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Game 72 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Columbus Blue Jackets

Attack, attack, attack attack attack.  The goalie isn't always going to stop this kind of a shot.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Attack, attack, attack attack attack. The goalie isn't always going to stop this kind of a shot. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Time: 5:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+ (HD); Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (33-34-4) at the Columbus Blue Jackets (32-28-10)

The Last Devils Game:  The New Jersey Devils hosted the Washington Capitals while wearing their jerseys from the 1980s on Friday night.  As jarring as they looked, the Devils dominated puck possession and on the shot count.  Yet, despite the Elias line forcing their matched up line back over and over at even strength, they put up 3 goals on the board.  More importantly, goaltender Michal Neuvirth played out of his mind and shut out the Devils for the first time in 2011.  My recap of the 3-0 loss is right here.

The Last Blue Jackets Game:  Columbus visited Minnesota to play the Wild on Saturday afternoon.  Wild would be an apt term to describe the game.  The game was filled with goals, infractions not being called, and a blown lead (Columbus up 4-2 with 5 minutes left to play) salvaged in overtime (Columbus won). Rick Nash put up 2 goals and 2 assists, Sami Lepisto put up 3 assists, and Antoine Vermette got the game winner in overtime to end the game 5-4 in favor of Columbus. Matt Wagner has a recap of the game up at The Cannon.

The Goal: Keep it up.  I know the Devils lost their last two games.  However, these weren't at all like most losses where the Devils were just beaten on.  The Devils put up more shots, they got forward more often, and they forced the other team's best offensive players to play defense more than they'd like.  These are all things teams strive for in a game.  The main reason why they didn't win was because the other team's goaltender has played out of their mind.  That's not going to continue to happen unless the Devils have the rottenest luck in the league.  So I believe if the Devils can pin the Blue Jackets back and pepper their goaltender with shots, they'll get in and the win will come.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For analysis about the Columbus Blue Jackets, please check out The Cannon. 

The Devils will play their final game against a Western Conference team this season in Columbus, the only time these two teams will meet.   As March has rolled on, the Blue Jackets are finding themselves on the outside looking in.  This isn't to say the Blue Jackets are bad.  In fact, they're a pretty good even strength team.  (Cautionary Note: All of these team stat numbers come before their game against the Wild on Saturday.)

When it comes to possession, the Blue Jackets have had the better of Corsi% and Fenwick%.  When JLikens of Objective NHL last updated the even strength numbers, Columbus have over 50% in both stats at even strength (50.6% Corsi, 50.9% Fenwick), close scores at even strength (51.5% Corsi, 51.9% Fenwick), and tied at even strength (50.5% Corsi, 51.1% Fenwick).  On top of that, they have a good shooting percentage at 5-on-5; Behind the Net has them tied for 11th in the NHL with 8.4% while putting up 30 shots per 60 at evens.  The Blue Jackets' weakness at 5-on-5 appears to be their save percentage, 91.5%, which ranks 19th in the league according to Behind the Net.  Still, these are mostly solid numbers.

So what has undercut the Blue Jackets? It appears to be special teams. 

The Blue Jackets have a power play conversion rate of 14.8%, which makes them one of four teams with a worse success rate than the Devils. Columbus can certainly draw calls.  They have had 270 power play opportunities this season, the seventh most opportunities this season.  They just don't convert a lot of them. At 5-on-4, they have only scored 35 goals (still 10 more than NJ), the seventh lowest mark in the NHL per Behind the Net.  Their shooting has been poor, their shooting percentage is only 9.8% at 5-on-4 situations per Behind the Net, which is the 25th best mark in the league (and better than New Jersey).  On top of that, the Blue Jackets have allowed 11 goals at 5-on-4, the third most in the NHL; so their power plays haven't been entirely offensive.

Their penalty kill isn't as bad, but it's not that good.  Columbus' success rate is the 21st best in the NHL at 81.1%.  When you take a closer look at 4-on-5 situations at Behind the Net, you will learn that the Blue Jackets have the ninth worst save percentage on the PK with 87.2% and seventh worst in goals allowed with 47.  What makes it worse is that the Blue Jackets are often down a man; they are third in the league in being shorthanded with 275 situations.  So 4-on-5 is a weakness for the Blue Jackets as is 5-on-4.  As bad as the Devils' own power play has been, they will likely be called on to try and take advantage of what they have.  It certainly won't be easy to do it at evens.

The Blue Jackets have several good forwards that comprise of their top two lines that will also make tonight's game difficult.  You may know the top guy very well, but the other four listed are worth keeping your eye on:

2010-11 - Rick Nash 70 31 34 65 6 30 6 0 7 289 10.7
2010-11 - R.J. Umberger 71 21 30 51 5 34 7 2 3 191 11.0
2010-11 - Jakub Voracek 69 14 32 46 6 22 2 0 2 165 8.5
2010-11 - Derick Brassard 63 15 27 42 -4 49 5 0 3 158 9.5
2010-11 - Antoine Vermette 71 17 24 41 3 54 3 1 3 155 11.0

Excuse my ignorance, Blue Jackets fans, but this is a good group of forwards to build around.  Nash is a fantastic player; he's big, quick, excellent with the puck, and has a great shot.  He's also coming off a 4 point, 7 shot game; so he's particularly great form for tonight's game.  Nash should and will be target #1 for the Devils on defense.

