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New Jersey Devils vs. Columbus Blue Jackets: Game Preview #11

Tonight's opponent, the Columbus Blue Jackets, is undercut by several injuries and just played a game. The New Jersey Devils can take advantage of that. This game preview focuses on what to expect from the Devils and who's still active for Columbus.

The hope is that Jack Johnson gets to see a lot of Devils celebrating tonight.
The hope is that Jack Johnson gets to see a lot of Devils celebrating tonight.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

First of the month and it's home game against a division opponent.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (5-3-2) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (4-6-0; SBN Blog: The Cannon)

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils returned to the Rock to host the Winnipeg Jets.  The game as a whole was dreary.  The Devils may have had the puck more but it didn't mean they did much with it.   The visitors struck first, as Blake Wheeler beat Marek Zidlicky wide, skated across, and beat Cory Schneider's left toe on a delayed penalty call.   A response would eventually come.  Schneider made a number of bail-out saves, the penalty kill had to make two kills, a post saved Schneider, and Bryce Salvador committed a heinous turnover that thankfully did not make it 0-2.  After all that and more, Jon Merrill took a puck off of Andrew Ladd and hit Michael Ryder with a pass in the zone.  Ryder took it, got around Mark Stuart, went down on his knees due to a foul by Stuart, and beat Ondrej Pavelec eye for the equalizer.   Not much more happened since then until the shootout.  For the first time since March 2013, the Devils actually prevailed.  Jacob Josefson beat a fallen Pavelec for a top-shelf beauty and the Jets did not score.  The Devils won an ugly game by a shootout. The last three words felt sweet to type.  Brian recapped the game here.

The Last Blue Jackets Game: On Friday night, the Blue Jackets hosted Toronto.  Toronto would take a lead and never relinquish it.  Phil Kessel scored in an otherwise even (at least in terms of shots) first period.  Toronto really made Curtis McElhinney work by throwing sixteen shots at him in the second period.  They would only score on one them - a David Clarkson deflection to convert Toronto's second power play of the evening.  Early in the third, Phil Kessel got onto a cleared puck to lead a 2-on-1 with Nazem Kadri.  Kessel's lateral pass was re-directed into the net to make it three for Toronto.  The Blue Jackets would keep a power play goal streak and Ryan Johansen's point streak alive when Cam Atkinson converted on a man advantage past the halfway mark.  But there would be no comeback.  Kessel impressively denied an attempt at a zone exit and Daniel Winnik got right onto the puck.  He turned, got around Adam Cracknell, and beat McElhinney to make it 1-4.  That score held; the Blue Jackets lost their fourth in a row.  Mike MacLean recapped the game over there at The Cannon.

The Goal: Slow down the top line.  The Blue Jackets are in a similar spot to the Islanders last season.  They have so many regulars out due to injury that there is a plethora of minor league players in their lineup.   Despite all of the pain, the Blue Jackets still have an ace.  It's the first line center, the team's leading scorer, and arguably the most talented on Columbus' roster: Ryan Johansen.   While he's not a possession stud, he's their most productive player in terms of points.  He went into the Toronto game with a ten game point streak.  He's a key reason why Scott Hartnell has 35 shots on net in nine games prior to their game against Toronto.   For that game in Toronto, Cam Atkinson - another very good shooter - was lining up on the other wing.  That's a dangerous trio for any defense.   Missing players like Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, and Nathan Horton stretches a team's talent up front. That means whoever is left should get more focus - and that's Johansen's line.  This isn't to say the other lines can't do damage, but I think keeping the first line in check and forcing lesser players to not be lesser players will go a long way towards getting a result tonight.

Seriously, Here Who Is Out for Columbus: CBS Sports maintains a list of injured players for each team. The following have been out for Columbus:  Mark Letestu, James Wisniewski, Artem Anisimov, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Calvert, Brandon Dubinsky, Nathan Horton, and Boone Jenner.  The good news for them is that Mike Foligno returned to the lineup for Friday's game.  Shawn Mitchell of the Columbus Dispatch reported at Dispatch Xtra that Calvert may return tonight, but who knows.   Even with Calvert back, that's several forwards, the team's top defenseman, and their top goaltender.  That will hurt any team.

As bad as I feel for the Blue Jackets playing at less than full strength, I do hope the Devils realize the situation that they are in. They're not just playing a divisional opponent that they are directly competing with for points.  It's also a team that's been slumping with four straight losses, coming off playing a full game against Toronto, and they can't have their best team on the ice due to injuries.  The Devils really should take it to them right from the get-go.  I'm loathe to tab any game this early in the season as important.  So let's just say that I think the time is right to really push for a winning effort.   That can be defined as better play than what they displayed on Thursday.  Based on the player quotes in this Friday post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, they understand that. They just need to demonstrate their understanding on the ice tonight.

