Smiles for everyone! (unless you're a Capital or a Capitals supporter) (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Tonight featured a team whose forwards were out of sync, lost the puck quite a bit on ill-advised passes and shooting attempts, got caught back defending rushing players, made some poor defensive zone errors, and got torched for 5 goals total. They put up a lot of shots, but only because they were behind for most of the game. The team is very talented and part of their loss came from some awful luck in not being able to beat the goaltender. That's not going to be contest. But to be frank, they shot themselves in the foot with their awful puck movement and inability to adjust in a performance that their fans would rightly be disgusted with.
The Devils snapped their 3 game losing streak with an honest blowout. A straight up 5-0 beat down where they defended well, Johan Hedberg was absolutely feeling it in going to post to post, and the attack converted on the given chances. Even the power play - yes, the New Jersey Devils' absolutely terrible power play - got a goal tonight. But it was more than just New Jersey getting breaks, they were punishing the Capitals for their errors.
For once, I and the many, many Devils fans from the Rock left beaming. And why not? It was the first regulation win at home this season. It was the biggest margin of victory all season by the Devils. It was Johan Hedberg's first shutout as a New Jersey Devil. It was a win over the Washington Capitals, the same team who beat on the Devils 7-2 way back in early October.
The box score - or game summary as it's called at NHL.com - looks great; but the win requires further explanation to fully appreciate. I make an attempt that further explanation after jump. For a Capitals-based point of view, please read this recap at Japers' Rink by Becca H.
First and foremost, check out the game highlights from NHL.com:
Initial reaction: "WHOOOOOOO." Upon further reflection reaction: "WHOOOOOOOOO." There are many takeaways from the goals the Devils scored and the other attempts that forced Braden Holtby to make some big stops. First and foremost, they weren't all lucky breaks. Luck's never not a factor and the Devils got some of that - namely on Patrik Elias' power play deflection on Mattias Tedenby's shot. The main point is that some of these were just plays that punished the Capitals for their errors. Here's my absolute favorite from the five goals, Jason Arnott's wrap around goal.
Notice that John Erskine, for some inexplicable reason, is on the ice after blocking a long Matthew Corrente pass and turned it over on a failed pass to Brooks Laich (or he did something worse and knocked it backwards himself). The turnover bounces wide and out of reach of any Cap. In retrospect, Erskine should have held it or went for a long clear. But he wanted to make a play, give it to his man despite being surrounded by red, and the result was a loose puck and a lane to go forward with it for Arnott. That was error #1. Two Caps chase him to the corner leading to error #2. Holtby, for a different inexplicable reason, comes out aggressively to challenge Arnott. I guess he thought Arnott would some how cut back to the center. Well, Holtby overplays him, giving Arnott the room to go for a wrap. At this point, there's error #3: No Cap is in the slot. There's no assistance on the blind side. Eric Fehr didn't come down enough, while Erskine and Laich were both chasing Arnott. Either Fehr has to come down, or one of Laich and Erskine had to go right to the slot instead of following Arnott at first.
Three errors, and Arnott made them pay appropriately. A brilliant goal!
Likewise on the other three goals. Mattias Tedenby got taken down from behind on a breakaway by Erskine (sprung on a pass by Ilya Kovalchuk). He beat Holtby on the penalty shot to make the Caps pay for that infraction. Arnott and Dainius Zubrus added to the lead in the second period (!!) by putting rebounds the Caps never cleaned up home. It could have been far worse with the number of odd man rushes the Caps gave up in the second period. There was more traditional pressure in the third, which resulted in an Ilya Kovalchuk shot being cleared off the line by a defenseman - among other chances.
In a way, I felt bad for Holtby. He got beat on a deflection, a penalty shot he got a piece of, and two rebounds where the guys in white in front of him didn't support him. I was surprised he started, but apparently Michal Neuvirth tweaked something and Holtby got the call during the pregame skate, as reported by Katie Carrera of Capitals Insider at the Washington Post.
