It was another frustrating loss for the Devils against the Caps. Despite outplaying them by a significant margin, the Devils still couldn’t find a way to get a win against the Caps. Instead, a third period rally was too late in a 5-4 loss on home ice.
In doing so, they didn’t win a single game against Washington over the 56-game schedule. It’s sadly true. Even on an off day, the Capitals had enough offense to hang on for a one-goal win to complete an unthinkable season series sweep of the eight games. Alexander Ovechkin scored a goal on the power play and assisted on two others to help the Caps finish 8-0 versus the Devs. New Jersey only earned two points to finish 0-6-2. At least the nightmare is over.
The eighth and final meeting between the rivals was different. The Devils outshot the Capitals 39-19. That included leading in shots by a healthy 31-12 margin after two periods. It didn’t matter.
The Caps were opportunistic against Mackenzie Blackwood by scoring five times on 19 shots including three for 12 over the first 40 minutes. Following a Travis Zajac goal that started the scoring, it was the Caps who got the next three on goals from T.J. Oshie (breakaway), Conor Sheary (deflection off Damon Severson) and Ovechkin (rebound).
Zajac had a good game. He scored twice by converting one-timers off superb feeds from Nick Merkley (2 assists). Merkley was in the lineup due to Kyle Palmieri being sat out as just a precaution. It appears the veteran right wing might be on the move come next Monday at the NHL Trade Deadline. His agent confirmed it after the two sides couldn’t reach agreement on a contract extension.
The big news obviously is more important than the game. The 30-year old forward from Smithtown, New York has been a good Devil. Originally acquired by the club from Anaheim on June 26, 2015 for a ’15 second round pick (Ryan Gropp) and ’16 third (Rem Pitlick), Palmieri has scored 20-or-more goals in five of six seasons. That included posting a career best 30 and 57 points in ’15-16.
Although it’s been a challenging year after getting out of the gate slowly, Palmieri still has 17 points (8-9-17) on an offensively challenged team. If he doesn’t play another game, he’s done well producing 140 goals with 126 assists for 266 points in 397 games as a New Jersey Devil. A good top six player who’s hit double digits in power play goals (11) four different times, he would be a welcome addition for a playoff contender. Given the fact it was going to be hard to retain him as it played out, it’s better for the Devils to get what they can for Palmieri, who should have quite a few teams bidding on him.
On a rebuilding club that features several rookies along with teenager Jack Hughes, who finally ended an eight-game pointless drought with an assist on Yegor Sharangovich’s eighth goal late in the second period that pulled the Devils within a goal, GM Tom Fitzgerald’s job is to continue to improve the talent pool. Some of the young players have shown flashes. With top prospects Alexander Holtz and Dawson Mercer players the franchise is banking on to help Hughes and oft injured former top pick Nico Hischier, the formula is simple. Continue to get as much as you can for expendable assets.
This was a winnable game. But the Devils had some breakdowns and didn’t get the saves they usually do from Blackwood, who entered the game seeing at least 40 shots the past three starts.
After Zajac buried a Merkley feed in front for his sixth at 3:17, the Caps responded thanks to the dangerous Oshie. Taking an Ovechkin pass in transition, he exploded past Devil defenders and dusted Blackwood with a nice backhand top shelf to tie the score at 9:16. The game remained even through one despite the Devils having a 17-5 edge in shots.
Some credit must be given to Ilya Samsonov, who made several big saves to give his team a chance. His best came when he robbed Severson later with a cat reflex glove save that sent the Devils defenseman off the ice to take out some frustration. Samsonov made 35 saves.
During the rest of the action, the abysmal Devils special teams really hurt them. But before that point, Conor Sheary scored his eighth on a strange play. Taking a pass from Friday’s hero Dmitry Orlov, he had his shot ricochet off Severson up in the air and past an unsuspecting Blackwood at 3:21 to give Washington the lead. Chalk it up to bad luck.
A Dmitry Kulikov hi-stick on Ovechkin a few minutes later led directly to the Great Eight tying Brett Hull for second all-time in power play goals. Instead of scoring from his office, he snuck in and was in the perfect spot to outmuscle Zajac to steer in a rebound of a Nicklas Backstrom shot that Blackwood mishandled. It was one he should’ve had. Instead, Ovechkin deposited it for his 265th power play goal. He trails only Dave Andreychuk (274) on the all-time list.
