Newark, N.J. — Well, it’s Groundhog Day again. The last time the Washington Capitals came to town, they led 3-0 over the New Jersey Devils after the opening 20 minutes of play. On Friday night, Washington took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission, however, this go-around felt worse. Despite beginning to heal with the return of Tomas Nosek, New Jersey dropped this one 4-2 to Washington. Let’s get into it.
Devils Quick Wrap
Head coach Lindy Ruff was forced to pull goaltender Vitek Vanecek after the opening 20 minutes of play. The Capitals scored their first goal of the game just over the halfway mark of the first period on the stick of Nicolas Aube-Kubel. Under 20 seconds later, Beck Malenstyn gave Washington a 2-0 lead. Evgeny Kuznetsov padded Washington’s lead making it 3-0 on an odd-man rush with Tom Wilson. New Jersey finally got on the board in the third period on the sticks of Timo Meier and Dawson Mercer. However, with the goaltender pulled late in the third period, Kuznetsov scored his second goal of the game to help put New Jersey away 4-2. Vanecek made three saves on five shots before being pulled. Akira Schmid made 18 saves on 19 shots in relief. Charlie Lindgren made 22 saves on 24 shots.
Two goals on five shots in the first period is a quick way to get pulled from the game.
That’s exactly what Ruff did with Vanecek in the first period of Friday night’s contest. Taking a closer look at the Capitals’ goals, you can pin one on Vanecek, but the other on yet another defensive breakdown by the Devils.
Leading up to Washington’s first goal, Rasmus Sandin skated the puck below the goal line and behind Vanecek’s net. All standing below the dots in the defensive zone, Nathan Bastian, Alexander Holtz, Kevin Bahl, and Chris Tierney focused their attention on the one Capitals skater. Sandin, unpressured, found a streaking Aube-Kubel in the slot, connected on the pass, and fired one past the Devils netminder for a 1-0 lead.
Pin that goal on New Jersey’s defense for losing their coverage.
However, the Capitals’ second goal was purely misread by Vanecek. On the very next shift, Malenstyn entered the Devils’ zone with the puck on his stick leading the rush. The fourth-line winger let a shot go that made its way behind Vanecek to give Washington a 2-0 lead.
It certainly seemed like a low-danger shot coming from above the faceoff dots in New Jersey’s end. Perhaps Luke Hughes’ stick check on Malenstyn’s shot redirected the puck from its initial angle. However, there was certainly enough time and space for Vanecek to adjust.
Ruff saw enough at this point and it was Schmid’s game from that point on.
“Look, for me, (Vanecek) just didn’t look sharp,” Ruff explained about Vanecek’s early exit. “I mean the second goal went in from the bench. It’s definitely one he’ll want back and we all want back. I just felt that maybe it’s not gonna be his night and why wait? So I got him out.”
Defense? Defense? Bueller? Defense?
The Capitals came into Friday night second-worst in the NHL in goals-for-per-game averaging two.
Before the 30-minute mark against New Jersey, Washington already netted three goals.
The defense is so out of whack right now that Capitals forward was able to waltz through the neutral zone pulling off a silly stunt in which he cradled the puck on his stick like a lacrosse ball.
— Hockey Daily 365 l NHL Highlights & News (@HockeyDaily365) November 11, 2023
Last season, New Jersey’s identity coincided with constant puck pressure. If they didn’t have the puck, the forecheck was relentless in retrieving it and pushing it up ice. This season, New Jersey is chasing the puck and struggling to win those puck battles in order to move it away from danger.
At this point, it feels like every mistake they make ends up in the back of their net. Stronger goaltending or not, the defense certainly isn’t gelling.
Obviously, things were going to become tougher for the Devils with Jack Hughes sidelined with a shoulder injury.
However, the Devils have created a bad habit of becoming lifeless at certain times without their franchise forward and that’s what it felt like for a full 60 minutes against Washington.
Hughes is obviously New Jersey’s best skater. No one on the Devils transitions the puck better than he does. His absence has certainly been felt in that regard.
The Devils struggled all Friday night to cleanly enter the Capitals’ end with the puck on their stick to set up in the offensive zone. on the power play? More of the same.
In fact, the power play, although still statistically leading the NHL, didn’t register a single shot on net in three tries.
As far as zone entries go, Michael McLeod can be credited with a few clean entries. However, it didn’t translate to much as the puck often quickly found its way back to the neutral zone. The Devils need to find a way to get into the offensive zone cleanly and stay there.
“We have to be serious about some of our offensive creativity with Nico and Jack out of the lineup,” Ruff said. “That isn’t there. At the same time, you’ve got to have other players step in and replace that creativity and replace those roles that those guys were assuming. I mean, we miss them. Our game has to be different. It can’t be the same without those two guys. So you’ve got to grind your way through and sometimes the struggle is something that will keep making you better. So we got to keep grinding.”
It took Meier cleaning up the garbage halfway through the third period for the Devils to finally come to life. McLeod, one of New Jersey’s only formidable puck transitioners at the moment, led a rush up ice to Washington’s end. What appeared to be a harmless shot on Lindgren fell in front of Meier on the doorstep and he deposited the rebound.
Suddenly, the Devils had oxygen in their lungs.
Following Meier’s goal, the Devils suddenly looked like their former selves moving the puck around the ice with authority and connecting on passes.
It wasn’t long before Tyler Toffoli skated the puck deep into Washington’s end and sneakily fed Mercer on the backhand from the far wall for a tap-in goal. It didn’t take much for New Jersey to pull within a goal.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough as the Capitals hit the empty net and sent the Devils back to the locker room pointless.