Welcome back the season. Is this an important game? Yes. They're all important from here on out.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (24-22-13) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (29-24-5; SBN Blog: The Cannon)
The Last Devils Game: You know what's been the main problem for the Devils prior to the Olympic break and perhaps all season long? Scoring goals. They scored none against the Washington Capitals on February 8. They missed more nets, put more attempts off target than on target, and so were in the familiar territory of being vulnerable to one shot/bounce/event getting through Cory Schneider. Julien Brouillette firing a wrister through a screen was enough. The Caps tacked on two empty net goals to make it a really disappointing 0-3 loss. My recap is here.
The Last Blue Jackets Game: The Blue Jackets wrapped up a trip through California with a game against San Jose on February 7. San Jose got off to a strong start with two first period goals. The first was provided by John McCarthy off a deflection, the second was a slap shot from Patrick Marleau, and both came within the first ten minutes. Columbus would strike back and pull within one in the second period. Ryan Johansen scored 18 seconds into the second. The visitors got into penalty trouble in the middle period but escaped without a goal against. Tommy Wingels scored early in the third to give San Jose a 3-1 lead. Boone Jenner cut it short to 3-2 with a little more than nine minutes left to play. But another penalty plus a tired Columbus squad didn't deter San Jose from dominating the shot count and run of play. The Jackets lost 3-2, ending their trip at 1-1-1. Jeff Little had this recap at The Cannon.
The Last Devils-Blue Jackets Game: On December 27, the Devils hosted the Blue Jackets. This wasn't a pretty game whatsoever, as the Columbus forecheck gave the Devils problems early and the Devils' decisions with the puck on offense just went awry. As a result, Curtis McElhinney was not challenged as much as he could have been. Believe it or not, but Martin Brodeur had a very fine game. He was only beaten once in regulation: a backhander by Artem Anisimov after a crazy save off Brandon Dubinsky. The Devils would find an equalizer in the third period when Adam Henrique banged in a rebound. But the game could have easily been more in Columbus' favor. The game dragged into the shootout where the Devils failed to score in it, much less win it. The Blue Jackets won 2-1. In my recap, I said it was a point the Devils didn't deserve. For the other side, Jeff Little has his own take at The Cannon.
The Goal: Push the tempo and fire away. The Columbus Blue Jackets aren't a bad possession team at all. It's a reason why they are going to be a proverbial thorn in the proverbial side of the Devils' playoff chances. However, they do get out-shot fairly regularly. This is true at 5-on-5 hockey per Extra Skater. This is true based on the per game averages at NHL.com. This is even true in shorthanded situations. OK, that's to be expected, but they have a fairly high shots against rate when down a man. On top of all of this, they will be without Fedor Tyutin, who has suffered an ankle injury in his Sochi experience. He hasn't been amazing this season. But his absence means someone has to step up to take his minutes alongside Jack Johnson. According to Aaron Portzline at the Columbus Dispatch, that someone is Dalton Prout. Their defense is weaker for it. This means they are potentially ripe for being swarmed, something the Devils can do very well. If they can get it going and actually keep the puck on their stick on offense, then they only increase their chances for success tonight. And they need to succeed tonight.
The Motivation is Mutual: It is true that the Devils really do need this win. They need to catch Columbus to fight them for a playoff spot. They have a fully healthy roster and they know that the results are necessary. However, the opposite applies to the opposition. They're battling for a rare playoff spot. They know they can beat the Devils as they've done it twice already. While they are without Tyutin, they do have Marian Gaborik coming back. He can do some damage all on his own. They have pretty much the same motivation as the Devils do. It's not going to come down to who wants it more. It's going to come down to who has the better game plan and who executes it better. I'm confident in the Devils having the right approach - they wouldn't be a top-ten possession team without one - but execution has been the sticking point all season.
Heat Check: Cory Schneider has been simply amazing in 2014. Since January began, he has a 94.2% save percentage in all situations. He has started every single game for New Jersey since the Bronx blowout. Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Tuesday that he will start tonight. I am concerned for Schneider, though. First, he hasn't played for over two weeks. He'll be rested and I know he's talented; I just hope he isn't terribly rusty in net. While it's not impossible, I wouldn't expect him to be as hot as he was prior to the break. That leads to my second point: goal support. He was doing everything he could to give the Devils a chance to win but because the team could not get that additional goal, the results haven't matched up with his performances. If the Devils needed Schneider to be amazing just to get points in games and still couldn't win, then what will happen if he's not as amazing right away as this important stretch of the season comes? It's something to consider even though it isn't new. What's new is what Schneider will do after a long layoff.
