NEWARK — New Jersey star Jack Hughes tallied the first hat trick of his career, Vitek Vanecek allowed only a late goal against his former team, and the Washington Capitals were no match for the highflying Devils on Saturday night in a 5-1 loss at the Prudential Center.
“I thought we had some chances in tight where we didn’t execute, puck maybe bounced or jumped on us at the last second. [Vanecek] made some saves. Our guys kept hunting the entire game and kept pushing,” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said.
Hughes continued his hot start, completing a natural hat trick — three straight goals, bridging the second and third periods — to give him 11 goals and 14 assists through 22 games.
Washington (9-11-3), meanwhile, found itself in a 3-0 hold midway through the second period after the first two of Hughes’s strikes. Hughes, 21, the first overall pick of the 2019 draft, completed his hat trick at 9:51 of the third, scoring on a two-on-one to push the Devils’ lead to 4-0.
The Capitals produced quality chances against Vanecek, who received multiple “Vi-tek! Vi-tek!” chants from the crowd, but couldn’t break through until John Carlson’s power play goal with 8:22 left in the third, ending Vanecek’s shutout bid. Washington’s power-play went 1 of 4.
“I was a little bit nervous before the game. It was something special to play versus Caps for the first time, honestly,” Vanecek said. “I know they are a really good team, but I try everything that I can to help the team and win the game.”
Alex Ovechkin had a team-high eight shots on goal but was blanked for the first time in three games.
“I feel like we had the chances, the quality of chances to get four, five, six goals, but we couldn’t capitalize. . . . Just wasn’t our day,” center Lars Eller said.
Fabian Zetterlund’s goal with 5:13 left accounted for the final margin.
Washington, playing in its third game in four nights, had its two-game winning streak snapped as the Capitals fell to 0-4-2 in their past six road games, a worrisome trend as the loss started a six-game trip.
Devils captain Nico Hischier gave the home team a 1-0 lead with his rebound power-play goal at 9:04 of the first period. Capitals goaltender Charlie Lindgren (24 saves) made the initial stop, but Hischier got to the loose puck before Lindgren could cover it up. Lindgren also struggled Nov. 17 in a 5-4 loss to St. Louis, giving up four goals on 24 shots.
Hughes struck at 5:59 of the second period to double the Devils’ lead. He took advantage of a giveaway by Eller, taking the puck and banking in a shot off Lindgren.
Hughes struck again three minutes later, finding space between Lindgren’s shoulder and the post.
Here is what to know from Saturday’s game:
Vanecek rises to the moment
When he was traded to the Devils, Vanecek told reporters he was excited to face Ovechkin when the time came. His first chance against the Capitals star was fleeting, when he made three saves in relief of goalie MacKenzie Blackwood in the Devils’ 6-3 loss in late October.
Saturday night, he stopped all eight of Ovechkin’s shots on goal.
“In the practice it is different than in the game,” Vanecek said. “In the game he is trying more. I know he was trying to score on me, so I was really focused to try and stop everything.”
Orlov, Backstrom, Wilson stay home
Dmitry Orlov, who missed his 10th straight game because of a lower-body injury, did not travel with the team to New Jersey on Saturday. It is unclear if Orlov will join the Capitals during their trip, but it is still a possibility, according to the team.
Nicklas Backstrom (hip) and Tom Wilson (knee) also did not travel to New Jersey and will not be on the team’s upcoming trip. Backstrom had been a regular participant at recent Washington practices — a welcome sign after his offseason hip resurfacing surgery — but the team felt he would make more strides at home. There is still no timeline for his return.
Wilson has not skated with the team since he had surgery to repair an ACL tear in his left knee in late May.
While Oshie’s energy and offensive spark have been notable in the three games since he returned from his lower-body injury, his presence also means Washington added a trusted right-handed shot back into the lineup. The Capitals had been thin on the right side, with injuries to Wilson, Oshie and Carlson limiting their options earlier in the season.
“You are able to move things around more the way you want [with more right shots],” Capitals Coach Peter Laviolette said. “So that is important. . . . Also getting a guy like T.J. who is a proven offensive creative guy back in the lineup.”