There may be some snow showers in the area tonight, so be careful when you head out to The Rock.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG; Radio - Not WFAN. Updated information will be added later.
The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils played their first home game of the season against the Second Rate Rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. Travis Zajac got a quick goal, the Flyers proceeded to pound the Devils for much of the rest of the first period, and then David Clarkson scored off a wraparound thanks to Ruslan Fedotenko's skates. Yes, the Devils led 2-0, hockey's a funny game sometimes. Martin Brodeur was sensational from start to finish as he denied the Flyers on every chance. Ilya Kovalchuk posterized Ilya Bryzgalov on a penalty shot in the second period and minutes later, the Flyers started imploding from their own frustration. Many penalties were assessed, the Devils caught up and eventually overtook them in shots in the third period, and Brodeur's 120th career shutout was sealed. It wasn't a pretty win, but it was a win. My recap of the game is here.
The Last Capitals Game: The Capitals have had a rough start to 2013 with losses to their first two opponents. It didn't get any better on Thursday night when they hosted the Montreal Canadiens. A scoreless first period went OK, but the second period was just terrible for the home team. Alex Ovechkin took an interference call early in the second period; Troy Brouwer threw the puck over the glass to make it a long 5-on-3; and Tomas Plekanec made them pay with a goal. Matt Hendricks got whistled for goalie interference not long after the Brouwer penalty ended and Montreal doubled their lead with a power play goal by Andrei Markov. The Canadiens added two more goals at even strength, a tip-in from Brian Gionta and a shot from the point by Josh Gorges. Washington got a consolation goal late from Joey Crabb, but 4-1 still sent the Caps to an 0-3-0 record. J.P. recapped the game at Japers' Rink.
The Goal: Cover the slot early and often. While the Devils have held their first two opponents to 19 and 24 shots against respectively, they've been vulnerable in the slot quite a few times. In the Islanders game, the Devils got caught a few times with open royal-blue-shirts in the middle and gave up their only goal of the season so far when no Devil was there at all. In the Flyers' game, the Devils were forced to chase the orange and black more than a few times in their own end and Martin Brodeur had to bail out the team more than a few times. In both games, there were opposition players open when the puck went behind the net or into the boards and there were a few rebounds where if the opposition was a little sharper, then they might have scored. Brodeur's been great and we know the defense is capable of doing a good job. However, nothing that can go on forever will and if the Devils want to continue to keep the opposition off the scoreboard, then the skaters - forwards and defensemen - need to keep that middle of the ice under control as much as possible. Don't let the Capitals be the first team to make them pay for it at home tonight.
Now, let's look at the Capitals on paper. On paper, I think tonight's game is a challenge. Remember that the Devils have five top-six forwards (I'm including David Clarkson, humor me for now); Mattias Tedenby; Jacob Josefson; a fourth line of Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier being used as a third line; a junior who is essentially here on an evaluation trip; and a goon as their twelve forwards. Matching up against the Capitals forwards presents a challenge. Any team that has two offensive dynamos and big minute forwards like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on their top line is formidable enough. However they're deeper than that, even with Brooks Laich unavailable to play. Mike Ribiero, Wojtek Wolski, and Troy Brouwer make for a potentially effective second line. The speedy Jason Chimera and the gritty Joel Ward makes for a third line that could really wreck havoc against New Jersey's bottom six. Their fourth line includes NHL-caliber talent such as Mathieu Perreault, who could easily be moved up in the lineup. Even if the Devils slow down Ovechkin and Backstrom, the rest of the Caps forwards could do some real damage. Martin Brodeur has been sensational so far and the Devils defense has been quite good at limiting shots on net; but they should be prepared for a lot of work tonight.
Moreover, the Caps do have three very talented defenders in John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Mike Green. All three can perform well in both ends of the rink. I would think Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Clarkson, and Patrik Elias will see a lot of them. The rest of the blueline isn't so impressive, but discounting players is a bad practice in general. The Caps have two fairly young and cheap goalies in Braden Holtby and Michel Neuvirth. Neuvirth played last night, so I would think Holtby would start tonight. He has been lit up in his first two appearances, but he's surely a better goaltender than a 86.3% save percentage would indicate. In my opinion, this team can be good on paper.
The problem is that in reality, they've been terrible. The Caps are the only winless team in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals got lit up by Tampa Bay 6-3 in their first game, decisively smacked down by Winnipeg 4-2, and recently trounced 4-1 by Montreal. Not unlike the Second Rate Rivals on opening night, the Caps have fell flat on their faces to start the season and they're likely not going to be happy about it. Throw in the fact that they played and lost last night, and we could see a rather frustrated team if they start off losing. Ovechkin and Backstrom are goalless, Laich is sorely missed in all situations, the team has allowed at least 31 shots in their first three games, line changes haven't led to a spark while Mathieu Perreault is unhappy according to Stephen Whyno at Capitals Watch prior to the Montreal loss, they're only 2-for-12 on the power play, and they've been picked apart on their penalty kill with seven power play goals allowed out of eighteen situations. That's a long list and yet that's not all of the problems Washington has right now. The fans are certainly getting frustrated even though it's early in the season. Who can blame them?
