PRE-GAME STORY: Devils at Capitals 3.25.21

Check out the latest team coverage in our Inside the Devils Blog. >> READ MORE

Check out the latest team coverage in our Inside the Devils Blog.

>> READ MORE IN THE INSIDE THE DEVILS BLOG

WASHINGTON, DC – Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, who has won his last three games, will start for New Jersey Thursday night against the Washington Capitals. His counterpart will be Vitek Vanacek. 

The rest of the Devils lineup appears to be the same from their 4-3 win in Philadelphia Tuesday night. Washington will be without Lars Eller (lower-body), but Alex Ovechkin is expected to play. 

FINDING BALANCE

New Jersey head coach Lindy Ruff has preached this season that he wants to see his team play what he refers to as “Devils Hockey.” That being a fast-paced, speed game with an aggressive mentality.

Devils Hockey sounds a lot like “Capitals Hockey,” as Washington likes to play a similar style with its highly-skilled players. With both teams wanting to play an up-tempo style, it could create a pond hockey matchup. 

But just because Ruff wants his team to play fast and aggressive doesn’t mean he wants them to abandon their defensive responsibilities and trade chance-for-chance with Washington. There is a balance that is needed, and its one his team has been able to find in the four previous contests against the Capitals – which includes a game that saw both teams combine for just five shots in the third period. 

“If you’ve looked at some of our games that we’ve played with them, we’ve done a good job of that in a lot of situations,” he said. “You’re looking at two teams that realize a one-goal lead might be good enough to play the right way.”

The best example of playing Devils Hockey could be the third period of the last meeting between the two teams on March 9. New Jersey erased a 4-1 deficit with three goals while outshooting Washington, 16-5, in the 20-minute session. It was the perfect execution of New Jersey’s style. 

“I think (Washington has) as good a defense as anybody in our division and maybe in the league. They’re big. They’re strong. It’s hard to generate,” Ruff said. “Last time in here our speed allowed us to get through their defense. We scored a couple goals. We could have scored a couple more. That would be my reference to playing Devils’ hockey. Playing quick, playing fast and being able to hit every lane with speed.”

KEYING IN ON PK

Although the Devils are 0-3-1 against Washington this year, they’ve been pleased with their work 5-on-5. But…

“Our special teams has hurt us in a lot of games that we’ve played them,” Ruff said. 

The Capitals have so many weapons on the power play. Ovechkin gets a lot of attention for his big shot from above the circle. But even if you took Ovechkin out of the play with a “shadow,” Washington is still deadly. 

“We know that the guy we really don’t want shooting the puck is Ovechkin,” Ruff said. “But when you start taking that away you’ve got (John) Carlson, who has a great shot from the point. If you start going up too high on him you’ve got (T.J.) Oshie in the hole, who is one of the best guys at tipping pucks, one of the best guys at catch-and-release on quick little hole play.”

Oshie has scored three of the Capitals’ four power-play goals against New Jersey this season. 

“If you start taking away, they start rotating and moving pieces around,” Ruff said. “I think that’s part of the reason they’re one of the best power plays in the league.”

As the cliché goes, the best way to stop a power play is to stay out of the box. 

“If we focus on keeping it 5-on-5 for as much of the game as we can,” forward Kyle Palmieri said, “I think 5-on-5 we’ve played well as a unit. We’ve been able to produce pretty good results at that stage. Tonight if we go in with the mentality that if we get a power play or penalty kill, finding ways to give our team momentum and continue doing the things that have made us successful 5-on-5.”

BUBBLE BIRTHDAY

Rookie defenseman Ty Smith turned 21 on Wednesday. Despite being restricted due to COVID-19, the Devils still found a way to celebrate. 

“Ty was brought a cupcake with a couple candles,” Ruff said. “We got to sing him happy birthday, which I guess is better than nothing.

“There hasn’t been a lot of celebrating because you really can’t go anywhere. We have celebrated inside with different milestones for different players.”

