Despite blowing a two-goal lead in the third period of Friday’s game against the Capitals, the Devils kept their spotless record intact in this still-young season, thanks to a scintillating Ilya Kovalchuk overtime winner – see above. Kovalchuk’s fourteenth career OT winner (just two behind Jaromir Jagr for the all-time mark) gave the Devils a 3-2 win, and kept the Caps winless…though they became the last NHL team to get a point by going to OT after three straight regulation losses to begin the season.
Friday’s game also crystalized the importance of two things in this short, abrreviated season (and training camp). Having an established system, and very little turnover roster-wise matters more now than it would in a normal campaign. While the Devils are thriving to this point in their second season under Pete DeBoer, and with minimal roster changes – even if one of them is the loss of Zach Parise – the Caps are struggling mightily under new coach Adam Oates. By DeBoer’s own admission, it wasn’t until December or January last year that the Devils were comfortable with his then-new system…and that was with a full training camp and 30-35 games into an 82-game season. Such a luxury doesn’t exist in a 48-game season.
That said, the Caps did play probably their best game so far Friday night, and dominated early…though it was the Devils who held the lead after the first period when Jacob Josefson and Stephen Gionta combined on a shorthanded breakout with Josefson’s stickhandling getting the puck in the zone, and a desperate clearance attempt by one of the defensemen led to Gionta getting the puck in a wide-open spot, and putting it home. Technically, Gionta’s goal came one second after a Kovalchuk penalty expired so it wasn’t a shorthanded goal – it did give the Devils the early lead at 13:55 though.
Another thing that’s been of the norm in this young NHL season is an increased amount of penalties called, just the way whistles became more prevalent in the season after the last lockout. Given that, special teams are going to be of paramount importance and the Devils’ power play finally had a breakout game although they were ‘only’ one of four, and that one was on an extended 5-on-3 with a minute left in the second period when Patrik Elias scored off a rebound. Even on their five-on-four and four-on-three (in OT) power plays though, the Devils created a ton of chances but the Caps’ now-backup Michael Neuvirth stood up well, as he usually does against us.
Gionta nearly had another goal early in the third after Neuvirth made the initial save on a Danius Zubrus breakaway but couldn’t quite get to the puck before the goaltender was able to swat it out of harm’s way. It was to prove a costly missed opportunity as the Caps took advantage of numerous Devil penalties – including two too many men on ice penalties and a bench minor for abuse of officials – and finally Washington got on the board on an extended 5-on-3 when Mike Ribiero scored his first as a Cap with just 7:15 remaining. Although the Devils managed to kill off another extended 5-on-3, they couldn’t hold the Cap onslaught at bay forever, and finally Mike Green‘s wrister snuck in through traffic with 2:54 left to tie the game.
Perhaps’ the Caps second game in two nights in a different city finally became a factor in the overtime, which the Devils dominated, but Neuvirth managed to hold the fort still longer. Moments after Andy Greene missed an open net though, Kovalchuk’s ‘impossible angle’ wrister at last curved past Neuvirth with barely twenty seconds remaining on the clock for yet another scintillating home win. To an extent, I feel sorry for Oatesie in Washington, even though I had my issues with him while he was here he helped in some aspects and he certainly had no shortage of praise for DeBoer in retaining him after a coaching change and helping him get the Caps job. However, when you move Alex Ovechkin to his off-wing then abandon that experiment after four games because you ‘just want Alex to be happy’ that’s a sign of problems.
While the Caps try to figure things out, the Devils will try to keep things going. As such, expect almost no lineup changes for the fourth straight game. Other than switching out goon Cam Janssen for quasi-goon Krys Barch on Friday, the Devils have made zero lineup changes to this point. DeBoer has juggled the lines a bit, but for the most part Kovy has played with Travis Zajac, Elias has played with David Clarkson and our heroic fourth line from last postseason has stayed intact. Assuming no lineup changes, second-year man Adam Larsson will have to wait at least another game to get his first action at the NHL level this year, after playing 30+ games in the AHL during the lockout. And obviously Martin Brodeur will start in goal for the fourth straight game, after three consecutive sharp performances to open the 2013 season.
I’m not crazy about Larsson sitting, but might as well take advantage of the schedule while it’s still more forgiving than some other teams’ schedules, and roll with a winning lineup. Especially when you might be looking to trade one of those defensemen for max value. Despite our early success, I can’t see any justification for not making a move sooner or later. Even with Adam Henrique coming back soon, the Devils are still lacking at least one top nine forward, and have one too many defensemen. Depth is good yes, but not at the expense of having depth elsewhere on your team. Especially when your only healthy scratch up front is going to be a goon most likely, while two NHL-caliber defensemen are sitting in the box night after night.
One thing that will be interesting is to see what happens with Stefan Matteau this afternoon, in the fourth game of his five-game ‘tryout’ with the big club. After playing fewer than seven minutes the other night, DeBoer will give him a chance to shine in front of family and friends in Montreal by putting him with the top line for a few shifts at least. I still believe Matteau will be sent down once his five games are up (and that Matthew Darche is still skating with the team because he may well have a job as Matteau’s replacement), and that it’s not worth burning a year on his ELC to make him a third-fourth liner, but it’s obvious the future is not too far off for our first-round pick.