The other four players are to be respected, too.  Umberger has grown in his role in Columbus, piling up points and earning the respect of all of the Blue Jackets faithful. While Umberger isn't playing center at the moment, he's still contibuting along the wing with his strong shot and hard working nature along the boards.  Not to mention on both special teams as well. Jakub Voracek is a playmaker who usually plays with Nash - he's quick, he goes hard into the corners, he's quite good on defense, and he's only getting better.  No wonder Dan J appears pleased with the wingers up top in this post at the Cannon. 

Antoine Vermette and Derick Brassard each line up at center. Vermette's strong at the dot with a 55.6% winning percentage on faceoffs and boasts the best on-ice Corsi rate among all 5 of these players.  He plays in all situations and his work ethic is very noticeable.   Brassard is blossoming on the top line with Nash and Voracek.  Like Nash and Voracek, he's a good skater and is good on the puck.  While he's still improving, he can't be an afterthought in between his superior linemates.

Beyond the top two lines, look out for Scottie Upshall.  While he's not going to up a lot of points, he's been a Corsi machine when he's on the ice per Behind the Net. Sure, it's not against the tough competition, but he's not in the top 6 forwards and he's seemingly steamrolling those who he does face.

The Columbus defense as a whole isn't too bad. They allow 29.9 shots per game on average, the 11th best in the NHL.  They are led by Fedor Tyutin, who averages the most minutes on the team with 22:24.  The top Devil forwards will see a lot of Tyutin, who has finished positive more often than while playing the big minutes per Behind the Net. He's supported by Grant Clitsome, Jan Hejda, and Anton Stralman.  It's not a great group of names, but it's not a bad group by any means.  They may hurting a little bit since Clitsome left Saturday's game against Minnesota early with a knee injury. Though Sami Lepisto may step up to fill in that gap on the blueline as he's coming off a productive afternoon in Minnesota.

2010-11 - Steve Mason 48 2656 23 18 131 2.96 1359 1228 .904 3
2010-11 - Mathieu Garon 30 1589 9 10 69 2.61 726 657 .905 3

The wild card will be goaltender for the Blue Jackets. Since Columbus played the Wild last night, it's not clear who will get the start.  Mathieu Garon faced the Wild, so Steve Mason might be the starter.  Or perhaps they'll roll with the game goaltender twice.   However, it may not matter. While Steve Mason has the better record, Mathieu Garon has a slightly higher save percentage.   Either of their save percentages aren't very good.  Of course, the last two Devils games were evidence that what's on paper isn't a guarantee.

Still, my hope for the Devils to keep up the good work during the run of play in the last two games is looking to be a tall order.  Columbus is a strong 5-on-5 team with talent throughout their top two lines, and a solid defense led by a guy who finishes positive in Corsi more often than not.  They are seemingly weak at goaltender, which has meant little to the Devils this season, and clearly weak on special teams, whereas the Devils are also weak on the power play side (and worse than Columbus).

In order to have a shot at doing that, I think that more than one line needs to step up.  In the Ottawa game, the Sens could only weather the storm against Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, and Nick Palmieri.  No other line did that much damage (maybe the kids late). In the Washington game, the Caps got pinned back over and over by Brian Rolston, Patrik Elias, and Dainius Zubrus.  No other line accomplished the same, even if they did finish positive in Corsi.  The Devils will make tonight's game a lot easier with a concerted attack from more than just one line against Columbus.   It would be particularly easier if their power play - which will see time if Columbus' continues to get shorthanded like they have been - can adjust instead of solely relying on their play from the point to drive the action.

The Devils kick off a four game road trip with this game in Columbus and it's the only one against a team that isn't in playoff contention. While the Devils have played quite a lot of games in short order recently, they will catch the Blue Jackets on the second half of a back-to-back.  I don't know whether fatigue will be that much of a factor, but even a small one could make a difference even if it means the Devils can get into Columbus' end with quickness more often.

With respect to the lineup, Tom Gulitti did report on Saturday that David Steckel did practice with the team. In this later post, Steckel says he's ready to return from the "upper body injury" that kept him out of Friday's game.  If Jacques Lemaire agrees, then either Rod Pelley or Adam Mair will sit this one out.  Personally, I wouldn't mind either way; but I suspect Mair may stay in for reasons related to "beef."  Also, Tom Gulitti reported that Martin Brodeur is likely to start this one. It's not a guarantee, but it is what it is.  That's fine.  Brodeur has done quite well and has been beaten on shots he often didn't have any shot at.   It's not like

Given that the Blue Jackets played last night. Please check out the Blue Jackets' blog, Puck-Rakers, at the Columbus Dispatch for news from Aaron Portzline, Tom Reed, and Michael Arace. Feel free to put any updates in the comments, just please provide a link to the source of news.

Do you think the Devils can take advantage of the Blue Jackets playing yesterday? Who on New Jersey will come out and have a strong game? Will more than one line pound the opposition, if such a thing is possible?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today's game in the comments.     Thanks for reading and let's go, Devils.