Now for some criticism. Ilya Kovalchuk didn't have a good game. He only registered one shot on net, and his linemates totaled 4 shots (2 each for Zubrus and Alexander Vasyunov). I got a sense that Kovalchuk tried to do too much, going right at defenders when he should have held up for a pass, then looking for passes when he should just shoot or drive to the net. Granted, he was defended hard by John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Jeff Schultz; but if he wants to have more of an impact, he really needs to relax. He's pressing issues and not getting far. There's a lot of scrutiny on him because of the contract, because of his history, and because the team needs offense. He's not going to make it better unless he takes a step back, calmly analyzes what's working and not working, and addresses them accordingly. People may point out that in a game with 5 goals scored, he's not on the scoresheet and laugh. But it's true. I believe Devils fans want him to do well; hence, the scrutiny. Until the production comes, it's going to continue. So why not loosen up a bit since getting tenser doesn't seem to work, Kovy?
That said, he did one smart thing that helped make the Devils' fifth goal happen. Here's the video for it:
It was a 3-on-2 and Kovalchuk just charged up the middle to the net to split the D. Alzner makes a move at Kovalchuk allowing Zubrus to make a cross ice pass to Vasyunov. While Kovalchuk goes to the net, Schultz eventually turns around and goes after him as Vasyunov shoots (Alzner kneeled). Holtby stops it but because Alzner is still getting up and Schultz is with Kovalchuk, Zubrus easily gets to that rebound to score. Maybe Kovalchuk didn't know where the puck was, but he drew the attention to allow Zubrus and Vasyunov to make the most out of that play. Don't misunderstand: Zubrus did most of the work and earned his tally; but the play happens because of the whole line.
Anyway, let's get back to reality for a bit. Away from effusive praise that I'm so glad to write about. As great as it feels to write about a 5-0 win instead of yet another loss, the mood among Devils fans was a bit cautious. While people said the game was great, in overheard conversations, they quickly pointed out that it does not mean anything if the Devils go on to flop for the rest of this week. Let me put in another way in big capital letters.
THIS WIN WILL MEAN NOTHING IF THE DEVILS DON'T BUILD ON IT
It's awesome to smack an opponent down, especially someone as good as Washington. Especially after a game where bad luck seemed to beat them despite a good performance. But we've seen this story before. The Devils get a win - like shutting out Buffalo or Montreal, or beating Anaheim, Chicago, or Edmonton - and they follow it up with a couple of losses. The Devils have yet to have consecutive wins. They need to get a result on Wednesday and Friday. They don't have to be 5-0 wins (though I wouldn't mind), but they do need to be wins. At least to prove that they can string good games in a row, to build their own confidence and help their own position in the league.
Still, there's reason to be more confident this time. John MacLean kept the forward lines together with only some mixing in between line changes. Yes, the Devils were outshot and mostly had negative Corsi values per Time On Ice. However, that's largely because the Devils led most of this game. Generally, teams with a lead don't continue to outshoot the other team at evens - they're usually not getting more aggressive due to the score. So I'm fine with that, though I would have liked more possession in the second and third periods. In any case, I see no reason for MacLean to make a change to these lines unless someone's coming back from injury. Even then, I'd want to see a straight up swapping of players rather than making up new units.
And one of the benefits for Kovalchuk, Zubrus, Travis Zajac, et al, was the continued hotness from the Elias-Arnott-Tedenby line. That line was great tonight with 2 goals at evens, a penalty shot goal, and a power play goal. 10 of New Jersey's 23 shots came from those three. They were massive. Tedenby has been flying on the ice since being called up. Even when he makes a bad pass or loses the puck, he's hustling to get back to where he should be. His speed has forced defenses to respect him, creating more space for Elias and Arnott to do what they do best. And Arnott has had the best puck luck as well as good situations for him to thrive - no wonder he got two tonight. Should that line continue to blossom - and it's a question mark since rookies are generally inconsistent - that will help the other three forward lines as they won't be targeted as much. For now, be very happy with Arnott, Elias, and Tedenby.
