to overtime.

This was not a bad game. The Devils drew plenty of penalties – not all of which were called. On the power plays they did get, they scored when it mattered most. MacKenzie Blackwood posted yet another poor stat line against the Capitals – but it’s hard to blame him for the goals he let through. On top of that, he also made some very big saves on Capitals who were in close when the Devils still had a chance to win the game.

Playing a Dirty Game

This was a somewhat odd Devils game. They outshot the Capitals early, but only scored because Nick Merkley poked a fanned pass from Vanecek past him and into the net. Then, Miles Wood’s sharp-angle goal off Vanecek’s back came after Blackwood made a big stop at the other end, as they caught the Capitals in a line change afterward. But the Capitals are a better dirty goals team. They’re bigger, stronger, get timely blind eyes from referees, and do not need a lot of shots to score. Orlov’s goal and both of Kuznetsov’s were preventable, but it was the chaos around Blackwood’s net that resulted in the goals being scored. The Devils are not as good at creating that kind of chaos, and when they actually did it for once, the referees ignored a double-minor high sticking penalty against Orlov.

The Devils could really use a real power forward. They have the speed and playmaking skill, but do not have the physicality to compete with teams like the Capitals. They are outmatched near the goal, and struggle to answer back with sustained possessions of their own after getting hemmed in. It’s not just a defensive zone issue, where a lack of physicality results in bad goals being scored against. It’s also that the Devils cannot penetrate the middle of the ice when opposition teams collapse in prevent situations. Their entries are too individual, uncoordinated, and soft to threaten a team as strong and skilled as the Capitals.

Your Thoughts

What did you think about tonight’s game? Did the Devils perform well in your eyes? How frustrated are you by tonight’s loss? Do you think they’ll do better tomorrow night? Should the Devils look to replace Maltsev or Merkley in the lineup? Is Lindy Ruff giving Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt enough ice time? Should Zacha stay on the Hughes line with Palmieri? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Whether you followed along in the gamethread, or on Twitter @AATJerseyBlog, thanks for reading. This is Chris – goodnight.

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