Hockey is a funny game. The New Jersey Devils went into the Verizon Center for the first of two road games against the Washington Capitals and dictated the pace of the game. They out-shot the Capitals in the first period 13-4, but they do not convert and came perliously close to going down 1-0 late thanks to Alex Ovechkin getting a one-on-one. They get out-shot 12-9 in the second but that's driven by three power plays where they put up seven shots and two goals. Yet, the Devils are only down one thanks to Patrik Elias putting in a cross-crease pass by Adam Henrique to start their third penalty kill. The referees turned their ire to the Capitals, but the Devils botch power plays and a long 5-on-3. They only had five shots on net across five opportunities. Andrei Loktionov put in a rebound among their ten even strength shots to the Caps' three for the equalizer. But the game winner? Ilya Kovalchuk rocketing a banger through traffic on their second 5-on-3 to make it 3-2. Of course.
Basically, the Devils crushed the Caps at even strength. They out-shot them 30-12 at even strength. The Corsi was heavily in New Jersey's favor, they doubled up the Capitals 48-24 in attempts. Yet, only one goal came from evens, which speaks rather well of Brayden Holtby tonight. The Capitals power play, something I pointed out to be their most dangerous aspect to the game, got opportunities and cashed in twice. The Devils' power play was the definition of wasteful and it technically won the game. Again, hockey is a funny game.
Critics of the special teams will have plenty to discuss. The Devils took dumb calls and paid for it. The Caps made the most of their power plays; whereas the Devils faltered unless you believe long shots into the Capitals' defenders count (they don't). The Devils were fortunate the refs dinged the Capitals for six minors. Those will be the talking points after this game and going into the next one. I'm pretty confident there won't be as many calls on Saturday. Yet, special teams will still be a part in some capacity.
That's why I'm so pleased with how they played at 5-on-5. The Devils really kept the Caps to a minimum when no one is in the box. There were only dangerous in spots and those spots were hair-raising. Ovechkin getting hit with a long pass near the end of the first that forced a blocker save from Martin Brodeur and a iffy call on Andy Greene. Ovechkin torching Henrik Tallinder in the second period en route to a 2-on-1 and an Anton Volchenkov penalty. The Devils getting bunched up at the blueline in a 6-on-5 situation near the end of the game, resulting in Ovechkin all alone feeding an all-alone Mike Ribiero for a one-timer he thankfully Rolstoned. In between, it was largely Devils hockey that we all hope to expect. Special teams gave Washington a chance to take this and they nearly did.
The man who ensured they didn't was Ilya Kovalchuk. The statline is fantastic: 28:58 on the ice, 7 shots on net, 4 blocked, 3 missed, 5 shots on net at evens, 2 on the power play, and the game winning power play goal. He was backchecking, forechecking, chipping pucks, winning battles, making passes, charging ahead, settling it at the point, winning the possession battle in a walk, and doing everything you want from him. Kovalchuk played a mind-bottling 13:45 in the third period alone thanks to all of those power plays and he was the best player on the ice. While regular season games that end 3-2 aren't usually memorable, this was a night where the superstar played like one.
There will be adjustments for Saturday afternoon. There will be areas both teams want to improve. Until then, let's at least appreciate the Devils completing the comeback win.
The Opposition Opinion: Becca H points to the string of third period penalties to lead her ten points in recapping the game at Japers' Rink.
The Game Highlights: This video at NHL.com has Elias' shorty, Loktionov's first goal as a Devil, two Caps PPGs, Kovalchuk's banger, and a whole lot of saves by Brodeur and Holtby:
The Corsi Charts: You want Corsi domination? The Devils showed it to you tonight: 48-24 overall. 18-7 in favor of New Jersey in the first, 10-7 in favor of New Jersey in the second, and 16-7 in favor of New Jersey in the third. Given that there were ten power plays awarded that totaled over 14 minutes between the second and third period, it's absolutely impressive how the Devils came out ahead at even strength in those periods.
Let's switch it up and start with the Devils:
Peter DeBoer mixed up the lines a bit in the third period, but wow, what a game by Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, and Alexei Ponikarovsky at evens. That line has been negative for the last few games, but tonight, they drove the play. They even did better than Patrik Elias (surprisingly at -1) and Adam Henrique. Maybe that's why we saw a change?
The fourths had a great game save for a shift or two. Even Krys Barch was positive. Bobby Butler got moved up and reaped the rewards. Loktionov really did well when he was out there. Given that both of them played less than 8:30 at evens, that's huge. The Steves line wasn't so hot save for Stephen Gionta. Speaking of surprises, Marek Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador weren't anchors at all tonight! I'm really shocked by that considering some of those spots of danger by the Caps made those guys look bad. Ditto for Volchenkov and Tallinder; positive for the whole game, looked bad in spots.
