After three straight losses to the Devils this season, Washington came into last night's game with something to prove in the teams' final meeting in the regular season (inconcievable considering we're not even halfway through yet). Plus, the Devils' holiday break was almost five days compared to the Caps, who last played Wednesday night. And eventually the Devils' insane road record - 13-2-1 going into last night's game - was going to be deflated to a degree.
So I suppose last night's 4-1 loss was kind of inevitable in a way. Post-holiday hangover if you will. Not a good thing to suffer from when playing against Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Washington's version of Batman and Robin either scored or helped set up three of the four goals last night, starting with Ovechkin's 25th of the season at 4:09 of the first to jump-start his team and a fired up home crowd. Incredibly, the Hockey Night Live! crew said that was Ovechkin's first goal against Martin Brodeur in four years. Even with Brodeur's injury last season and Ovechkin missing two games earlier this year it's still hard to believe we've held him in check that long.
Probably another reason why we were due to get knocked from pillar to post, although in truth it's not as if the Devils came out flat. Maybe they got caught in too much of a run-and-gun game in the first period which favored the Caps. Both teams combined for twenty-nine shots on net although it was probably two of the most harmless-looking that led to the other goals of the period. Matt Bradley doubled the Caps' lead at 13:54 when his wrist shot hit off of the ill-fated Mike Mottau's skate and stick before popping over Brodeur's head. Brodeur got a piece of it with his glove but not enough as his agressive play hurt him in that instance. I like Mottau and he's been good for us the prior two years but it might get to the point where you have to at least platoon him and Mark Fraser when Paul Martin finally comes back, he's been that bad over the last month plus (and Fraser that good).
With the Caps still up 2-0 and the zealous sellout crowd already chanting 'Marty!' the Devils managed to cut into the lead late in the period with their own unlikely goal. Rod Pelley took yet another floater of a shot from the point, and this time it hit John Erskine in front and went past third-string goaltender Michael Neuvirth at 17:18, giving Pelley his second goal of the season - both on similar-looking plays. Illka Pikkaranen got the lone assist on the goal, as the fourth line at least continued to contribute last night.
Now down 2-1, the Devils started to feel the holiday blues in the second period as they were outshot 19-5 by the Caps - despite getting the first three power plays of the period! Between the Devils' power play failures, they gave up the crucial third goal when Backstrom scored at 9:52, beating Brodeur in front after Ovechkin and Alexander Semin set up the play with assists. If anything they were lucky to only be down 3-1 after two given the shot disparity and finally giving up a couple of power plays themselves toward the end of the period, including a minute-long 5-on-3 that they were fortunate to kill off against a high-powered Caps team.
However, just after the second of the Devils' penalties expired, Mike Green got open inside the blueline and rifled one of his lasers past Brodeur. Just thirty-nine seconds into the third, the game was over as a contest. Even with third-stringer Neuvirth in goal, a surprise starter for the third straight game over a clearly out of favor Jose Theodore. For his part, the kid played well making 29 saves. Ironically his best may have come in the second period when he stoned the still-cold Zach Parise in front after it looked like Parise had a sure goal that would have tied the game.
While the Caps fans might have been a bit silly with the Marty chants after he'd already gone 3-0 against them this year gotta give them props for cheering the standings when their jumbotron showed an updated version with ten seconds left that had the Caps first in the East. I'm not sure that would have gotten a similar reaction at the Rock...but then again we've had enough reminders over the years that first in the conference in December - or April means nothing once the playoffs start.
Certainly this odd season series will have little effect on a possible playoff matchup considering the three and a half (at least) months that have to pass by before that happens. Especially since, as the Caps and some dour NJ writers will point out, Ovechkin missed the two regulation wins by the Devils and only played in the 3-3 tie in Washington which we won in a shootout, and last night's game. While that's true, the fact is we're still missing key players ourselves - one of whom (David Clarkson) might be back either Monday or Wednesday.
It'll be interesting to see who comes out of the lineup and gets sent down...odds are it's Vladimir Zharkov - both because of convenience (since he can be sent down without going through waivers) and because for as well as the kid's played he just hasn't found his scoring touch just yet up here. Plus honestly nobody else really deserves to come out right now. Even Pelley and Pikkaranen have been improved on the fourth line since the latter got sent down and the former was scratched. Dean McAmmond's been a revelation so far. Unfortunately Jay Pandolfo continues to be overused, I still think he has a place but he can't be a shutdown winger anymore at 5-on-5.
Whatever happens, hopefully the team shakes off the holiday rust for the Thrashers on Monday night.
BoNY Three Stars:
- Alexander Ovechkin (goal, two assists, +3)
- Nicklas Backstrom (goal, two assists, +3)
- Michael Neuvirth (29/30 saves)