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Capitals meet Devils with crucial points on the line

by Mike G. Morreale

CAPITALS (34-29-13) at DEVILS (32-28-16)


Last 10: Washington 4-3-3; New Jersey 3-4-3

Season series: This is the fourth and final game between the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals. The Devils won the first two games, 2-1 at Prudential Center on Jan. 24 and 5-4 at Verizon Center on Dec. 21, before Capitals goalie Braden Holtby made 25 saves in a 3-0 shutout win on home ice Feb. 8.

Big story: The winner of this Metropolitan Division showdown will still have a chance to challenge for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs; the Capitals enter play four points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and one point ahead of the Devils. The Capitals have lost four straight (0-2-2) and the Devils fell to 0-11 in shootouts when they lost 3-2 to the Buffalo Sabres in a nine-round tiebreaker on Tuesday.

"It will all come down to our best players being our best players," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told The (Newark) Star-Ledger. "This team has overcome a lot of adversity all year. The bad start, different things. Everyone has stuck together. This is a very unified team."

Capitals coach Adam Oates, a former assistant to Devils coach Peter DeBoer, expects a very difficult game.

"They're a tough team to play against, so I expect it to be a grinding, low-scoring game," Oates said. "They're penalty kill is tops in the League and they're a very stingy team. You need patience and awareness out there."

Team Scope:

Capitals: Captain Alex Ovechkin is two goals shy of 50 for the season but has gone 16 straight games without an even-strength goal. He is minus-19 during that span and owns an NHL-worst minus-36 rating. Ovechkin has four goals in the past 13 games and has six games left in the regular season to record his fifth 50-goal season and his first since 2009-10.

After practice on Thursday, Oates was very critical of Ovechkin's effort on the fourth goal allowed in a 5-0 loss against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday.

"I didn't talk to him about that play," Oates said. "We will, and the message is that while he pushed hard up the ice, it looked as if he saw we had three guys back and thought they would get the job done but we didn't. It happens. Every player has momentary lapses but you can't; you're in the spotlight and you have to just keep playing."

Devils: The Devils have lost an NHL-record 15 straight shootouts dating back to last season. Despite the loss in the tiebreaker against the Sabres, the Devils remain three points out of a playoff spot. Jacob Josefson and Jaromir Jagr scored in the tiebreaker, but the Devils shooters are 3-for-39 this season.

"We're playing well enough to build on leads and we don't," DeBoer said. "We let teams hang around and the margin of error is real small when you can't get the second or third goal."

Rookie defenseman Jon Merrill was wearing a full cage on his helmet during practice at Prudential Center on Thursday. Merrill has missed the past two games with facial injuries sustained on Saturday in a 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Islanders.

Goaltender Cory Schneider, who played against the Sabres, is expected to start against the Capitals.

Who's hot: Devils defenseman Andy Greene (eight goals, 32 points) is five points shy of tying his career high of 37 points, which he established in 2009-10. … Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom has one goal and nine points in the past nine games.

Injury report: Capitals defenseman Jack Hillen (upper body) and forwards Brooks Laich (groin) and Aaron Volpatti (lower body) are out. … Devils defensemen Merrill (face) and Anton Volchenkov (lower body) are day-to-day; defenseman Bryce Salvador (undisclosed), and forwards Ryane Clowe (upper body) and Stephen Gionta (lower body) are questionable.

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