Deeper, Stronger - The Columbus Forwards: Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch has the expected roster for the Blue Jackets in this Wednesday post. Marian Gaborik will start on a fourth line but don't be surprised if he gets moved up later on. As Portzline pointed out, Gaborik was put together with Nathan Horton and Ryan Johansen on a power play unit. That could conceivably be a line at evens and a very powerful one. While beset by injuries, Horton and Gaborik are very skilled scorers. Horton does it with power, Gaborik does it with finesse. Johansen is Columbus' leader in goals (24), points (46), and shots (161) this season. Putting anyone with him still makes his unit a threat because he's been so good. Putting him with Horton is dangerous enough. If Gaborik gets the rust off quickly enough, then it could be worse for the Devils to try and match-up against.
That possibility is exacerbated by the other two lines in their top nine. Per Portzline, R.J. Umberger, Artem Anisimov, and Nick Foligno are together. They have 15, 13, and 15 goals respectively and around the same number of points. Then there's Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, and Matt Calvert. That trio has wrecked the Devils earlier this season and could do it again. Atkinson's shot is hard, Dubinsky is just difficult to deal with, and Calvert's capable of making things happen even if the first two are stopped. The Blue Jackets had a formidable top six in the last two Devils games. With Horton and Gaborik involved, they pretty much have a formidable top nine. According to Extra Skater, Johansen and Dubinsky have been very good at driving play along with producing points. Only Umberger and Foligno hasn't done real well in possession this season. So it may be best for Peter DeBoer to try and get a good match up against that Anisimov line. It won't be easy at all, though.
Long Distance Weapon: There is one rather good defenseman on the Blue Jackets: James Wisniewski. He's very good in terms of possession. He leads their blueline in scoring by a healthy margin with five goals and 30 assists. He's been productive on the power play as he leads Columbus with 19 power play points. He averages just over 22 minutes per game. The Devils' forwards will have to be particularly aware when he's on the point. The team will have enough trouble with Columbus' forwards. They cannot fully ignore what Wisniewski.
The Man Who Must Be Beat Has Been Good At Not Being Beaten: Tonight's man will be Sergei Bobrovsky. He's been rather good this season. Bobrovsky has a 92.6% even strength save percentage and 90% in penalty killing situations. Those are more than solid numbers. He strangely has been vulnerable on shorthanded and overtime situations; but that's not where the Devils are going to really get a lot of chances anyway. At least, I hope there won't be any overtime chances. Anyway, Portzline did confirm Bobrovsky will start. Here's hoping his Olympic layoff gives him some issues in net.
Your Defenders Are...: The Devils called up Eric Gelinas on Monday, as confirmed by Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Gelinas has been practicing with Jon Merrill. At first glance of Gulitti's report from Wednesday's practice, Gelinas-Merrill appeared to be behind Anton Volchenkov and Peter Harrold. However, Gelinas and Merrill got time in practice on the power play. I highly doubt the Devils would call someone up, have him practice with a regular, get time on special teams, and then not use him. It could be that Gelinas or even Merrill could be a seventh defenseman. It could be that those two are the third pairing while Volchenkov-Harrold will be the odd pairing out. Until there's confirmation today, I would expect Gelinas to play. I would also not be surprised if there's a move coming soon since I don't see the need to have eight defenders up with New Jersey at the moment.
Congratulations: Patrik Elias now has two children. His wife gave birth on Wednesday to a daughter, the family's second. Congratulations to the Elias family. The player shall be available for tonight's game.
Based on Tuesday's practice report, he will likely start on a unit with Adam Henrique and Damien Brunner. Andrei Loktionov will be in between Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder. Anything from those six would be highly appreciated.
One Last Note: It's great to be back and focused on the NHL.
Your Take: This game is massive in terms of importance. How are you feeling about the Devils' chances tonight? Can they keep the Columbus' forwards at bay? Can they push the tempo and force Columbus to defend? Can they score more than two goals tonight? Will you be there to see it live? (I will in Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5, as usual.) Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.