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Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Devils, Capitals, and Rangers

Three division tilts await as the Canes season begins to wind down.

NHL: Washington Capitals at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

New Jersey Devils

Tuesday, 7:00 p.m. at Prudential Center

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The New Jersey Devils enter Tuesday night’s tilt with the Carolina Hurricanes clinging to the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. With a one-point lead on the Florida Panthers (and the Panthers holding a game in hand), every contest the rest of the way for the Devils is a playoff game. With the Hurricanes headed to Newark on the second leg of a back-to-back, expect to see the Devils attempt to pounce on the Canes early.

Back to back wins over the Penguins and Lightning kept the Devils’ heads above water recently, and the surprise has been that backup Keith Kinkaid has been the one to lead the Devils down the stretch. Since returning from injury, starter Cory Schneider has gone 0-4, giving up three or more goals in all of those contests. As such, the Devils have looked to Kinkaid to spark their team, and he has done so by allowing only four goals in the two wins against Pittsburgh and Tampa. Expect to see Kinkaid between the pipes tonight again.

The unquestioned leader of the Devils is most certainly Taylor Hall. His 82 points (33 goals, 49 assists) are more than double the total for any player on the team, aside from rookie top pick Nico Hischier who has 49 points, and Hall has continued to show that he is the focal point of the entire offensive attack in Jersey. Simply put, if you can stop or slow down Hall, you have a good chance to take down the Devils. Not many teams have succeeded at that, including the Canes, who have allowed two goals and an assist to Hall in the three games between the team previously.

The bottom line for tonight’s game is that the young Canes additions must keep their high level of energy displayed in the two wins over the Senators, and find a way to match the playoff intensity that the Devils are sure to bring to the contest.

What to Watch For

  • Scott Darling may be in the net tonight. With the opportunities dwindling, can Darling begin to put a better taste in his mouth as he heads into the offseason?
  • Valentin Zykov and Warren Foegele each tallied last night against the Sens. Can the youngsters keep the energy and excitement going in the back to back?

Washington Capitals

Friday, 7:00 p.m. at Capital One Arena

NHL: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

After a pedestrian few months that saw many Capitals fans dismayed and resigned to their annual playoff fate as also-rans, the Washington Capitals have again captured their fanbase’s collective imagination as they have reeled off eight wins in their last nine games to vault to the very top of the Metropolitan Division standings at 97 points. The only question before them now is if Lucy will once again yank the football from out in front of Charlie Brown yet again.

The recent run of excellent play has seen the Caps win in every way imaginable: tight overtime battle, 1-0 goalie battle, 7-3 blowout, 6-4 offensive battle. They have shown every facet of what can and has made them a good team for the past decade. The question now is if they can take that game and translate it to the playoffs. One of the intriguing wrinkles has been the emergence of Philipp Grubauer as the leading actor in net. In three consecutive starts, Grubauer has come away with three wins, posting a .933 save percentage in those games. For the season, Braden Holtby has been pedestrian compared to his typical play, posting just a .906 save percentage and a goals against average a shade over 3 per game, while Grubauer has grabbed the reins with is sterling .923 save percentage in 33 games played.

While this doesn’t mean that Grubauer is certainly the guy moving forward this season, he has the net for now. What this does is apply a different sort of pressure on Holtby as the playoffs approach. instead of being counted on to lead the team to the promised land alone, he has the pressure of “perform or we are going to the next guy”, a subtle difference that only exists when a team has two viable options in net.

The Capitals surge was not prompted by a splash at the trade deadline, just the existing pieces elevating their game to past levels. As Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom go, so go the Capitals. With Ovechkin flirting with a 50 goal season (45 goals in 76 games) and a division title still to clinch, the Capitals certainly are still playing with plenty of energy and desire. If Carolina wants to compete, they must arrive with speed as well as the increased physical presence that has been apparent in the preceding week with the additions of some of the youth from Charlotte.

Expect a strong effort from the home standing Caps as they potentially look to sew up a division championship on home ice.

What to Watch For

  • As mentioned previously, Ovechkin is chasing a 50-goal season. Expect him to be firing the puck at will as the season winds down.
  • Staying off the PK and away from the wicked Capitals power play (23.11%) is always an important part of beating the Caps.

New York Rangers

Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at PNC Arena

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at New York Rangers Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

At the conclusion now of a bitterly disappointing season that has seen large-scale change in the organization, the New York Rangers continue to play out the string with five of their final six contests on the road. The visit to PNC Arena on Saturday will see both rosters on a back-to-back and the lineups filled with youth on each side.

While the Rangers appeared to be making a bid to be a bonafide contender last offseason when they made a free agent splash with the signing of Kevin Shattenkirk, the season simply never developed. With pieces such as former captain Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, J.T. Miller, and Nick Holden all shipped away, the Rangers made a clear committment to the next generation that includes Pavel Buchnevich, Mika Zibanejad and possibly goalie Alexandar Georgiev instead of the great Henrik Lundqvist in net.

The 21-year-old Georgiev has performed well in his introductory assignment, starting nine times and posting a solid .918 save percentage while taking on a barrage of shots from the completely depleted blueline. He may be able to play alongside Lundqvist for a season or two, but there is no doubt that the Rangers must at least listen to offers on the player who has been their franchise cornerstone for more than a decade.

As mentioned previously, helping the porous blueline will have to be task number one for the Rangers this coming offseason. While quickly rising to second in the league in the number of shots against (2668 in 76 games, 35.1 per game), the Rangers have gotten within 42 shots of the league leader the Islanders who once held a seemingly insurmountable 200+ shot lead in the category. Keeping rubber off Lundqvist or Georgiev simply must be a priority next season.

In terms of the rest of this season, both the Rangers and the Canes want to see their young players continue to figure out how to perform consistently in an NHL environment. Saturday simply affords both organizations another chance to evaluate.

What to Watch For

  • Who will be in net for the Rangers? Certainly with a back-to-back the Rangers will split duties, so perhaps the Canes will get a second look at Georgiev.
  • While the Rangers have been poor for long stretches of the season, their special teams have been surprisingly sound. Top-10 in both the PK and the PP, if the Canes can play even on special teams, consider it a win.