I'm not going to say the Devils stole this one, because they played well enough to win, but boy, the Caps' penalty problems certainly got them going in the third. With a noon start coming Saturday, this was a big win for the Devils and they could ice what's left of the Caps' season with a sweep of this two-game series. Some thoughts...
Dueling Russians: Alex Ovechkin came out firing on all cylinders in the first two periods, playing with the jump and speed that he used to display on a regular basis. There was the ridiculous undressing of Bryce Salvador and the spin move that left Henrik Tallinder useless and finally an end-to-end rush that he shot wide. It was vintage Ovechkin for 40 minutes and although he didn't score, it appeared only a matter of time before Ovi buried one. But then all of a sudden to star the third, Ilya Kovalchuk seemed liked a different player. Perhaps energized by Ovi's sudden resurgence or pissed off by his team's poor effort in the second period, Kovy was all over the ice in the third. Even before he scored the game-winning goal on a picture-perfect one-time setup from Patrik Elias, Kovy was rushing Caps goalie Braden Holtby and drawing penalties with strong work along the boards. It was always like Kovy realized there was nothing else going for the Devils tonight and took it upon himself to be the best player on the ice for the final 20 minutes. Of course, it helped that he basically played the entire period because of how much time the Devils spent on the power play during the third. Still, on nights like tonight, we're reminded that the Devils have something that only a handful of other teams have: a player that is the most skilled player 95 percent of the time he's on the ice. I mean, really, how many other players could've taken the shot that he scored the game winner on? Just fantastic.
A mixed bag: I chose to avoid the obvious "Capital Punishment" joke here, focusing instead on the fact that the Devils' special teams tonight deserve a mixed review tonight. Yes, the game winner came on a power play, but it was the second 5-on-3 situation in five minutes. When you get chances like that, you're supposed to bury them. Meanwhile, the other five power plays, including the other 5-on-3, were entirely forgettable, filled with bad puck movement and an allergy to getting pucks actually on goal. Now, some of that is because the Capitals did a very nice job of blocking shots and interrupting passing lanes with their sticks, but this is too much a running issue to simply chalk it up to another team having a strong penalty kill. On the season, the Caps had the 25th-ranked penalty kill entering play Thursday and yet the Devils made them look like a top-five unit. The lone PP goal came on a shot from Kovy at the point, which seems to be the only way they score on the man advantage besides a garbage goal from David Clarkson. What about changing up Kovy's partner on the point? They've tried Andy Greene and Marek Zidlicky, but what about Adam Larsson? I think this is worth exploring and it's something I'll write more about tomorrow. As for the penalty kill -- yikes. The Devils allowed goals on two of the Caps' four power plays and it could've been worse. The second goal was particularly disturbing for a couple reasons. One, the penalty came less than two minutes after the Caps scored their first power-play goal of the night. Two, the actual scoring play on that second power-play goal came right after the Devils had tied it up short-handed and allowed the Caps to regain momentum after the Devils had seemingly stolen it out from under them. Pete DeBoer, you have a problem here.
Changing lines changes times: After a really nice start to the game and a strong first period overall, the Devils were completely on their heels to start the second period and never seemed to recover. That is, until the start of the third, when Pete DeBoer apparently decided to toss his player's names in a hit like and pick them out in random like a Super Bowl squares pool. Combinations we saw in the third period: Kovy-Henrique-Butler, Elias-Zajac-Clarkson, Ponikarovsky-Loktionov-Gionta and Ponikarovsky-Gionta-Kovalchuk. And those are just SOME of the combinations that saw DeBoer basically start blindly throwing darts at a board like an exhausted teacher too lazy to grade papers (OK, that's the last joke, I swear.). Whatever it was, it seemed to shake the Devils out of their funk and get them going on a night when they didn't get their trademark "spark" shifts out of the
Carter Matteau-Gionta-Bernier line. That's usually the line DeBoer will start a period after he thinks the Devils were flat in the previous 20 minutes. While I think it was more a function of trying to get the team going than permanent change, I did see some things I liked, specifically Bobby Butler playing with Kovy and the chemistry between Andrei Loktionov and Kovy. I'll be interested to see if any of these combos make appearances again Saturday afternoon, even if DeBoer sticks with the same basic combos to start the game.
Spare parts: Speaking of the "same basic combos" -- Are we finally done here with Henrik Tallinder and Krys Barch? I mean, you're telling Mark Fayne and Peter Harrold (as a forward) are worse options? I find that incredibly difficult to believe, each for their own reasons. Tallinder just seems completely lost out there and you don't want to put him on either of the top two defensive pairs, meaning he's stuck with the incredibly slow-footed Anton Volchenkov -- and that means whichever forward line is skating against the Devils during that shift basically has a free pass at the net. As for Barch, I mean, c'mon. Who are we fooling here? It's fine keeping him on the roster to match up against goons, but who do the Caps have that even remotely qualifies for this? Harrold hasn't skated once all season. It's time -- and if you don't want to play Harrold up front, then recall Matt Anderson because I'm so tired to seeing Krys Barch struggle to give the Devils any sort of competent play except when he's dropping the gloves. And it's also time for Fayne to get back in -- and I'd put money on at least the Fayne-Tallinder swap happening for Saturday's matinee. I know he struggled after the death of his grandmother, but there's no questioning that the Devils' best six defensemen are Salvador, Fayne, Greene, Larsson, Volchenkov and Zidlicky.
Notes: Congrats to Andrei Loktionov on his first goal with the Devils, and what a sound series of plays by him to lead to the goal. First, he cleanly won the draw back to the point and then perfectly positioned himself to right of the net while anticipating a rebound on Larsson's slapper from the right point. And what happened? The rebound came right to his stick and he had a wide open net. Plays like that will keep him in the NHL. ... David Clarkson said after the game that he's OK after he appeared to hurt his wrist during the second period, which is obviously good news. Still, the nicks on Clarkson are starting to add up and I wouldn't be shocked if he got a game off for "maintenance" in the next week or so once Ryan Carter returns. ... Salvador made a couple of smart "vet" plays tonight, but it's pretty clear the Andy Greene-Adam Larsson combo is the Devils' top defensive pair. ... A strong night from Braden Holtby tonight and a tough loss for him. I just wonder how good he can be with an average Caps team in front of him. ... Stefan Matteau's too-many-men penalty was a complete mental error by the rookie. If you're going to jump on the ice a few seconds before the player you're placing gets to the bench -- Don't. Touch. The. Puck. ... Bobby Butler might have the best shot on the Devils after Kovy. Seriously. ... Adam Henrique's work on the first goal (a short-handed tally by Patrik Elias) deserves so much praise. He single-handedly won the puck not once, but twice behind the net and had the sense to spin and deliver a backhand to the other side of net, where Elias just happened to be waiting with an open net. ... How did the Devils close out that one? By being aggressive. That's how they close games. Not by sitting back, but by forcing the play back into the other end. It was textbook Devils hockey.