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Game 44: Devils @ Columbus

The Devils come out of the west coast half of their road trip 2-1, with wins over LA and Vancouver, and a loss to Anaheim. Now they get to come back to the eastern side of the Mississippi first with Columbus, then the Islanders and the Predators. The team got back on the winning side of things and, if it weren't for Scott Clemmensen's legs, I think the win over Vancouver would have had a larger margin of victory.

And I can't help but think those two soft goals against are the cause for what Chere and Gulitti called for "indications" are that Kevin Weekes will start against the Blue Jackets, based on Thursday's practice. This has to be heartening for Weekes. The Blue Jackets are the stronger opponents in this road back-to-back set coming up and this is clearly a response to how marvelous he did in LA. Letting Clemmensen get a little extra rest and before getting back out there for the Islanders isn't a bad idea. While Clemmensen has been the more proficient goalie so far, it's got to be a sign of confidence from the team to choose Weekes - assuming the indications are true. I don't think one goalie was going to play both games, anyway.

So far on the road trip, the penalty killing has been solid, the team did not let a loss to Anaheim get them down in Vancouver, and the goals have been coming regardless of whether they were the result of great finishing, opportunistic, or good fortune (the Anaheim game) with 13 over those three games.

Too bad that will most likely not continue against Columbus.

Columbus is in realistic playoff contention in a very tight Western Conference for the first time in franchise history, and there is one man leading the charge: Steve Mason. He's so good, there's an in-depth article in an Australian newspaper - the Age in this case - about Mason! (h/t: Aaron Portzline of Puck-Rakers) Australia! That's massive! Though Columbus locals will likely tell me the city is known for Massive-ness.

But seriously, Mason is a rookie and here are his stats for this season:

2008 - Steve Mason 26 1568 16 9 1 4 47 1.80 732 685 .936 6

He has the same record as Scott Clemmensen, but that's not the impressive stuff. Mason has 1.80 goals against average right now leads the league. Tim Thomas is the closest to that mark and his GAA is .24 higher! Mason's save percentage of .936 leads the league; though Thomas is closer this time with only .001 behind. Mason leads the league in shutouts with 6. Nicklas Backstrom is behind him with 5, but has played 9 more games; and Roberto Luongo has 5 over the 19 games he played in. All of this as a rookie! He's got a fitting, if historically questionable, nickname that is just describes his play this season. It's like a stone wall is in net. Mason isn't just playing out of his mind, he's playing out of this world!

So, yeah, I don't expect the Devils to get much past him. Then again, I thought the Devils would make it rain on a defensively deficient Atlanta Thrashers and that ended 4-0 for the Thrashers. I could be wrong. Then again a third time, this team shut out Washington last week. There's even the possibility that the Devils won't get much to Mason in the first place. The Blue Jackets are tied for fifth in the league in shots against on average with 28.2 per game. They're tied with a little team called Detroit in that regard. I don't know much credit they get, but it seems that the blueline led by Fedor Tyutin and an overpaid Mike Commodore has been doing their job in helping out their goalies.

According to Aaron Portzline of Puck-Rakers, Rick Nash and Andy Murray are gameday decisions for the game. No offense to Murray, but the Devils should be more concerned with Nash. He's having a pretty good year on his own, providing plenty of offense to help out the Mason-led charge up the standings. Kristian Huselius, rookie Derrick Brassard, and R.J. Umberger has helped; but it really has been the Nash show at forward. If he's playing, it's going to be even more of a difficult game for the Devils.

2008 - Rick Nash 40 17 22 39 9 34 3 1 4 2 130 13.1

While Columbus is 3-2 in their last 5, everything isn't all well and smooth. For starters, there is a pretty sizeable gap between Nash's production and the other forwards. Limit him, and the chances for success against the Blue Jackets should be better. Then there's the special teams. The Blue Jackets, despite Masonic heroics, they're only average at killing penalties with a 80.9% rate. Not that the Devils are significantly better at 81.6%, but Columbus isn't a stalwart there. And if you think the Devils' power play is maddening, just look at Columbus: they are dead last with taking advantage with a 11% effectivity rate. Not that the Devils should just hand power plays to the hosts like hors d'vouers, but the Devils' PK units shouldn't worry too much.

In fact, that could be the key to the game. If the Devils don't let the hype of Mason stopping tons of shots or Nash dicing up the Devils' defenders or worries about how to respond to Columbus possibly coming out strong get into their heads, then that would allow the Devils to focus on their games more than anything else. I don't think it'll be easy. Mason's the talk of the league when it comes to goalies and rookies (did I mention also in Australia?). The Blue Jackets won their last two home games. The crowd will be raucous and very bright, as the team is promoting a White Out (Blueouts don't look so good, I guess). If anything, they should remember that they've made talented goaltenders look absolutely silly from time to time this season. I think a simple approach to the game would work best to start, just getting good shots on Mason and battling for possession. As the game goes on, the Devils can adjust accordingly to set the tempo to be more aggressive or to focus on more counter attacking plays.

It should prove to be a more entertaining match up than past Devils-Blue Jackets games. It's good to see them contend for a playoff spot for a change. Of course, I don't want the Devils to directly help them in their gain. As always, feel free to leave your thoughts, your worries, your questions, your criticisms, and, above all, your comments before, during, and after the game. Just keep it clean, keep it relevant, and keep it Jersey.