As far as who on Washington got worked over badly, well, take your pick.
I don't know how much of a difference Mike Green would have made but it likely would have went a lot better than most of the Capitals' top four. Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz played about 11 and 9 minutes at evens, respectively; which is how they didn't come out so badly. I think John Carlson may still be in his own end right about now, come to think of it.
At forward, wow, the Devils crushed Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, and Wojtek Wolski. Wolski played a little less than eight minutes so he got replaced by Matt Hendricks. The Devils ruined him too. The one line that gave the Devils issues in spots was the Ribiero line. Even there, the Devils out-attempted them at evens. Again, the Capitals only chance at this game was at special teams.
How the Caps Out-Did the Devils at Special Teams...: The Capitals got four power plays, all three in the second period, put up seven shots on net, and scored twice in that second period. Let's discuss the power play goals against because they highlight errors.
Mathieu Perreault followed Brouwer torching Tallinder and taking it to the net. Greene hustled back after initially going for a change but couldn't do anything, Tallinder was turned around, and Stephen Gionta backchecked to no one and showed his back to the slot too. Three white jerseys not facing Perreault and the rebound was there for him; of course he scored.
The second goal was Ribiero sliding a shot in the slot low. This one was Brodeur's error. While the Devils failed to get the puck out (and the Caps got away with a pick on Gionta), the shot got under Brodeur's right pad and through it. It should have been stopped. The only solace was that if he stopped it, then Backstrom was right there at the crease open to possibly bang it in. It's not common that Brodeur been at fault on the PP this year (I can only think of two other goals off the top of my head), but that one was pretty soft. Thankfully, it was his only real error of the night.
The Capitals dug themselves in real deep with five power plays conceded in the third period but their PK did as best as they could. They held the Devils to only one shot on net on their lone power play in the first period. They held them to only five shots on net out of those third period power plays. The skaters didn't have to move much around the slot as the Devils just kept it to the outside. While most PPs do that because that's where the space is, they didn't get the Caps moving and try to get pucks down low. It was really hard to watch. Even with a 5-on-3, the Devils mustered only two shots on net despite needing a goal and having all kinds of real estate to work with. Those few shots that did get through were denied by Holtby with aplomb. Their PK did as well as one could hope and the Devils' PP just wasted opportunities. The additional misses by Kovalchuk and especially Zidlicky (Aside: How come he always going for a slapper? He does know he can wrist one, right?)
...Yet Here's How the Devils Got By Anyway: First, the game winning power play goal. The Devils initially get the puck down low to Elias and he comes out a bit. Zidlicky does a smart thing and skates to the right circle showing that he's going to shoot. A defender moves in a bit on him and that gives Elias enough of a passing lane to Kovalchuk next to the high slot. Kovalchuk one-times it to the right post and it gets by Carlson and Holtby's right shoulder. The Devils' power play salvaged their otherwise lackluster-at-best-cruddy-at-worst performance with that one play.
As far as the PK goes, well, they can at least say they generated a goal. A clearance went to Holtby, who played it to Carlson. Henrique forechecks hard on Carlson and actually wins the puck behind the net. He passes it out to Elias in the right circle, who then throws it back behind the net. Henrique curls around the net, gets around Holtby's stick, and flings a pass across the crease. Carlson doesn't see it, Holtby can't do anything about it, and Elias was right there to pot it in. The aggressiveness of the penalty kill was rewarded with a goal early into killing Zidlicky's stupid interference call. Of course, that PK gave up a goal much later into the kill but at least they were out-scored 2-1 instead of 2-0.
Making a Case: Andrei Loktionov had a great game in limited action tonight. In 8:43 of ice time he put up four shots on net and scored the game-tying goal. It started with winning his only faceoff tonight, Adam Larsson taking it and firing one low from the center point, and Loktionov being in the right spot by the left post to knock it back in. That's his first goal as a Devil and it was an important goal, too. He was awesome in possession so it wasn't like he only had one shining moment. After being so invisible-at-best against Ottawa, Loktionov did much more tonight to advance his cause to stay in New Jersey.
The Steves: I wasn't so impressed with Stefan Matteau, Stephen Gionta, and Steve Bernier tonight. They didn't generate much other than a few shots, though they didn't allow much either. They weren't used all that much so it's hard to really say whether that unit should be one. They'll get another crack at it on Saturday, though.
A List of Devils Without a Shot on Net Tonight: Bryce Salvador, Henrik Tallinder, Anton Volchenkov, and Krys Barch. No surprises.
A List of Devils With Only One Shot on Net Tonight: Stephen Gionta (1 out of 2 attempts), Adam Henrique (1 out of 4 attempts, does not include his backhander hitting the post in the first period), Steve Bernier (his one whiff not included), and David Clarkson (1 out of 2 attempts).
