NEWARK, N.J. – If the New Jersey Devils don’t make the playoffs, they might blame it on a couple of hot goaltenders.
A night after Curtis McElhinney shut them down in Ottawa with a 33-save performance, Washington Capitals rookie Michal Neuvirth put another dagger in the Devils’ playoff hopes by matching the save total in recording his fourth shutout with a 3-0 win on Friday night.
“When you don’t have a lot of offence, you have to do it other ways,” said Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, who set up Mike Knuble’s two goals with laser passes. “Mike was solid in net. He was once young and new and didn’t know how he would act. Not anymore.”
Neuvirth was the difference in the game New Jersey outshot the Capitals 33-12. He stopped Ilya Kovalchuk with three great glove saves, the last on a breakaway with 2:57 to go that had the Russian slamming his stick into the end boards.
“His confidence is everything,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I could tell early on that it was going to be tough to get anything by him. He made back-to-back-to-back saves in the second period and that was enough for me.”
The only goal that Neuvirth needed was the game winner by defenceman Jeff Schultz, who scored early in the first period to break an 81-game goal drought.
Knuble got the other two as the Capitals bounced back from a loss to Detroit and won for the 13th time in 16 games.
The win gave the Capitals 94 points, tying them for first place in the Eastern Conference with idle Philadelphia. The Flyers have three games in hand and one more win.
The loss was the second in as many nights for New Jersey and left it six points behind idle Buffalo in the race for the eighth and final playoff berth in the East with 11 games to play.
“We knew it was not going to be easy,” Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. “This is the adversity we are facing right now and we need to get back on track. We have to do it quickly because we don’t have much time left. It’s back-to-back loses and puts a damper on things. We have to regroup. Nobody else is going to help us, so we have to do it ourselves.”
It marked the first time since Jan. 6-8 that New Jersey has lost consecutive games. The Devils are 23-5-2 in their last 30.
Neuvirth, who will turn 23 on Wednesday, was spectacular in the first period when New Jersey got 12 of the 14 shots and still left trailing 1-0. The Czech stopped Brian Rolston from between the circles in the opening minute, and made stops in close on Dainius Zubrus, defenceman Anton Volchenkov and rookie Nick Palmieri before the period ended.
“He’s making saves left and right and if he’s doing that, we know we have a chance,” Knuble said. “He took a loss the other day in Detroit and he came back today and held us together.”
Schultz got his first goal of the season and first since Feb. 11, 2010, when he took a pass from Knuble and fired a shot past Brodeur at 6:10 of the opening period.
Knuble extended the lead to 2-0 at 15:58 of the second period with a tic-tac-toe goal. After Washington kept the puck in the Devils’ zone, Ovechkin sent a cross-ice pass from the left boards to defenceman John Carlson streaking in from the right point alone at Brodeur. Instead of shooting, Carlson centred the puck and Knuble deflected it into an open net for his 18th of the season.
The Devils had two chances to get back in the game right after that.
Kovalchuk swooped into the crease after a rush and his shot hit off the right goal post.
New Jersey got a four-minute power play right after that when Matt Hendricks clipped Rod Pelley near the face. The Devils managed two shots and were booed leaving the ice.
Knuble iced the game midway through the third period. Ovechkin sent another cross-ice pass from the left boards to the right circle that Knuble ripped into an open net.
NOTES: The Devils wore their throwback uniforms, the green pants and red and white shirts that brought back memories of Christmas past. Capitals C Nicklas Backstrom, who missed five games with a fractured thumb, returned to the lineup. …The Devils and Caps made a deal just before the trading deadline with New Jersey sending Jason Arnott to Washington for David Steckel. Arnott missed the game his third straight game withan undisclosed injury and Steckel was scratched just before the faceoff with an upper body injury. …The Capitals lead the season series 3-1. …The game was a sellout with 17,625 fans. …Washington is 2-1 on its current six-game road trip with the next stop in Philadelphia on Tuesday.