There should be plenty of praise for the defense. Back in the first period, when the score was close, the Devils held Washington to 4 shots on goal. Yes, the Caps put up 26 in the following 40 minutes; but you know what the Caps didn't get? They didn't get open looks in the slot. They didn't get rebounds with no one covering them. They didn't get many situations on Hedberg's flank. The Devils defense played smart hockey, covered the slot well, and didn't let the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin scare them.
Per Time on Ice's head to head ice time charts, Colin White and Henrik Tallinder saw the Caps' top scorers the most at evens and they were great. Yes, the White-Tallinder pairing played very well. Sure, both got 5 shots on net each (yes, a third of the Caps' shots came from those two); but they weren't the most ideal shots because the Devils defended those high risk areas. Any night where you go up against the likes of Ovechkin and Semin and come out with a close-to-zero Fenwick has to be seen as a win. Especially when you just straight up take away the puck from Ovechkin in a one-on-one like White did late in the second period.
By the way, tonight was the first NHL game from Mark Fayne. He played 13:57, he saw a little bit of all of the Caps (I'm sure he loved seeing #8 out on the ice when he was there), and he threw a couple of nice hits. Nothing fancy from the youngster, and quite frankly, that's all he needed to do. Congrats for a solid first NHL game, Mr. Fayne. Incidentally, Olivier Magnan-Grenier did sit for him.
Also, as a quick aside, hey Washington fans, it's easy to break up a 3 man forecheck when one is down low and the other two are on the boards of the blueline. All the defender has to do is make a pass up the middle - which the Devils largely succeeded when it happened. Just a pro-tip for Mr. Bruce Boudreau.
The Devils' penalty kill was great tonight as well. They only allowed 4 shots on goal out of 5:50 and their clearances were great. The highlight had to be Brian Rolston beating out Ovechkin (granted, a possibly gassed Ovechkin) for a cleared loose puck in the third period, knocking the puck further into the corner, and causing Ovechkin to grab his stick - which led to two minutes of shame for #8. Yes, a 37 year old man coming off a sports hernia beat out Ovechkin for a loose puck. If it wasn't for Arnott's first and Tedenby's penalty shot goal, that may have been the most pleasant surprise of the evening from where I sat.
Last and definitely not least, there was the Moose. Going into the game, Rich Chere reported that Hedberg was disappointed that he got passed over for the start on Saturday. Fortunately, it wasn't an issue at all tonight. Hedberg caught fire. He moved very well post-to-post. He got low for most of the long shots. He was in position for shots through traffic. His glove hand was not a problem. I think he was only beaten once, only to be saved by the post. Any rebounds allowed were cleaned up by the Devils, and while the Caps' attack was stunted from some awful passes, Hedberg came up big when called upon. He earned his shutout and the cries of "MOOOOOSE" from the fans tonight.
In case you just skimmed all of that, here's the major thing to know: The Devils did very well at all aspects of the game tonight, they earned this big win, and they have a lot to build on for Wednesday night. Even the power play looked like a power play (and got a goal). They did it against a very good Capitals team (they were off tonight, but you have to respect them), and they did it not because of a new set of forwards or some meeting or a guy yelling at them. They did it by playing a smarter game, they took full advantage of what the Caps gave them, and they even got some breaks in the process. Well done.
But they can't get cocky. Again, the Devils absolutely need to build on this win. They haven't done so all season. However, they have a lot to build on for Wednesday's game against Calgary. Until then, enjoy and embrace this win, something that even a prince would dance for.
One more note: the Devils did have Pat Burns patches on their jerseys, along with a video tribute to Pat Burns before the game and a moment of silence. Said moment was followed by a chant for Pat Burns. You know a coach is special to a fan base when a coach gets a chant. Good touches all around. Incidentally, the tribute that aired on MSG+ during the St. Louis game was aired during one of the intermissions (I think the second?) at the Rock.
A big thank you to all of the commenters and readers of the Gamethread. An equally big thank you for reading this recap. What did you get out of tonight's game? What did you notice in particular? How great were Arnott and Tedenby? Do you think the Devils will have the confidence to build on this win? Please leave your answers and additional comments about tonight's game in the comments.