Game 14 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Washington Capitals

"OK, boys, here's the plan - psst psst psst..." "That's not a plan, you just said 'psst psst psst...' !" "Well, then, onto Plan B!" (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (7-5-1) vs. the Washington Capitals (9-4-0)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.  The Devils owned the shot-count and were superior in possession.  While they were the better team on the ice, the score was close throughout the game. Fortunately, the Devils got enough past Cam Ward and Adam Henrique became a hero again when his wrap around attempt put the Devils up 3-2 late in the third period. The Devils held on to win.  My recap of the game is right here.

The Last Capitals Game:  While the Devils were battling the Canes, the Capitals were hosting the Dallas Stars.  The Capitals were coming off a 5-3 loss at Long Island from Saturday whereupon the Islanders took the game in the third period.  Alas, the Capitals didn't play very well in this one.  They gave up 2 in the first period and while the Caps tied it up in the second period, they proceeded to allow 3 unanswered goals in the third period.  The Capitals lost their second game in a row 5-2.  Becca H of Japers' Rink has her account of the game here.

The Goal:  The Devils skaters have to help out the defensive effort by maintaining offensive possession.   The Washington Capitals are an offensive powerhouse.  According to the team stats at NHL.com, the Caps are second in the league in goals per game with 3.77; the third highest power play success rate at 25%, and a pretty good shots per game average of 31.2, which is twelfth in the league.   According to the situational stats at Behind the Net, the Capitals can boast the league's second highest shooting percentage at 5-on-5 play, 10.6%, which goes nicely with a pretty good 31.6 shots per 60 rate.  They have the third highest shooting percentage at 5-on-4 play at 17.3% as well.  On paper, the Caps are loaded with offensive players like Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, John Carlson, and particularly Nicklas Backstrom, who is currently among league leaders in scoring.   No matter how you view it, the next two games are going to be a huge challenge for the blueline and goaltenders.

The best way the Devils can counter that is to do what they did in their last game against the Flyers, the one team ahead of the Caps in production in the league: own the puck. The Devils out-shot and out-attempted the Flyers primarily because they had the puck more often and they were able to get into their end of the ice.  Yes, it was a game decided by a shootout.  Yes, the Devils needed two big turnovers by the Flyers defense to score two of their three goals in regulation.   Yet, if the Devils are able to consistently get offensive pressure and be a consistent presence in their end of the rink, then they'll have more opportunities for shooting lanes, defensive breakdowns, and whatever else offenses generate with positive possession.    It may be cliche, but the best way to keep the Caps offense from ruining the Devils this evening (and tomorrow night) is to force them to defend.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.  For the Caps' side of things, please check out Japers' Rink.

The Devils won their last two games, but that's not stopping head coach Peter DeBoer from tinkering with his lineup.  According to Tom Gulitti's report from Thursday's practice at Fire & Ice, Nick Palmieri was lined up with Zach Parise and Adam Henrique.  David Clarkson went back to the third line with Ryan Carter and Mattias Tedenby.   So far this season, what was done in practice usually carries over into the next game. Therefore, I'd expect Palmieri to start up top with Clarkson back on the third line.

I'm not a subscriber to the theory of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."  If improvements can be made, then they should be sought out. Better is always better than good.    That said, I'm not sure what Palmieri has done in recent games to warrant a switch.  He's looked OK on the third line after the Toronto game, picking up a few shots on net and not getting wrecked.  The Parise-Henrique-Clarkson combination had an improved performance on Tuesday against Carolina.  Clarkson himself managed to get 6 shots on net in that one and kept his head above water when it came to possession.  I do understand that the last time Clarkson was on that third line, he was a monster with 9 shots on net against Philly.  What Peter DeBoer told Gulitti about that in this post makes some sense.  Nevertheless, since Washington's got a deep set of forwards, I'd rather have the more experienced Clarkson as part of the line to go against Washington's second best line instead of having two very young players.   Hopefully, this switch doesn't hurt the Devils in tonight's game.  If it does, hopefully DeBoer will make the appropriate adjustments.

There's still an X-factor, or rather a K-factor.  Ilya Kovalchuk didn't practice, but he did skate on Thursday.  DeBoer hasn't completely ruled him out for tonight's game. According to this post by Tom Gulitti, the coach has said his status will be determined today.  As much as I'd love to see him back in the lineup to threaten opposition defenders and strengthen the Henrique line, I would be fine if he takes these two games off to get fully healed.  I don't want him trying to play through the pain and risk a more serious injury.   In the bigger picture, missing 4 games isn't all that much.   We'll see if he gets in tonight, tomorrow, or neither.  If he does, it could very well bump Palmieri back to the third line and Mattias Tedenby (more on him later today) down to the fourth line.

