Game 5 Preview: New Jersey Devils @ Washington Capitals - 10/12/2009

The Time: 7 PM EST

The Broadcasting Info: MSG+ for your TV, 660 WFAN for your radio

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (2-2-0) at the Washington Capitals (2-2-1)

Last Devils Game: The Devils played their best game of the season so far and won their first game in regulation by beating the Florida Panthers, 3-2.  My recap of that game is here.

Last Capitals Game: The Capitals dropped their third straight game as they were beaten by the Detroit Red Wings, 3-2. Owner Ted Leonsis wasn't happy with the performance (not good since this is coming from the owner of the team) and got to the heart of the matter as to why they lost. He also pointed to J.P.'s recap at Japers' Rink for an additional view.

The Devils didn't practice on Sunday, holding an optional skate.  So expect the lines in this morning's practice to get an idea of who the Devils will line up in D.C. tonight.  In my opinion, I don't think the Devils should make any changes.  They got their first regulation win, they showed improvement over the last 4 games, and I think with a little more time together, their performances will blossom as the chemistry gets better.  That said, I don't think I'll end up being right - as Lemaire has made a few changes between each game so far this season.

However, Jacques Lemaire has spoken to the media about tonight's game.  Lemaire highlighted the biggest threat of the Washington Capitals: their top line of Alexander Semin (5 G, 4 A), Nicklas Backstom (2 G, 8 A), and some guy named Alex Ovechkin (5 G, 5 A).  He's already revealed his plans on how he will deal with that line tonight, as reported by Gulitti:

"You look at the line and it’s among the top lines in the league, as good as anyone in the league, even better than a lot of teams," Lemaire said.

...

Lemaire said he would play both his top line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner and the checking line of Jay Pandolfo, Rob Niedermayer and Brian Rolston head to head against Ovechkin’s line because it will be more difficult to match one line when the home team has last line change.

"I don’t think that only one line will be able to play against them," he said. "When you are on the road, you can’t keep changing lines [on the fly]. It disrupts your game."

Interesting (and note that Gulitti doesn't think these two lines will change either).  It makes sense as he won't have the last line change but also because he's not just matching checkers with them, but also their top line.  This will be a big challenge as the players on that line have combined for 60% of all of Washington's goals this season.  Mind you, the Capitals lead the league in goals scored with 20.  If the Devils can keep them at bay, then that has to be seen as a success in of itself.   That said, the Capitals aren't just a one line team - Brooks Laich has a had strong start to the season with 3 goals and 4 assists.  While they haven't been too productive yet, Mike Green, Tom Poti, and Mike Knuble certainly have the skills to add to the Capitals mighty offense if given the chance. 

The Devils defense will need to be on point (hint to Johnny Oduya, stay focused) and the discipline has to be smart, as the Capitals have a far better record when they get  the majority of power play chances based on this analysis at Japers' Rink.  By going 6-for-24 (25%) so far this season, they'll eventually score on them if the Devils keep handing the Caps chances.  This means no hits away from the play (Clarkson), no silly restraining fouls (Oduya), and no bench penalties (too many men on the ice - or poor line changes for that matter).

It is also a big opportunity, especially for the ZZ Pops line, as the Capitals haven't exactly been responsible on defense.  The Capitals have conceded 18 goals in total (tied with Montreal for most in the league), allowed an average of 31.6 shots against per game, and they have a tendency of taking far too many minors (26 total, 5th most in the league) at the start of the season. Moreover, that top line of Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom also bleed shots against while attacking.  According to Behind the Net, the shots against per 60 shoots up to over 30 shots when either of them steps on the ice (and Brooks Laich is the worst of all).  Given that the Devils' top line is swift, crafty, and always looking to shoot, and throw in the fact that Travis Zajac is currently on fire; quite frankly, it's a very smart decision to have ZZ Pops go against Washington's top line. 

With J.P. at Japer's Rink decrying Mike Green's penalties and Tom Poti's goalie screening skills as recently as their last game, it seems clear to me that the Devils should make it a priority to be aggressive on offense.  If the Capitals have a nasty habit of taking restraining fouls (e.g. hooking, holding), then the Devils can and should exploit that to the fullest.  You draw these calls by beating the defense with quickness and smart passes to spring forwards in space - two areas of strength of the ZZ Pops line.   Sure, the Devils will have to, you know, score on those chances. Believe it or not, the Devils have a higher success rate on the power play than the Capitals by being 5 for 19 (26.3%) this season.  Given that the power play helped them get them the win over Florida, they will surely be confident to slip a few past Washington's netminder - be he named Jose Theodore or Semyon Varlamlov.   Either way, it's to the Devils benefit to try and draw as many calls as possible - as per this analysis at Japers' Rink, the Capitals' record suffers when they are forced to kill more power plays than they earn.  And if they don't draw the calls, they'll likely break through the Capitals defense to put up plenty of shots on net - which is also fine, really.

It's likely going to be a close game tonight, as while the Capitals lost, they were all one-goal losses: 6-5 in overtime to Philadelphia, 4-3 to the Rangers, and 3-2 to Detroit.  Unless the Devils' finishing is lethal and they demoralize Washington, I don't think New Jersey will blow out the Capitals.  I'll be happy to see it, but I wouldn't expect anything but a close game. Truth be told, should the Devils look good in doing so, then I'd say this road trip would be a success.  Of course, getting a win would be fantastic, and the confidence of the team would only skyrocket by beating the Capitals in their building tonight - great for the rest of the month.   I think they got a good chance as any since the Capitals are quite vulnerable at this point.

As always, check up with Gulitti and Chere during the day to get the most up-to-date information for tonight's game.  For the Washington perspective, there's only one Japer's Rink and I recommend that you go there.  Please comment on tonight's game, or even the Devils and/or the Capitals in general, here in advance of tonight's GameThread. I'll see you all later tonight.  Go Devils!

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