Welcome back to hockey with a back-to-back with your favorite team. The first game is at the Rock.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (15-16-7) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (16-17-4; SBN Blog: The Cannon)
The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils went to Chicago to take on the Blackhawks. The Blackhawks are the best possession team in hockey and it certainly showed on Monday night. The Devils were limited to a mere two shots on net in the first period while Chicago got twelve and a goal from Patrick Sharp. In the second period, the Devils did manage to get an equalizer when Jon Merrill fired a low shot from the center point. It bounced off a skate, Stephen Gionta's stick, and then past Antti Raanta. Chicago responded by continuing to pin the Devils back. Cory Schneider couldn't hold on to a Nick Leddy shot and Patrick Kane pounded in the rebound. Bryan Bickell put them up 3-1 with an open wrist shot through a screen in the second period. While Michael Ryder put home a loose puck to start the third period to make it 3-2, there was no hope for a comeback as Chicago just dominated puck control for a third period. As the Devils were held to only twelve shots total (remember, Chicago got twelve in the first alone), Chicago just increased the score. A Merrill shot was blocked by Brent Seabrook and immediately sprung Sharp for a breakaway that he scored on. Later, Leddy put a shot through Schneider to convert a power play. Throw in three posts throughout the game and it was simply a one-sided 5-2 loss. My recap of that game is here.
The Last Blue Jackets Game: On Monday night, the Blue Jackets visited the Carolina Hurricanes in what would turn out to be a dramatic game. Columbus struck first as Artem Anisimov scored with help from Cam Atkinson and Brandon Dubinsky. But late first period power play for Carolina was converted by Jeff Skinner to make it 1-1. The second period featured four penalties by Carolina and no PPGs for the visitors. Bottom six forward Corey Tropp did score his first of the season. The Blue Jackets built on that by two straight penalties from their defenders; Skinner converted a 5-on-3 to make it 2-2. Carolina went up just before halfway through the third when Alexander Semin scored. They really put the pressure on Columbus, doubling up in shots 16-8. But Columbus would rise above with a quick two goals. Ryan Johansen got the equalizer and the returning Jack Skille put home a beautifully placed shot to make it 4-3. Mike McKenna held on, made one impressive stop on Skinner right at the end, and the Blue Jackets went to Christmas with a big Metropolitan Division win. Matt Wagner at The Cannon has this recap of what happened.
The Last Devils-Blue Jackets Game: On December 10, the New Jersey Devils played as well as anyone could have expected to start a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Travis Zajac scored on the team's very first shot. The Devils pinned back Columbus repeatedly, forcing Curtis McElhinney to make tough saves early, and Michael Ryder put home a rebound off a quick two-on-one that began with one of the many Columbus turnovers. The only reason why the first period ended 2-1 was because a shot by Brandon Dubinsky caromed off Martin Brodeur's pad and then off the calf of Cam Atkinson right in front. A bad bounce to be sure. Even the second started well enough as Patrik Elias set up Damien Brunner for his first goal in a long time. But the Devils simply couldn't stop the unit of Dubinsky, Atkinson, and Matt Calvert. That line put Columbus right back in the game with the next three goals scored: two in the second and one on their first shift in the third period. Martin Brodeur was bad, the Devils only had trouble with this unit, and their attack slowed up. The Devils absolutely responded in the third period and got a second goal from Brunner off a rebound. But after being quiet all game long, Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno made some noise. On their only attacking shift of the night and getting not exactly New Jersey's best five men out there, they just maintained possession for at least 45 seconds as Johansen kept trying to make a set-play into the crease. He missed the first time, but on the second, his attempt ricocheted off Foligno's skate and into the net. The Devils lost 5-4 in what was ultimately a choking effort. If only the Devils could have stopped the Dubinsky line or if only Brodeur was just decent in net. If only. My recap of the loss is here. Over at The Cannon, Mike MacLean had plenty of praise for the Dubinsky line in his recap.
The Goal: At home, get the best match-ups against their top six. While it's not the same line as the last Devils-Blue Jackets game, I really want the Devils to stamp down on Dubinsky's line. Anisimov, I think, is a better player than Calvert and he's been more productive this season with ten goals and eight assists. He'll likely get more points as he continues to play with Atkinson, Columbus' most prolific shooter with 108 shots, and Dubinsky, who not only gets up for Devils games (12 G, 13 A in 34 games against NJ in his career) but he's also Columbus' second leading scorer (6 G, 17 A in 31 games). Dubinsky and Atkinson were too brilliant on December 10 and they've been among Columbus' best possession players. The Devils will need to them to be far quieter. To do that, they must force them to defend more than attack; which is why the match-ups against them really matter.
Of course, I wouldn't expect the Devils to limit Ryan Johansen as much as they did on that night. Seriously, Johansen, R.J. Umberger, and Foligno did very little until the end of that game. Usually, that's a good thing, but it cost them on that night. My hope is that it doesn't get to that point again but I really doubt those three will be so inconsequential. Johansen is having a fantastic season as he currently leads the Blue Jackets with fifteen goals and thirty points. Foligno and Umberger each have ten goals and at least ten assists (11 for Foligno, 10 for Umberger). It's a line that has been quite successful all season long despite that two-thirds of that line has been creamed in possession. I don't want the Devils to ignore them at the cost of trying to make sure the Dubinsky unit doesn't beat them again.
