Cory Schneider is playing at the level we'd all hope he would be back when he was acquired. He's been hot for several starts. He's made plenty of crucial saves. He hasn't given up anything soft in quite some time. Schneider has continued to show anyone who will watch that he should be the main man in net. The New Jersey Devils benefited yet again from #35 playing superb in his crease. Tonight, it was against the Washington Capitals as he maintained a close 2-1 win.
Schneider really had to bail out the team several times. The Devils' defensive efforts were lacking tonight. Too many times, there were open Caps in the middle of the ice, be it in the slot or just inside the circles. They conceded a few breakaways both at evens and while up a man. They were involved in some jam plays where one hopes the puck doesn't bounce to the one man who sees the hole through all the traffic. These weren't just thirty one shots on net; there were plenty of difficult shots and situations where one odd bounce or one less timely intervention made the difference between a goal and a stop. But the goalie came to play tonight. Schneider stopped all thirty one shots except for one: a deflection by Jason Chimera that he had no real chance at stopping. Given how the Caps were denied on all kinds of free shots, perhaps that would be the only way they would get back in this game. Schneider was that good and a main reason why they won 2-1.
Overall, I felt the Devils' performance was rather uneven. This was forgivable on Tuesday night as they ended up scoring seven goals. However, please look at the Fenwick graph (that's shots and misses) at Extra Skater. You'll see plenty of flat lines for the Devils. Those were times when the Devils didn't make an unblocked attempt. A big part of that has to do with score effects. The Caps were down early and they had to start throwing more and more players forward - John Carlson led plenty of rushes by my eye. Still, the Devils could have helped themselves by keeping the Caps more honest. Each period had some great opportunities to score and the Devils did do it twice. They did put thirty shots on Michal Neuvirth, it's not as if the offense disappeared entirely. But the struggle to get exits with possession combined with the lack of a more consistent attack helped the Caps play more often in New Jersey's end in the second and third periods. It meant Schneider was required to be great. He certainly was tonight. But it's not something they can always count on. Especially in a game where one deflection or one re-direction or something crazy can yield a goal. That's something the Devils should try to work on in future games.
Nevertheless, the Devils needed to win this game to help their cause in the standings. Despite some stretches of concern-causing play, they got the desired result. While I didn't think much of the Devils' performance, the Caps' own performance wasn't all that strong either. They looked more aggressive when they were down two goals, but that's expected. Even so, they came dangerously close to conceding a third goal. Still, take the result, appreciate it - namely how great Schneider was in net, and look for areas of improvement before a second massive, inter-divisional game at Yankee Stadium against Our Hated Rivals.
The Opposition Opinion: Tonight's loss became the Caps' seventh straight game without a win. Needless to say, Kevin Klein at Japers' Rink was not pleased in his recap. I sympathize. Interestingly, he and the other fans there were down on the Caps' performance. I suppose the Devils were just less unimpressive than them?
The Game Highlights: Plenty of Cory, a goal Neuvirth wished he had back, and a shining treasure of a power play goal found after going through a whole lot of junk attempts to get it in their end. All of this in the highlight video at NHL.com:
It Only Takes One Pt. 1: The general idea in hockey is to generate numerous chances in the hopes that they become goals. While the Devils did that, they only converted on two. The first came from Stephen Gionta in the first period. He took full advantage of a Dmitry Orlov error with the puck. He knocked it up to Jaromir Jagr, who laid it off for Gionta to skate it ahead. He looked off Ryan Carter and then managed to score off a straight-up shot. No screens, no trickery, no feints. Just Gionta firing it and Neuvirth not getting enough of it to make the stop. The Devils would not score any other goals in 5-on-5 play nor would they get any more one-on-ones with Neuvirth. But Gionta made the most of the sole chance.
