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A Devil of a challenge for Capitals this week

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Sports,NHL,Capitals,Brian McNally

Oates facing his old team at home twice in three days

For two years Adam Oates worked with the New Jersey Devils as an assistant coach, and he knows better than anyone the way that team expects to play night after night. But even Oates is taken aback by New Jersey's performance this season.

The Devils enter Thursday's game against the Capitals at Verizon Center with 22 standings points despite the loss of star forward Zach Parise, who signed as a free agent over the summer with the Minnesota Wild. But New Jersey still has legendary goalie Martin Brodeur in net, and it plays an aggressive, in-your-face system that keeps other teams on their heels.

"I'm a little surprised. But I think the confidence that they got going through the playoff run is a big part of it as well," said Oates, who helped coach that team to the Stanley Cup finals last season. "And the guys realize that nothing is better than the system. Nothing."

Up next
Devils at Capitals
When » Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where » Verizon Center
TV » CSN

It is a message his new team would do well to heed. And after 15 games it is clear the Caps are adjusting to Oates. But after a rough start it also might be too late. They remain all alone in last place in the Eastern Conference with a 5-9-1 record and 11 points. This weekend's rare back-to-back home series with the Devils -- the games are Thursday and Saturday at Verizon Center -- is a chance to claw back into the playoff picture.

Fifteen different players have scored goals for New Jersey (9-3-4) this season. Parise and his 31 goals and 69 points might be gone, but there were enough solid offensive players left behind, including star winger Ilya Kovalchuk (five goals, 10 assists) and emerging forward David Clarkson (10 goals, six assists), to make up the difference so far.

"Every single year they continue to amaze teams," Washington forward Eric Fehr said. "They find players that play the right way, and they play their system, and they make it work. That's what you have to do."

The Caps have seen more than enough video of the Devils over the last few weeks given that they embody many of Oates' preferences. The two teams met Jan. 25 in Newark. Washington fell behind 2-0 that night but rallied with two goals in the third period to tie it before losing 3-2 in overtime on a Kovalchuk goal. Defenseman Mike Green had the game-tying goal for the Caps late in regulation, but he remains questionable with a lower-body injury. Green sat out against the New York Rangers on Sunday and skated for just about 10 minutes Wednesday at Kettler Iceplex while his teammates practiced. He will miss another familiar opponent.

"We modeled a little bit of our system after [New Jersey], so we know kind of what we're going up against," Caps forward Troy Brouwer said. "We played good against them last time. We feel we battled back and got a point in overtime. I think we're a lot better hockey club now than we were a few weeks ago."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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