Pound the Puck: On Saturday in D.C., the Devils demonstrated how a good possession team can really make it a long night for an opposing team that isn't so good in possession. Constantly working the defense over and going for long stretches without conceding a shot makes it so much easier to try and win. Even when behind in the game. Fortunately for the Devils, the Blue Jackets have not been that much better than the Capitals when it comes to possession. In 5-on-5 close-score situations, their Fenwick% (attempts without blocks) is the seventh lowest in the league at 47.4% according to Extra Skater. Not as bad as Washington, but still pretty bad. In 5-on-5 situations overall, their Corsi% (all attempts) is the ninth lowest in the league at 47.9% according to Extra Skater. Again, that's still quite low. The Blue Jackets concede only 30.8 shots per game according to NHL.com, but that's still in the bottom third of the league. While the Devils certainly don't shoot a lot, they're a top-ten possession team. This is the sort of game where the Devils should be able to repeatedly pin back the opposition. They did so on December 10, Dubinsky-line-being-on-fire aside.
The Devils should be able to emphasize this advantage and having the last change can only help them out. The unit of Travis Zajac, Jaromir Jagr, and Dainius Zubrus should have a field day against one of Columbus' pairings. Hopefully it'll be Fedor Tyutin and USA Hockey's Favorite Overrated Black Hole, Jack Johnson. (Surprise: Columbus' top pairing has been wrecked in possession. This is partially why their team isn't good at it.) I'd like to see Patrik Elias have a good game and what better time than a game against a team that has defended a lot more at evens than not? There should be plenty of space from the point as I expect the Devils to get the puck in deep. This could be a great night for Andy Greene to continue to make USA Hockey look stupid for not even considering, Eric Gelinas to bust out The Truth, or even have Marek Zidlicky make decent plays. I'm really looking forward to seeing the Devils get back to forcing the issue after seeing Chicago do it to them for the better part of sixty minutes on Monday. that's what should happen, at least.
Additionally, the Columbus penalty kill is another part that can be exploited. I know that assumes the Devils power play to be something resembling "reliably competent." However, the Blue Jackets are 23rd in the league in shots against per 60 in shorthanded situations according to Extra Skater. They concede more than your average penalty kill while being a bit under the league median in success rate and number of shorthanded situations. Should the Devils be able to do things like carry the puck into the zone and get set up, then they should be able to find shooting lanes to the net.
A Backup or a Third-Stringer: If there's one other reason the Devils should take initiative and keep swarming the Blue Jackets, then it's their goaltending. Curtis McElhinney and Mike McKenna have been forced into playing more due to Sergei Bobrovsky's injury. Both haven't been too terrible based on NHL.com's numbers. McKenna has a better even strength save percentage at 91.9%, though he's only appeared in four games. McElhinney has been getting more starts and he's a little lower at 91.2%. They aren't great numbers, but a team may be able to work with them. That said, they aren't great goalies either. McElhinney wasn't really a good back up in the past and McKenna is a third stringer. Regardless of who they start, I want the Devils to force them to be great.
Speaking of Starters, Does It Matter Tonight?: The Devils have been splitting starts between Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider on back-to-back sets. It will not be long before they get their next start. I'm sure both goalies would love to get their next game as soon as possible to put their last performance behind them. Brodeur was bad in D.C. I'd go as far to say that the Devils won that game in spite of Brodeur. Schneider got shelled in Chicago and gave up a couple of bad goals as well. With both goalies below 91% save percentage at even strength, the Devils really could benefit from either one having a good game. Fortunately, both Columbus and the Isles are in the bottom third in the league in shots per game so it's not likely either will face a ton of rubber. Ultimately, because of the back-to-back, I'm fine with either one starting this one. I just want them to be fine tonight.
I Hope Section 1 Doesn't Get To Hear Me Yell "Dang it, Marek" Like I'm Hank Hill But...: Marek Zidlicky leads the team with 19 minor penalties and he's only two behind the league leader. I fear a hook or a hold from him may be a matter of "when" and not "if." The Columbus power play is about average. Their shots for per 60 minute rate is only a little below league median while their success rate is exactly the league median. The players to watch for aren't surprising: Johansen and Umberger have been the most productive with ten and eight power play points respectively. Do look for someone who didn't play in the last Devils-Blue Jackets game: defenseman James Wisniewski. He's got nine power play assists, which makes up the vast majority of his eleven total points this season. Hopefully the forwards are able to keep an eye on him at the points if/when there's a power play for the visitors. Don't help them out, Marek. (Note: This is a slight preview of what I'm planning for Monday.)
One Last Note: This back-to-back is massive within the division and this is the bigger game. Columbus is in the same boat as the Devils and four other teams trying to scramble for playoff positioning. This game will determine a lot and another loss to this team would hurt. I know it seems odd to think that anything involving Columbus as important in the season; but it is at this moment in time.
Your Take: The New Jersey Devils return to the Rock tonight. Will you be there? Whether you will or not, what do you think the Devils have to do (beyond the obvious "score more than them") to win this game tonight? Who needs to play well? Who on Columbus needs to be stopped? Can the Devils even stop Dubinsky? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.