DEVILS (12-14-4) vs CAPITALS (20-7-4)

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Head-to-Head

The Devils and Washington Capitals meet for the fifth time this season. New Jersey is 0-3-1 in the previous matchups, but forced an overtime session with a spirited third-period comeback in the most recent meeting on March 9. In that game, the Devils overcame a 4-1 deficit with three goals in the third period from Miles Wood, Yegor Sharangovich and Damon Severson before falling in overtime. 

Travis Zajac leads the Devils in series scoring against Washington with four points, all assists. Sharangovich has a team-best two goals in just three games. Pavel Zacha has posted three points (1G-2A) against the Capitals. 

Washington’s Jakub Vrana has owned the Devils so far this season with four goals, including an overtime winner, and six points in four games. Meanwhile, John Carlson and Nicklas Backstrom each have a goal and five points against New Jersey, and T.J. Oshie has three goals and four points. 

Devils Team Scope:

New Jersey improved to 4-1-1 in its last six games following a 4-3 victory at Philadelphia Tuesday night. The Devils received goals from Mike McLeod, Kyle Palmieri, Sharangovich and Travis Zajac and goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood stopped 30 shots. 

The STK Line -Sharangovich, Zajac, Janne Koukkanen – has combined for 10 goals and 25 points in 10 games since being united on March 7. Kuokkanen leads the way with four goals and nine points. Zajac has eight assists and nine points, while Sharangovich has posted four goals and five points. 

Palmieri picked up his first power-play goal of the year and sixth overall against the Flyers. Forward Jesper Bratt extended his season-long five-game scoring streak with an assist. Bratt has five points (1G-4A) in the stretch, which includes the game-winning overtime goal in Pittsburgh on Sunday. 

Blackwood picked up his third straight win for New Jersey Tuesday night. He has stopped 98 of 104 shots (.943) in that span with a 2.00 goals-against average. 

New Jersey is 8-3-2 on the road this season and 2-0 on their current six-game road trip following victories in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Next up are a pair of games each against Washington and Boston.  

Capitals Team Scope:

The Capitals are in a tight race with the NY Islanders for the top spot in the East Division. Washington sits just two points behinds New York (46-44), but the Capitals have two games in hand. Of course, it’s what you do with those games that make the difference.

Washington’s rise to the top has been fueled by a seven-game winning streak that was snapped Saturday against the New York Rangers in a 3-1 loss. The Capitals, who are coming off of a rare four-day break in the schedule, are 14-3-1 in their past 18 contests, which includes four wins against New Jersey. 

Forwards Alex Ovechkin (lower-body) and T.J. Oshie (personal reasons) practiced with the club on Wednesday. Though head coach Peter Laviolette couldn’t confirm definitively, both are expected to play Thursday against New Jersey. 

In Saturday’s loss to the Rangers forward Tom Wilson returned to the lineup for the first time after serving a seven-game suspension for a hit on Boston blueliner Brandon Carlo in a March 5 contest. He picked up an assist in his return. 

Ovechkin leads the club with 14 goals. Before going pointless Saturday, Ovechkin had a five-game goal-scoring streak with six total goals and seven points. Nicklas Backstrom tops the team in assists (22) and points (34).  

By the Numbers:

Devils rookie defenseman Ty Smith notched his third career two-point game with a pair of assists at Philadelphia Tuesday night. He also posted a career-high plus-3. The swift skating blueliner has four assists in his last four games and a plus-5. He also celebrated his 21st birthday on Wednesday evening. 

Capitals defenseman John Carslon has points in seven of his last eight games (2G-6A). He is two goals shy of passing Mike Green and Calle Johansson (113) for third place on the franchise’s all-time goal scoring list by a defenseman. In 2019-20, Carlson became the first defenseman to lead the Capitals in scoring (75 points) since Kevin Hatcher in 1990-91 (70). 

Injury Update:

Devils: Bastian (lower-body), Hischier (frontal sinus fracture).

Capitals: Eller (lower-body), Ovechkin (lower-body), Kempny (Achilles tendon).