By Doug Johnson
Splat goes Tom Wilson
Every season it’s the same. It begins, invariably, with a euphoric burst of optimism that somehow, this year, this season, everything is going to work out. The team will be saved and we’ll all rejoice. Their journey will have come to an end, and the world will be a better place.
Sure, there will be lots of scrapes along the way. While the team that has sustained us for multiple seasons now will lose several beloved but under-performing members, the core players will remain. We’ll have some feels about saying goodbye to a few, but we’ll also pick up a few new members along the way. And, at least at the start, they’ll have a lot of promise.
But one thing never changes. Disaster, often from an unexpected source, will find a way to enter the narrative– you can be sure of that. And when it does, it will look and feel awful…perhaps even fatal.
Yet everyone will dig deep, deeper perhaps than they thought they could, and we’ll survive to fight again. We may not have found the promised land yet, but there’s always next season. What’s important is moving forward. Pressing on. It’s essential. It feels, in fact, like life or death.
Of course, I’m talking about The Walking Dead. What did you think I was going on about?
To be fair, the Capitals aren’t literal walking dead (see: Buffalo Sabres) and this season’s journey to get into the playoffs will probably turn out a tad better than Rick Grimes entering Alexandria. There have been some fun moments, and just about anything would have been better than last season– in both cases, actually (see: Terminus.)
But it’s been feeling a little no fun lately, like a replay of earlier no-fun-times. I’m still optimistic something, somehow, will work out for us…but I’ve seen too much zombie action to know not to become willfully blind.
Tonight’s nemesis are the New Jersey Devils and, like the weirdly detached Deanna, I really can’t quite figure them out.
For help, we turned once more to John Karl Fischer, founder of and writer at In Lou We Trust. We chatted him earlier this season; he and his crew proved to be fancy-stat sharpies, and John shared some thoughts about what tonight might look like.
The Metropolitan division has pretty much split into two– Rangers, Islanders, Pens and Caps in the top half, and Devs, Columbus, Canes and Flyers in the bottom half. What’s the path for New Jersey to battle into the top– or is there even one?
The battle to the upper half will not happen this season. The split has been in place for months. It’s not going to be breached now. Over the next two seasons, it might. Depends on who comes down and who moves on up. It’d be really interesting to see how Columbus would’ve fared if their team didn’t get hit with a significant injury every other week or so. And if Philadelphia gets a defense before they totally waste the good years of Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, then they’d be in the mix so to speak. The Devils and Hurricanes have a lot to build / re-build such that a short turnaround would require a lot of help by way of fortune and PDO. The Devils will need scorers, faster forwards, possession forwards, a head coach that’s all about possession over the dump-and-chase, and a defense that is more positionally aware and quicker than it is. And to do all that before Cory Schneider gets way too old; but that’s not for a while.
But for right now, the Capitals are legitimately good. The Penguins are legitimately good. The two New York teams are legitimately good. The more interesting short-term question (this season and next season) is who ends up where within the quartets. The Caps may have it in themselves to escape a potential first round match up with Quebec’s Yankees or James Dolan’s Wannabe Sure Shots if Pittsburgh or the Islanders don’t get it together soon. The Devils, well, they could end up in 7th real soon if the Blue Jackets keep buttoning up victories.
Overall, what’s been the thorn in the Devs side this season? Struggling defense? Puck possession? Co-coach Adam Oates? And is it fixable?
The massive thorn has been their massive drop in puck possession. Say what you want about last year’s team, Peter DeBoer and low-event hockey. But they controlled the play more often than not. They were one of the best possession teams in the league. It was why they were so difficult to play against. This season, the Devils struggle to make passes going forward. The neutral zone isn’t regularly defended. The forwards, as a group, are weaker than ever on defense and the defensemen aren’t that good at making stops, making that first pass, and, when possible, starting counter-attacks. The systems and the personnel don’t work and so the Devils are rocking a 46.9% CF right now as opposed to 54.4% last season. It’s that difference that points to a lot of the woes the Devils have had and it also points to how this isn’t going to get better by simply changing the coach, getting a hot 18-year-old in the draft, and getting some new players in free agency alone. All of that is needed and more to fix this. There’s a legitimate re-build that is necessary. When the possession gets better, then we’ll know they are on the right path. They’ll also have a better record provided they don’t shoot at some terribly low percentage or the goal-tending flops. Though, Schneider’s legitimately great so I don’t think the latter will happen.
So far this season, with one exception, Braden Holtby seems to have have the Devils’ number, holding them to a miserly one or so. What does New Jersey have to do Thursday night to break the Holtbeast?
Braden Holtby is legitimately a very good goaltender. However, all goaltenders suffer when the shots are too close to react and come from spots they can’t cover. It’s cliche, but it works. The Devils will need to find ways to break down the defense and get in close for opportunities to shoot. Whether it’s a jam play amid chaos or setting someone up for a killer one-timer in the slot, those shots are going to have better chances of going in than blasts from 50 to 60 feet away. Alas, the Devils have been more apt to do the latter than the former. Provided the Caps’ defense doesn’t falter too badly, you may not see Holtby broken tonight. You will also probably not see him give a gift to Mike Cammalleri again.
Prediction: tonight, and who makes the playoffs?
Tonight: Caps win 4-1 with an ENG and I write a sad recap about sad Devils performance that you can read at In Lou We Trust. Playoffs: You know the four: Rangers, Islanders, Penguins, Capitals. In what order? Let’s say that one. Sorry, but I don’t see the Pens and Isles sliding too much further.
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