Because It's Columbus...: This is your regular reminder that Jack Johnson is not at all good when it comes to possession.   As he has averaged 23:54 of ice time prior of Friday's game, this means the Devils will see a lot of the Corsi Black Hole.  Johnson is very athletic and with Wisniewski out, he'll get plenty more power play time to be an offensive concern.   Yet, he's dead last in Corsi% among Columbus defensemen per War On Ice. His relatively low offensive zone start percentage and relatively tough competition at evens mitigates that, but it's still really awful. Johnson has been paired with David Savard for most of this season, but he'll be helped out again should he be paired with Fedor Tyutin.   Whatever the case may be, the Devils should be looking to attack his side of the ice over and over.  They will likely find success.

Also, Fire Away Again - More than Thursday, Please: Columbus' goaltenders are currently Curtis McElhinney and Anton Forsberg.  With a career 90.1% save percentage at the NHL level, McElhinney should not scare anyone.  Forsberg was called up after making three starts in Springfield this season after making four last season.  Good numbers there and he had good numbers in Sweden per Elite Prospects. But with only seven professional games under his belt in North America, there's not much to conclude as to whether he's good or just enjoying a good start.  Per Aaron Portzline on Twitter, it might be Forsberg tonight.  Whether the Devils see McElhinney making a second straight start or Forsberg making his NHL debut, my thought is the game: I want the Devils to challenge the goalie as much as possible.

What Changes for New Jersey?: In Friday's practice, the same three players that were out remained out.  Mike Cammalleri, Martin Havlat, and Jordin Tootoo did not appear; Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Friday that they were unlikely to play.  Lou's comments on Cammalleri to Gulitti are interesting, in particular.  I was surprised to not read the cliche of "If this was the playoffs, he'd play."  Nevertheless, this means there shouldn't be any changes to the roster.  Reid Boucher gets another game at showing off what he can do.  Jacob Josefson gets another night to further prove his worth - and he's doing well at it so far. Damien Brunner gets another opportunity to show he belongs as well.  Based on Gulitti's report on the lines from Friday's practice, Ryane Clowe moving up top may be the only change instead of Dainius Zubrus occupying that winger slot next to Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr.   One could argue Adam Henrique should be in the top six; the Devils, rightly or wrongly, see Henrique as a center.  Besides, who would center the line in Henrique's place?  Zubrus?  In any case, expect the same 12 with only Clowe and Zubrus switching spots.

What about the defense? Bryce Salvador was split up from Marek Zidlicky in the first period and he was notably and deservedly benched for much of the third period.  I don't think Salvador won't play as he is the team's captain.  But cutting his minutes is something worth pursuing.  Breaking up 24-2 would help in that regard as it would give Peter DeBoer more options in rotating his defensemen.  I would expect Adam Larsson to stay in the lineup as he did well on Thursday.  I don't think DeBoer compliments him to the press and then scratches him. Essentially, I'm not expecting any changes on defense for this game.

As in net, well, it's Cory Schneider.  Gulitti already confirmed his start on Friday. I hope he doesn't have to attempt any saves as a result of a heinous defensive zone turnover like, say, a blind backhand pass to an opposing player in the slot.

But that Empty Net...: Patrik Elias hasn't been all that bad.  At least, his 53.33% Corsi For according to War on Ice isn't all that bad. He's definitely not facing scrubs.  Yet, I can understand that his one goal and four assists in ten games isn't exactly grand.  Provided he's still a positive possession player against a good level of competition, he's in the right spot in the lineup.  I'd like to see some more shots from him - even if Brunner is on his wing.  Fourteen in ten games while averaging as much ice time as he does seems low to me. With a few more shooting attempts, the points will come.

Should We Worry About the CBJ PP?: The Blue Jackets' power play conversion rate is around the league median. They don't have a scary-good man advantage unit.   However, they have had a PPG streak of five games. They're not necessarily struggling even though they are currently without James Wisniewski running things from the point.  Most of the personnel that have played a lot on their power plays are still active.  Again, Hartnell, Johansen, and Atkinson are right up there.  Tim Erixon and Jack Johnson can do things from the back.  Giving those sorts of players space to work with is generally a bad thing to do.  Despite killing both penalties against Winnipeg on Thursday, I don't trust the Devils' PK to bail out stupid fouls regularly.  So I will once again write the obvious for the Devils: don't take stupid fouls.

Smooth is Fast: The Devils are not a fast team, player by player.  However, the Devils can mitigate that and increase their offensive opportunities by being efficient with their passes, especially coming out of their own end and in the neutral zone.  Generally, how a team moves the puck is a good metric for how they are playing.  If they're making tape-to-tape passes while going forward, then things are usually going well.  If not, then it's a struggle.  Teams will go through stretches of both, sometimes within the same game.  For the Devils to not get caught flat-footed (and to avoid yet another dreary performance at the Rock), it's almost imperative that they improve in this regard.  A team effectively moving the puck will generally be faster than a team that doesn't.

Site Note: The Devils' October 2014 in Review will be up on Monday.

Your Take: November begins a busier month at home, and again, tonight's a good night to get one over on Columbus. Will the Devils be able to do so? Can they stop Johansen and his wingers, Hartnell and Atkinson?  Or even slow down Johansen?  Who on the Devils do you think has to have a great performance tonight?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.