Zubrus jams away at a loose puck against Michal Neuvirth. The Devils lost consecutive games for the first time since early January. GETTY IMAGES
Jacques Lemaire called it a game the Devils had to win. Coming off a loss in Ottawa the night before, his squad could ill afford another setback in its playoff quest.
But just as they did against the Senators, the Devils ran into a red-hot goaltender in Friday’s 3-0 loss to the Washington Capitals.
Michal Neuvirth’s 33 saves stole the show for the Capitals the way Curtis McElhinney’s 33 stops had done for the Senators only 24 hours earlier.
Wearing their vintage red and green uniforms in front of a sellout crowd at the Rock, the Devils outshot the visitors by a 3-to-1 margin but couldn’t solve Neuvirth. He nailed down the shutout with a glove save on Ilya Kovalchuk's breakaway with 2:57 to go in regulation.
"You had a kid who played in net on the other side, I think that was the turning point," said Martin Brodeur, who stopped nine of 12 shots. "He was unbelievable. We had a lot of quality chances, he made tremendous saves. We made him see the puck a lot. Our offense was mostly straightforward; he got good looks at them, but he made the saves. He was the big difference, and like last night, we got beat by two goalies."
Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson set up both goals by Mike Knuble, who also added an assist on a Jeff Schultz tally. With the win, the Capitals tied Philadelphia for the conference top spot with 94 points.
The Devils (33-34-4) came up empty on the only four power plays of the game, including a four-minute man-advantage that carried over into the start of the third period. They managed two shots with Matt Hendricks serving a double-minor for high-sticking Rod Pelley.
“We had good chances, good puck control, made good plays around the net in their zone,” Lemaire said. “I thought we played a solid game. We had enough chances to win the game, we just can’t score.”
It’s not the end of the world. We have 11 left. We’ve got to win 10 games, probably. That’ll get us to 90 points. A game at a time. Nothing changes in our dressing room.- Brian Rolston
The hottest club through the NHL’s second half, the Devils were blanked for the first time since Nov. 26 and suffered consecutive losses for the first time since dropping four in a row from Jan. 1-8. Owners of a 23-5-2 mark in their last 30 games, New Jersey had not lost by three goals since New Year’s Day.
With 70 points, they remain six behind Carolina and idle Buffalo for the final playoff spot in the East with 11 games to go. The Hurricanes beat the Islanders in overtime to move into a points tie with the Sabres.
But it will take more than back-to-back losses to get the Devils doubting themselves. Their mantra during this steady climb into playoff contention has been “one game at a time,” and that’s not about to change.
They open a four-game road trip in Columbus on Sunday.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Brodeur said. “This is the adversity that we’re facing right now to get back on track. We have to do it quickly because we don’t have much time left to get points and get back in what we think is a good chance to make the playoffs.
Kovalchuk was stopped by Neuvirth with under three minutes to go in regulation. GETTY IMAGES
“Definitely back-to-back losses puts a little damper on things, that’s for sure. But we just have to regroup. There’s nobody else that’s going to help us, so we have to do it ourselves.”
Brian Rolston, who entered the night with seven points in nine games, was denied by Neuvirth on a shot from the slot 5:25 into the third.
“We’ve had a confident bunch of guys through the whole second half, I hope we continue to do that, and I think we will,” Rolston said. “We have a lot of character in this dressing room.”
Neither player from the teams’ deadline deal was in the lineup. David Steckel, acquired by the Devils, missed the game with an upper body injury after skating in warm-ups. Jason Arnott, now with Washington, was sidelined with an undisclosed injury for a third straight contest.
The Devils got the early jump in the game thanks in part to a strong opening shift by the Patrik Elias line with Rolston and Dainius Zubrus. New Jersey took a 4-0 shots advantage before the Capitals could begin their counterattack.
“We had plenty of energy, I thought,” Rolston said. “We had great chances early. I thought for the most part our line was all over [the Ovechkin-Marcus-Johansson, Knuble] line. Then they’d get one chance and it was in the net. That was the story of our line tonight. We had opportunity after opportunity, they got one, it was in the net.”
Washington responded with its own pressure, then cashed in when Knuble set up Schultz’s one-timer from above the left circle. His first of the season went off Brodeur’s catching glove to put the Capitals ahead 1-0 at 6:10.
The Devils dominated the final five-plus minutes of the frame, but were stymied by Neuvirth. Nick Palmieri came close to tying the game in the dying seconds of the first. His slot one-timer on a pass by Travis Zajac was fended off by Neuvirth with 20 seconds to go.