I think the big cause for their slow start is their head coach Adam Oates. He came into the organization in the 2012 offseason and like most new coaches, he's trying to implement new strategies, tendencies, and systems to a team. A six-day training camp isn't a lot of time to have the players learn it, buy into it, and execute it well. When you also consider the players are still rusty to a point and it's a difficult situation for a team to be in. I don't think Oates is doomed or the wrong hire. I do think there may be something to their 1-3-1 power play system based on this excellent analysis by J.P. over at Japers' Rink. But the learning process has been on-the-job and the results have been awful The Caps have to figure it out eventually. For all we know, tonight may show some improvement given that they can get some real favorable match-ups, at least on paper. Chimera's speed against a not very fast defense and possibly the Gionta line, for example, would be a concern. Then again, maybe the Devils do well against them and they continue to falter into the weekend in spite of the proverbial paper. Given their 4-1 loss to Montreal, I don't know whether to feel good about this game or to remain worried that they hit rock bottom and will start improving on the ice in Newark. Regardless, the Devils should not take this team lightly. That's only asking for defeat against anyone regardless of how much of a hot mess the Caps are right now.
I am hoping this game provides a much sharper and more complete effort from the Devils. Brodeur was magnificent against the Flyers but he really bailed them out of a first half of the game largely spent in their end of the rink. I doubt the Devils are going to get two goals against the run the play again. It's not rocket science. The skaters need to make stops and then effectively move the puck up ice. It was good against the Islanders, but they also benefited from the Isles making more mistakes with the puck. It wasn't so good against the Flyers as plenty of go-forward passes went astray. As miserable as the Capitals may feel tonight, I doubt they're going to take 15 penalties and hand the Devils seven power plays, which is what really helped the Devils turn the tide in possession against the Second Rate Rivals. There is no Washington-New Jersey rivalry, after all. In any case, I want to see more passes hit their mark either within their own end (e.g. Marek Zidlicky) and going through the neutral zone (this is a bit on everyone). This will help keep the Caps honest at worst and lead to many shots at best.
There may be a few changes in the lineup tonight based on Tom Gulitti's report from Thursday's practice at Fire & Ice. Mattias Tedenby didn't play well against Philly but he was skating with Kovalchuk and Zajac. Dainius Zubrus was moved down to Elias and Clarkson. Talk about an unearned promotion. That said, I don't think this is such a bad move if the plan is to use Zubrus-Elias-Clarkson against Ovechkin and Backstrom. It may be their best tough minutes combination given the current forwards on the roster. Tedenby knows his window of opportunity is closing so he has all the incentive to make good on the coach's faith in him and play much better. Having Zajac and Kovalchuk to help out helps, too. As long as they generate shots (aside: Kovalchuk really should shoot more often, but you knew that already) and don't get beaten in possession, then it could work. If it doesn't, well, DeBoer can do what he did on Tuesday night and have Jacob Josefson replace his spot later.
In addition to Tedenby being moved up, Krys Barch may make his debut tonight. Cam Janssen was pretty bad in his sub-three minutes of ice time on Tuesday so I have no issue with this switch. That said, I wouldn't get my hopes up for Barch. He's better than Eric Boulton but he's still primarily a puncher than a player. His inclusion would move Stefan Matteau to the right wing. As his evaluation period continues, it'll be interesting to see if he can put some rubber on net on the other side. He's had three in each of first two games. If he can continue that, then he looks better.
Of course, there will be some other non-changes. The good news is that Martin Brodeur will start again tonight. Given how well he's played in his first two starts, no one should have a problem with that. The bad news is that it looks like Adam Larsson is sitting another game. As bad as Marek Zidlicky looked at times against Philly along with the defense just being a bit too lax around the slot (that's also on the forwards, mind you), there's not a lot of reason to make a change to the blueline. Holding a rival team to 24 shots with a lead for most of the game is a successful night, even more impressive considering the Flyers looked dominant in the first period. As I said after the Isles game, Larsson's only going to get in if someone on defense is hurt, moved, or sucks. Three games isn't going to stunt Larsson's development, but I understand the frustration over his scratching. That all said about the Devils' lines in practice, DeBoer says he hasn't fully committed to them as Gulitti reported in this post at Fire & Ice. He's usually pretty good about using the same combinations in a game based on the last practice, so I think this will be it to at least start the game.
As a final point, do keep an eye on what the Devils' power play does tonight. I think the team is benefiting in some way from having the same coach from last season with the same approach to games. The lone exception is the power play, which is run by the new assistant coach, Matt Shaw. Yes, Scott Stevens is technically new too, but he's been a part of the staff in some capacity in the past. While the Devils did convert one power play thanks to the skates of Ruslan Fedotenko, the team did struggle to set up at times and take full advantage of man advantages against the Flyers. And that was a game where they had a lot of opportunities to practice. Given that the Capitals have been even less successful on the PK than Philly, I really would like to see the power play units successfully get in the Capitals' zone, make a few passes, and get some real clean shots on net. I'd like them to score, but I really want to see some improvement tonight. Getting the win is more important than getting a PPG but if they get one on their way to get the result, then it's another reason to smile a little wider.
That's my take on tonight's game. Now it's your turn. Have the Capitals hit rock bottom against Montreal and could put up a real fight against the Devils? Or do you think they will get worse before it gets better? How would you match the lines against the Capitals? Will the Devils skaters pile on the rubber against a vulnerable Capitals team? Will they succeed? Will Mattias Tedenby play in the third period? Will the power play resemble a power play? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.
P.S. You should visit the Capitals' official website at about, oh, midday today. I won't tell you why as it's a surprise. Your only hint is that it was done prior to the Montreal game.