It Only Takes One Pt. 2: The Devils' power play was very up-and-down tonight. They did very well on their second power play, as they got set up in the Caps' end and just fired away. They did not score on that one. Overall, it looks very good with eleven shots on net and one among them that gone in. That happened on what looked like their worst power play of the night. They couldn't gain the zone and actually conceded a shot against. Then, all of a sudden, they carry it in off the rush, Travis Zajac gets it to Jaromir Jagr, who makes a surgical pass across the slot Adam Henrique. Henrique buries the shot and an otherwise abysmal power play became successful. So it goes with this particular special team this season. Unfortunately, the Devils would waste another power play to begin the third. At least they got the one conversion. It became important as it was held up as the winner.
No Thumb Issue: Well, I can't really confirm that. Maybe it is still sore and bothering him. But the fact that Adam Henrique put up eight shots, including a goal, suggests to me that it certainly did not affect his play. I really liked how he played tonight. I felt the Newfoundline was the more consistently effective and the possession numbers at 5-on-5 match-up with that thought. Henrique commanded the puck very well; I felt he was the Devils' best skater. (Obviously, Schneider was the best Devil). I'd like to see what he does next game to build on this. I hope he doesn't do what Damien Brunner did tonight (not much at all).
Poore Ryane: Ryane Clowe played a good game in my opinion. He won plenty of pucks along the boards. He played decently enough in his own end. Clowe had a great chance to ice the game in the final minute. He was open, he had a clear path, and then he put the puck about an inch or so wide of the empty net. The team recovered to deny one last ditch attack by the Caps, but still, it should've been 3-1. Oh well.
He Wasn't Ray: Joe Whitney made his NHL debut tonight. He was mostly a non-factor. In his eight minutes of ice-time, he got no shots on net, he attempted no shots, and not much happened when he was on the ice. If you want to be particular, he did intercept two passes that led to, well, nothing of note. I'm not unhappy or upset with Whitney. After all, this was his first game in the best league in the world and he had to get up to the speed and style of Jagr and Zajac. That's a tall task for anyone. I'd say there's nothing to really conclude about Whitney based on his first game. So far, he was just "there," so to speak.
By Eye: I can't say I know much about the Capitals' depth on defense. Based on what I witnessed, surely they have a better idea for a third pairing than John Erskine and Connor Carrick, right? I know Chimera deflected a shot from Erskine for a third period goal, but that was the highlight of that duo. They just looked really lost in their own end at times. If only the Devils took more advantage of some of their poorer moments.
Also, by eye, Eric Gelinas showcased why he isn't automatic for a roster spot. Some of his reads were good, but others were just not at all good. (e.g. following Anton Volchenkov's man instead of covering someone else, chipping pucks into traffic or across the zone instead of upwards). Basically, if he's not helping out on offense, then he can be a risk to have in the lineup night-in, night-out. I wouldn't go as far as to say he should be benched, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him take a game off for Jon Merrill given some of his defensive struggles.
Oh, if you're into possession, Gelinas was on the lower end for the Devils whereas Erskine-Carrick weren't so bad on that front. Then again, the latter was part of a team chasing the game for close to 45 minutes.
Injury Note: I feel bad for Mikhail Grabovski. He got tangled up in front of the net in the second period with Dainius Zubrus. Zubrus was OK. Grabovski favored his leg as he went to the bench. He did not return due to injury.
Other Opposition Thoughts: Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson often played together as a unit at evens. Both did plenty to try and get the Caps back in the game. The two combined for eight shots. Both made a point of it to carry the puck into the Devils' end, which yielded results. I felt they were the best skaters for the Capitals tonight. I thought their best player being Neuvirth for keeping the game from going out of hand (e.g. denying Marek Zidlicky late, stopping Mark Fayne on a backdoor play in the third, etc.). While the team put up 31 against a usually stingy Devils defense, I can see why they missed Alex Ovechkin (and, later, Grabovski) tonight. Alex could have ripped this kind of game wide open. Thankfully, he could not.
Your Take: The Devils got a big Metropolitan Division win tonight. Would you agree that Schneider was a key reason why the Devils won this one? Did you think the Devils played well enough to deserve more than two goals, or that this was about right? Why do you think the slot was left open so much? What can the Devils do to work on their game ahead of a big game on Sunday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this victory in the comments.
Thanks to everyone who followed along in the Gamethread and on Twitter through @InLouWeTrust. Thank you for reading.