From that same post by Gulitti, Martin Brodeur will be the starter tonight with Johan Hedberg presumably (possibly?) starting in DC on Saturday.   The defense looks like it'll be the same pairings from Tuesday's game, too. Given that the Capitals may be splitting up their forwards a bit, the Devils' top four are going to have to be on point this evening.   This is not the team to concede turnovers and miss assignments against.   Brodeur showed he can most definitely bail out his skaters with some big saves on Tuesday night.  Let's hope he doesn't have to do the same tonight.

Now, the Capitals are on a big "accountability" kick.  (Well, sort of, given this post by J.P. at Japers' Rink.) They lost their last two games, both in the third period, and so head coach Bruce Boudreau gave them a tough practice featuring the dreaded "bag skate" on Wednesday as reported by Katie Carrera of the Washington Post.  Things weren't so tough on Thursday, but this post at Capitals Insider by Carrera suggests that Marcus Johansson may center Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer.  That would presumably move down Nicklas Backstrom to play with Alexander Semin and Cody Eakin.   I don't like this development because it will create match-up problems for the Devils.  The line of Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, and Petr Sykora usually takes on the other team's top line. The same goes for the Mark Fayne and Henrik Tallinder pairing.   I guess that would be whatever line Ovechkin (6 G, 7 A) is on since, you know, he's Alexander Ovechkin. I don't want him tearing through rookies (Henrique, Adam Larsson), I want him to have as difficult of a night as possible.  Then again, the team's top scorer Backstrom (5 G, 14 A) has been incredibly productive to start the season and he alone could cause havok - especially if Semin can get it together and stay out of the box (he's got 18 PIM so far).    It's hard.

What makes it harder is that the Capitals as a whole have been productive.  The team boasts a very high shooting percentage and that comes from several players shooting incredibly well.   Ovechkin may only have 6 goals, but Backstrom and Johansson each have 5; and third liners Joel Ward and Jason Chimera have 4 each.  Rounding them out are 5 Caps with 3 goals apiece: defensemen Dennis Wideman and Mike Green; Troy Brouwer; Mathieu Perreault (who didn't play on Tuesday), and Semin.   Then you have the likes of Brooks Laich who only has 2 goals, but also 7 assists; and defenseman John Carlson, who has 2 goals, 4 assists, and 36 shots on net.   I almost want to say that every Devils forward line and defensive pairing has to be on point since the Caps are so deep going forward.

In their own end, they haven't been quite so strong.  They have been without Mike Green for the last couple of weeks, which has hurt a bit since he takes up quite a few minutes.  Green could return very soon.  In fact, he is questionable for these upcoming two games against the Devils according to this post by Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times at the blog Capitals Watch.  Nevertheless, the basic team stats on the defensive side at NHL.com aren't all that good.  The Capitals are 22nd in the league in goals against per game with 2.92 per game; they are 22nd in the league in shots against per game with 30.9 per game; and their success rate at killing penalties is only 78.9%, the 20th best in the league.   The Caps are a bit better at 5-on-5 according to Behind the Net (2.6 goals against per 60 minutes, 29.5 shots against per 60 minutes); but they are shot sieves in 4-on-5 situations with the fourth highest shots against per 60 minutes rate, 59.5.  


GP MIN W L OT/SO GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2011-12 - Tomas Vokoun 10 567 7 2 0 24 2.54 283 259 .915 1

Essentially, the Devils forwards may find themselves plenty of success at getting pucks on net.  Tomas Vokoun is quite talented and has been pretty good at stopping shots for most of his career.  (Of course, Michal Neuvirth could start tonight, but then they'll get Vokoun tomorrow, so whatever.)  He's not super-hot right now, but he's not going to be easily beaten in any situation.  It would be great if the Devils can really make the most out of any 5-on-4 situations they may get tonight.  The Capitals PK hasn't been good at shot prevention.  Unfortunately, the Devils power play has been struggling so much such that I can't really be confident that they'll hit the Caps where they seem the weakest.

This is the first of a home-and-home with the Capitals.  I'll be frank, if the Devils can split it, then I'd be pleased.  I'd be thrilled if they win both and I'll be clearly hoping that they do.   Tonight will be the first and slightly easier half, since DeBoer will have the last line change.   Let's hope for the best.   That's pretty much it from me; now I want your opinions on tonight's game.  Do you like or dislike the change at right wing on the Henrique line?  Can the Devils get good match-ups tonight and possibly win them?  Who on the Capitals do you fear the most, if any? What other aspects to this game do you think are important and/or the Devils need to succeed in order to win?  Please leave your answers and other comments on tonight's game after the jump. Thank you for reading.

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