The Caps gave the Devils some power play chances. The best opportunity came for Hughes when he was all set up on a good cross-ice pass from Pavel Zacha. One-on-one with Samsonov, he fired a good shot right off the near goalpost and out. That’s how close he was to finally ending his goal drought. To his credit, he stuck with it and would help set up a Sharangovich even strength goal with 2:18 remaining in the second.
On a innocent looking play, Hughes and Ryan Murray combined to get the puck to the speedy Sharangovich in the neutral zone. He did the rest by coasting into the Caps zone and ripping a good wrist shot past Samsonov for his eighth. It ended a five-game goal drought. Somewhat interestingly, the primary assist gave the defensive oriented Murray nine for the season. He also picked up helpers on Zajac’s pair giving him 10. Not known for his offense, the three assists extended his point streak to three. Over that span, he’s recorded six helpers and gone plus-six. Still just 27, the former Blue Jackets first round pick has been a solid pickup. Murray is unrestricted this summer. Will he become available?
Trailing only by one, the Devils made life harder on themselves at the start of the third. On the power play with Lars Eller off for slashing Severson, they managed to allow a shorthanded goal to Carl Hagelin. Severson got trapped at the Caps blue line by Brenden Dillon of all people. It turned into an odd-man rush with Garnet Hathaway setting up a Hagelin one-timer past Blackwood for his fourth at 2:41.
Then Ovechkin made a great play that resulted in the game-winner. After taking an Orlov outlet, he broke in two-on-one and made a nice dish across for Evgeny Kuznetsov, who buried his seventh at 5:31. The goal put Washington in command up three with under 15 minutes left in regulation.
However, the Devils never gave up. On a good forecheck from behind the net, Zacha put the puck out in front where Jesper Bratt was able to finish off his fourth to cut it to 5-3 with 9:45 remaining. That gave Zacha 20 points on the season. He hasn’t been as good lately. But he’s improved under coach Lindy Ruff.
With over four minutes left, Murray and Merkley combined to set up Zajac for his second of the game. It was another good one-timer from the well respected veteran pivot that made it a one-goal game with 4:07 left. Zajac is in the final year of his contract. The 35-year old has played his entire career with the Devils. His two tallies give him 202 for his NHL career. The former ’03 first round pick has played in 1,023 games and produced 549 points (202-347-549) while being a responsible two-way pivot the team can rely on for face-offs and to kill penalties. Will he be back? He has 17 points. Not bad for a locker room leader on a low scoring team.
Unfortunately, that’s as close as the Devils got. They couldn’t find the equalizer on Samsonov late with Blackwood on the bench. A somewhat curious decision by Ruff and his coaching staff was opting for P.K. Subban and Sami Vatanen with an extra attacker. Vatanen is a serviceable player. But he shouldn’t be used in that situation. Rookie Ty Smith should be. That oversight makes about as much sense as Barry Trotz never using rookie Oliver Wahlstrom on any six-on-five for the Islanders.
This isn’t about one coach here. They’re all the same. For some reason, experienced coaches don’t fully trust their young players enough. Smith is the best defenseman the Devils got. He has 19 points and is in the upper echelon for the Calder that’ll probably go to Kirill Kaprizov. There was no reason for Smith not to be out for that final shift. His last one came with 2:15 remaining and lasted 39 seconds.
How coaches manage their young players when it’s a rebuilding team playing out the string is vital. They should’ve found a way to get Smith back out there. It didn’t help that the Devils had problems creating anything. Instead, both Kulikov and Vatanen took shifts.
Next up for the Devils are the hot Sabres. They’ve got points in their last four games including two wins. The first game is Tuesday in Newark with the return match Thursday up at Buffalo. They then have the Pens to close the week on Friday and next Sunday. That’s four games before the April 12 Trade Deadline. By then, we’ll have a better idea where Palmieri is going.
I’m sure Hasan will get into more on Palmieri and the trade deadline stuff.
THREE STARS OF GAME
3rd 🌟 Evgeny Kuznetsov, Capitals (game-winning goal plus 🍏 in 13:09)
2nd 🌟 Travis Zajac, Devils (2 goals for numbers 6 and 7, +1 in 19:25)
1st 🌟 Alexander Ovechkin, Capitals (19th goal on power play tying Brett Hull for second in PPG’s with 265, 2 🍎, 3 SOG in 17:09