Despite a 12-2 shots advantage, the Devils headed into the first intermission trailing by a goal.
Elias almost tied it into an open net midway through the second. But after Neuvirth was caught out of the net stopping an Anssi Salmela shot, Zubrus’ pass for Elias at the right side of the cage was off the mark. Elias was defended in front by Schultz.
“It went up high,” Elias said. “I don’t know if it hit [Schultz’s] shaft and my shaft also. It was up.”
New Jersey would misfire on 7:09 of power-play time in middle frame, followed by 51 seconds of carryover time with Hendricks in the box to open the third.
Knuble upped the Washington lead to 2-0 in the second.
He started the play behind the net, dishing to Ovechkin at the left wall. Ovechkin passed cross-ice to a breaking John Carlson, who faked a shot and fed Knuble in front to complete the tic-tac-toe play. Knuble’s 18th found an opening past Brodeur’s right pad at 15:58.
In the third, Knuble used an Ovechkin pass to finish a 3-on-2 rush. Knuble went top shelf from the right circle for his 19th at 11:24.
"The passes that [Ovechkin] makes, they're 100 miles an hour," Brodeur said. "The guys that are on the receiving end must be pretty good players, too. That Knuble, that was pretty impressive he was able to grab that puck and just roof it like it was a routine play. I thought it was a hard pass, I didn't think he was going to be able to get a hold of it. Same thing with Carlson when he got the puck from him. They're laser-beam passes."
They get one day of practice to regroup before getting back at it. After Sunday, next week’s trip makes stops Tuesday in Boston, followed by a back-to-back Friday in Pittsburgh and Saturday in Buffalo.
“We’ll just keep going,” Elias said. “We just have to win the next game and that’s all. Hopefully we get back at it, and back on a winning track. That’s all. There’s no other thought.”
A rebound will have to come on the road against the Blue Jackets.
“It’s pretty simple: we have to win,” Rolston said. “Plain and simple. There’s our motivation.”
Chasing Buffalo, Carolina, Toronto and Atlanta, the Devils’ margin for error has gone from slim to nearly none. But they’re still in it.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Rolston said. “We have 11 left. We’ve got to win 10 games, probably. That’ll get us to 90 points. A game at a time. Nothing changes in our dressing room.”
Brodeur acknowledged that he'll be keeping an eye on the scoreboard when Buffalo hosts Atlanta on Saturday.
"We just have to hope Buffalo loses tomorrow," he said. "Now we're in that position that we hope teams will falter and get us back to have these losses not count too much. But there's less and less games as we go further here."
Going green The vintage red and green uniforms were brought back for the first time since last March 17, when the Devils defeated Pittsburgh, 5-2.
"It's fun," Brodeur said. "Not the result, but wearing them."
The red and green jerseys were worn for 800 regular-season and 40 playoff contests from the team's inception in 1982 through the 1992 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Devils have worn red, black and white since the 1992-93 season.
For the second straight night, Kovalchuk was denied on a breakaway late in regulation. He was stopped by McElhinney with under seven minutes to go in Ottawa and the Devils trailing by one.
Kovalchuk had five shots against the Capitals, including a power-play blast from the top of the left circle that Neuvirth got with his catching glove.
"When you start to lose the puck at a certain time it's because you're a little tighter," Lemaire said. "Kovy wants to do so much for this team and to me, he's just got to play a shift at a time and try to do the best he can and not too much so he stays focused on what he has to do. What he's doing right now, he wants to do too much. It's that simple."
Lemaire addressed his team's 0-for-4 with the man advantage.
"On one occasion I think we had a hard time to get in, to get organized," the coach said. "We do have a certain plan to get in and we were trying other stuff. But as soon as we got back to that, we were fine. You know how it is when you get a four-minute [power play] and the first two minutes you don't get a shot, you don't get a scoring chance. After that, plays are little bit tougher to make. The opponents are getting more confident and they feel good about their job."
Thumbs up for Brodeur
Brodeur might not have faced very many scoring chances, but the ones that he did see were quality opportunities.
"Marty was fine," Lemaire said. "He got a few shots you couldn't stop – the 3-on-2. On the first goal, we made one mistake in the first period, they scored on it. Third period, we made one mistake, they scored on it."
The Devils finished 2-2-0 in the season series with Washington. They return home to host the Islanders on March 30.
1 - 0 WSH
2 - 0 WSH
3 - 0 WSH
Delay of game
Hi stick - double minor