The Devils playoff hopes, as dim as they are at this point, took a big hit on Thursday, March 26th against the Washington Capitals. Despite a huge push late, the Devils fell in overtime to the Caps. Their “tragic number” for being eliminated from playoff contention going into the night was 9 points (either 9 lost by the Devils or a combination of points gained by those higher than them in the standings). With the Capitals being a divisional rival and a wildcard team that the Devils are chasing, leaving one point on the table like this hurt the Devils more than it helped. However, you cannot blame their effort when the chips were down.
Things got off to a chippy start in the game at Verizon Center when Tom Wilson and Mark Fraser went off for coincidental minors for roughing at 1:45 of the first period. With the teams going four-on-four for the next two minutes, Washington took advantage of it. Karl Alzner beat Cory Schneider at 2:51 (with Matt Niskanen getting the primary assist – his first of two on the night – and Marcus Johansson getting the secondary) to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead.
Washington would double their lead early in the second period when Eric Fehr scored unassisted at 1:35. With the Devils now down 2-0, things looked pretty bleak for New Jersey when Jon Merrill was whistled for closing his hand on the puck at 14:08. With the Devils now down a man, the team’s penalty kill unit was called into action against the number one power play in the NHL. With about 1:30 left to kill on the penalty, Patrik Elias skated the puck out of the Devils zone. Elias moved just inside the Caps’ blueline as Travis Zajac broke to the net. Patty shot and Zajac snuck in behind the Washington defense, poked the rebound home behind Braden Holtby and just like that, the game was 2-1. Adam Larsson had the secondary assist on the goal. For the Devils, it was a shorthanded goal at 14:41 that allowed them to cut the lead in half, but they still had to kill off the remaining part of the power play. They did and the game went into the third with the Capitals up 2-1.
The third period would see two sets of coincidental minor penalties (at 2:49, Jacob Josefson went off for roughing while Brooks Orpik of the Caps went off for unsportsmanlike conduct and then, at 14:10, Washington’s Tom Wilson and Jordin Tootoo each went off for roughing) sandwiched around a Devils power play. Nothing happened in those instances and the game remained 2-1 Caps when the Devils pulled Cory Schneider with roughly two minutes left in the game.
With the extra attacker on, the Devils made the most of it. Mike Cammalleri worked the puck out of the corner to Scott Gomez behind the Washington goal cage. Gomez quickly threw it to Steve Bernier stationed in front of Holtby and he hammered it behind the Capitals netminder to tie the game at two with exactly 30 seconds left in the game.
The Devils had battled back and, once time expired, would head to overtime with the Capitals. After a Devils chance, the play headed back towards the New Jersey defensive zone. The Caps won a battle in the corner and it was sent cross ice to Alzner at the right point. He moved it across to Niskanen at the left point who fired a slap shot that was tipped by Evgeny Kuznetsov past Schneider to win the game for the Capitals, 3-2. Washington would take the season series against the Devils with that win and help shore up their playoff hopes while dashing those of their Metropolitan Division rivals.
New Jersey made a valiant effort and it shows that this team is not quitting on the season. They are playing until they are told to stop. Unfortunately for them, that call will come sooner than later, as their hopes for a playoff berth are all but done. New Jersey outshot the Capitals 31-24 in the game and were able to keep Alexander Ovechkin off the scoresheet, which is always a good thing. It is just that the Capitals had too many weapons for the Devils to overcome.
Washington will be a tough first round opponent for whoever draws them, most likely the Rangers, who are first in the Metro Division (and who, in a double whammy for Devils fans, became the first team to qualify for the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs the same night with their win over Ottawa).
The upcoming schedule for the Devils is kind of up-and-down. They meet Carolina on Saturday, March 28th on the road and then Anaheim the following night at home. The Hurricanes are a weaker team, but a divisional rival, while the Ducks are, of course, one of the top contenders for the Presidents’ Trophy as best team in the overall standings. Again, effort from the team will go a long way here. It was a longshot that they would come back to make the playoffs, but if they continue to put in an effort, that is all you can ask for at this point. Looking at the Anaheim game, they are not expected to win, but if they put in the effort then maybe they can beat one of the strongest teams in the West and in the whole league. That is why the games are played, after all.
While the Devils season ticks away, it is always good to know that the team keeps playing. If they can keep putting up efforts like they did in DC for fans the rest of the way, then it offers a little bit of consolation. Even if the team will be just good enough to be out of the running for Connor McDavid in the Draft, but just bad enough to miss the playoffs, effort, and not rolling over and playing dead (or tanking) is always appreciated.