It started with a celebration and ended with a thud.
The Devils honored Travis Zajac (belatedly) for 1,000 games played in the National Hockey League and then dropped a decision to the Washington Capitals, 5-2.
First, the celebration. Zajac was actually playing in game number 1,003 today, but since game 1,000 through 1,002 were played on the road, the Devils were paying tribute to it today.
Zajac played in game 1,000 on February 21 at the Caps. The ceremony today featured (pre-recorded) words from Patrik Elias, Martin Brodeur and Ken Daneyko – the other three Devils to play 1,000 games all in a Devils uniform (Marty did play seven games in St. Louis, he just accomplished the feat here).
There were gifts from the NHL (represented by Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald), his teammates and, of course, the sliver stick presented to players on this occasion. In a nice touch, the stick was presented to Zajac by his son. This is something which must have meant a lot to him due to how much family represents to him. Finally, with fans not allowed into the building until Tuesday, some recorded messages from Devils season ticket members were shown on the big board.
With all of that out of the way, there was a game to play.
Mackenzie Blackwood made his first start of the season against the Caps, as Aaron Dell had gone last Sunday in the two teams’ first meeting of the year.
Blackwood made 19 saves on 23 shots for an .826 save percentage. There was a point late in the second period and early into the third when the Capitals were held without a shot on goal for 18:10. The Caps also did not register a power play or shorthanded shot, they went 0-for-2 on the power play.
For Washington, Vitek Vanecek went between the pipes, making 22 saves on 24 Devils shots for a .917 save percentage. He was starting for the 16th time in his last 17 games. He stopped the Devils’ lone shorthanded shot and was 0-for-1 on the power play. He stopped 21 of 22 at even strength. The Devils went 1-for-3 on the power play.
Alex Ovechkin did play for the Capitals. There was some concern that he would not play due to not practicing yesterday, but that was a routine maintenance day, it turned out and did not represent anything bigger. The Caps were, however, without Evgeny Kuznetsov.
The Devils played Will Butcher today, sitting Ryan Murray – who also did not practice yesterday. Scott Wedgewood was the Devils’ other scratch.
The Caps jumped out to a big lead, scoring three within the first 13:40 of the game. It started when Garnet Hathaway scored just 3:36 in. Carl Hagelin recovered a Devils turnover in the Washington zone. He moved it to Justin Schultz, who fed Hathaway backdoor with a slick pass through the blue paint. Hathaway put it in and the Devils found themselves behind the eight ball quickly.
At the 5:06 mark of the first, Daniel Sprong made it 2-0. John Carlson went D-to-D with Brenden Dillon. Dillon shot and the puck bounced in off of PK Subban, Sprong and the post and in. Dillon originally got the credit for the goal, but that was changed to Sprong as he was the last Capital to touch it before it went in.
The Devils’ hole got deeper when, at 13:40 of the first, Washington closed in on a 3-on-1 following a Devils’ pass being picked off just inside the Caps’ blueline. On the 3-on-1, Conor Lars Eller passed to Conor Sheary, who went back to Eller, using Ovechkin as the third man decoy. Eller scored to make it 3-0.
It was the first time this season that the Devils had let in three in the first period.
The scoring in the first, however, was not done. With just over two minutes to go, at the 18:16 mark, the Devils got on the board when Nico Hischier scored on the power play. Jack Hughes won a draw deep in the Washington zone back to Subban at the point. Subban wound up and fired, realizing midway through that he had no shooting lane. He then intentionally shot wide with the puck bouncing off of the end boards, coming right to Hischier. The captain put the puck in to make it 3-1.
The Devils would get even closer at the 6:09 mark of the second when Pavel Zacha extended his point-scoring streak to nine games.
The goal came on a chaotic play when Zacha fell into Vanecek, knocking the goalie’s stick out of his hands in the process. Zacha got up, regrouped and went to the slot, taking a pass from Hischier and snapping it by the Washington goalie. Ty Smith had the secondary assist.
That made it 3-2 and the Devils were back in the hunt.
They seemed to be clicking late in the game, holding the Caps without a shot on net for 18:10 through the late second/early third and getting a few good scoring chances.
But the backbreaker came when Jakub Vrana took a Carlson clearing attempt in stride like a pass. He broke in on a breakaway and scored at 11:49 of the third period to make it 4-2 and put the game nearly out of reach for New Jersey. Tom Wilson had the secondary assist.
A scary moment later on as, while the Devils were on the power play, an errant Subban slapshot deflected off of a Washington stick and hit Hischier in the face, drawing blood. He left and did not return.
Blackwood was pulled with just over two minutes to go in the game and Nic Dowd would “cap” things off with an empty net goal at 19:06 off an assist from Hagelin.
With that empty netter, the teams finished with the same amount of shots at 24. The Devils won 49-percent of the game’s faceoffs with Zajac, appropriately, leading the centers with a 71-percent winning clip.
The Caps outhit the Devils, 15-8 and had more blocked shots at 13 to the Devils’ 11. The Devils also had more giveaways at 13 to the Capitals’ two.
Subban led the Devils in time on ice with 21:33 while Zacha led the forwards with 20:07.
Shots on goal were led by Jack Hughes with four. Hits were led by Nate Bastian and Smith with two apiece. Blocked shots were led by Michael McLeod, Smith and Sami Vatanen with two each. Takeaways were led by Butcher with two.
Next up, the Devils will get up and do it again. The Capitals remain in Newark for a 3 PM game tomorrow afternoon. We will see you then for coverage here.
Until then, stay safe everyone!