Clarkson was surprisingly quiet and I'm a little concerned about his health. In the second period, his hand appeared to get caught in a glass support as he took a hit from Tomas Kundratek. He left for a little bit, but he did come back and play regularly in the third so I'm hoping he's OK. Obviously, he should be attempting to shoot more. His one shot was pretty impressive, though. He drove to the slot in the third period and among three Capitals he somehow put a backhand on net.
A List of Devils With Four or More Shots on Net Tonight: Kovalchuk (7 for 14), Andy Greene (4 for 5), Travis Zajac (4 for 4), and Loktionov (4 for 4). Kovalchuk's obvious, Greene split his four between the PP and ES, and I'll bet you're surprised to see #19 with four shots on net. If Zajac keeps it up, then he will get on the scoresheet more often.
Bench Tallinder: While the Devils held the Capitals to only 19 shots on net, I believe they need to make a change on their blueline. Tallinder came out ahead in possession but when he was bad, the Devils got exposed badly. He got torched multiple times, two were notable. One was by Ovechkin and that led to Volchenkov bizarrely taking him out low on a 2-on-1 (Aside: A-Train, the open man. Take him, not the puck carrier). The other was by Brouwer that ended up as the first goal of the game. Tallinder added nothing on offense and he just looked all over the place at times on D in the 13:38 he did play tonight.
It's been three games and I'm not seeing much in the way of improvement. I'm not really seeing him bring much to the table. If he's being showcased for a deal, then he's not really helping the cause. He should be scratched and replaced by the superior Mark Fayne. With Fayne, the Devils can give Zidlicky easier match-ups (not that it was a terrible issue tonight), Salvador can still keep his head above water in possession (tonight excepted), and better option on the PK after Salvador-Volchenkov. Bench Tallinder, activate Fayne. Simple.
Holtby Was Quite Good: Holtby can't be faulted for the three he allowed tonight. The Devils did the right thing and shelled him with 37 shots on net. He was tested as much as possible. Alas, the Capitals wanted to keep seeing if he could make saves off shots off the rush, off turnovers in their own end, off possession shifts, and off special teams - though not enough. All he didn't face was breakaways, so at least he had that going for him. He absolutely robbed Kovalchuk off a rebound late in the second so he had some magic in his own pads. But I didn't think he was the best Washington had to offer tonight.
The Best Capital: Ovechkin was great. When the Capitals got nothing going on offense, he was involved in the few times they did. He was swift, he was strong, and he threw late hits like he normally does (and got tagged for one penalty). He led the Caps with four shots on net and eleven total attempts. When he had the puck, I held my breath a little bit. I know he's been criticized as of late, but I want to say that #8 did his job. The only decision he made that I'm still wondering about is why he didn't just shoot it himself when he got it at the left circle late in the game. Passing it to Ribiero wasn't a bad idea; it's not his fault Ribiero missed and cracked the glass. Still, I feared AO all game long. Possibly as much as Capitals fans feared Ilya Kovalchuk.
Refs: Well, the Devils got the worst of it in the second, though they deserved most of their penalties. The "tripping" call on Greene really wasn't. Fortunately, the Capitals made it easy for Kyle Rehman and Francois St. Laurent in the third. They made a crucial delay of game call that the Devils didn't take full advantage of and I'm sure some Caps fans are seething over Tom Poti's interference call that led to the 5-on-3 that sunk the Caps tonight. In a word: bummer.
Needless to say, the Devils or Capitals will not likely be so fortunate in separate periods for calls on Saturday. Discipline really needed to be better on both sides. That should help out the Devils' PK, which has been vulnerable as of late, as well as the Caps', which done very well despite being not good for most of the season.
A Final Point: The Devils should be heartened by how they played at 5-on-5. Yes, they only scored one goal at even strength. But how they did there really helped keep control for most of the game. When the other team is constantly defending, it makes it easier to hold onto a lead or battle back to tie up a game. They kept attacking after they went up 3-2 and it really dulled the Caps almost all the way to the end. That's why I say the Caps only did well on special teams and in spots. They didn't have many shifts where they pinned the Devils back. And when they did, the Devils didn't concede possession after a stop so often; they responded with good shifts of their own. That's how to do it. Should they be able to heavily out-shooting their competition for a period or periods in future games, the goals will come. And it will be glorious.
What did you make of tonight's win? Are you impressed the Devils came from behind? Are you unhappy about the special teams play, despite evening the Caps up in goals? How thrilled were you with Kovalchuk's performance, including his game winner? Who else did you think have a great game? Who did you think had a poor game for the Devils? Do you agree that Tallinder should be benched for Fayne? What do you think the Devils really need to do for Saturday's re-match based on tonight's game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's win in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed the game in the Gamethread and on Twitter with @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.