The Washington Capitals have struggled heartily this season, managing just 11 points through 15 games and dropping the team to last in the Eastern Conference.
Conversely, the New Jersey Devils have been off to a great start. Their 22 points tie them for first in the conference and third in the league.
The Devils will have to take on the Capitals twice over the next four games, with both games being played in Washington—a fluke attributable to the lockout. But the Capitals have played better at home and the Devils appear to be beginning to slow down, losing three of their last four games.
The pair of games could be just what either team needs to gain some positive, forward momentum, and you can bet that the Capitals will be playing their hardest to turn their season around.
As a top team in the East, the games should be New Jersey's to lose, but can they shut down the Capitals' potent offense?
The Devils have done well against the Capitals in recent years: Since the start of the 2009-10 season, the Devils have gone 8-5 against Washington. How did they do it?
Well it starts with Alex Ovechkin. Ovi used to be one of the league's most potent offensive weapons. Now, he is a mere shadow of his former self, but the ability and explosiveness is still there and can be seen from time to time.
In games the Devils have won, Ovechkin has just three assists. Meanwhile, in games the Caps have won, Ovechkin has four goals and six assists. And that's in just five games.
Clearly, it would seem, the Caps live or die with Ovechkin, and shutting him down is a huge part of beating his team. In the past, the Devils have done this by having a shutdown defender on hand at all times, and by limiting Ovi's shot totals.
The thing about Ovechkin is that he's inconsistent. While he can be one of the best players in the world at times, he often struggles to find success, and when he does he begins pressing and getting frustrated. It's the games where he gets frustrated that the Capitals lose: the games where Ovechkin starts botching passes and trying overly-fancy tricks.
If the Devils can keep enough pressure on him, they should be able to get him into a very uncomfortable zone, at which point he may take himself out of play.
The Capitals have used a handful of players to beat the Devils. Ovechkin always plays a large role, but right behind him stand Nicklas Backstrom, Jason Chimera and John Carlson.
While those three players aren't always mentioned as dynamic offensive weapons, they've dealt the Devils some blows: In Capitals' wins, those three players have combined for six goals and eight assists. They always seem able to come up clutch in games the Caps are destined to win, and are always conspicuously absent from Caps' losses (three goals and one assist).
The Devils' defensive squad has looked great so far this season, and were able to keep the important players in check in their sole meeting with the Caps. However, the team is not always reliable: the Devils are just tied for 11th in the league in goals against—much higher than they are used to.
The Devils will need to come together as a team to stop the dangerous Caps if they want to come away from these two games successful.
The Capitals are weak defensively. While they're not bad at scoring goals, they've given up more than all but three teams, and they have a goal differential of minus-10.
The Devils are a tricky team to read. Half the time, they come out flying with an offense that can put out four dangerous lines.
The other half of the time, the Devils struggle for any offense, and when they find it, they end up going into a defensive shell to keep the lead.
Many of the games the Devils have won in recent years against the Capitals have been because of offensive outbursts. A pair of 5-0 wins and a 5-2 victory are among the successes the Devils have had.
This season, the Devils have put out a very impressive offense, led by superstar Ilya Kovalchuk and accompanied by David Clarkson and Patrik Elias. The three are all putting up elite-level numbers, and all three registered a point in the first meeting with the Caps this year.
In that game, Clarkson assisted on an Elias goal and Elias then assisted on a Kovalchuk goal in overtime. Simply put, when these players show up, the Devils win a lot more. And against a defensively-challenged team without so much as a regular starting goalie, a quick offensive outburst from the Devils could mean a quick resolution in either game.
During a season where Alex Ovechkin has been drastically underachieving and Alex Semin has departed for sunny Carolina, the Capitals have been in need of a star. That star has been Mike Ribeiro.
The Caps acquired Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars during last year's draft, and he's been brilliant since joining the team. Ribeiro is tied for second on the team with five goals and his 13 assists are tied for sixth-most in the league. He has seven more points than any other Capital. He is also one of just four Cap forwards with a positive plus/minus rating (he's currently a plus-one).
Ribeiro has been by far the brightest spot on a pretty dreary team this season, and at this point has to be considered the team's main threat. His first goal as a Cap came earlier this season against the Devils, and you can expect he'll be involved in a lot more chances over the next few days.
With the potential to be an elite setup man, Ribeiro is hard to pin down. However, if the Devils can keep the rest of the dangerous Capitals away from major chances, it should leave Ribeiro relatively harmless, and at that point, the Capitals are done for.