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Game Preview #21: New Jersey Devils vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

The New Jersey Devils return home for a Thanksgiving Eve game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. This game preview highlights a potential return to Patrik Elias, an improved Columbus team and their threats, and more.

Jacob Josefson got robbed by Sergey Bobrovsky in the end of October. Will it happen again? Maybe!
Jacob Josefson got robbed by Sergey Bobrovsky in the end of October. Will it happen again? Maybe!
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Back home and maybe with a legend in tow.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (11-8-1) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (8-14-0; SBN Blog: The Cannon)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils ended their Western Canadian road trip with a game in Vancouver on Sunday night.  It did not feature the snippy, chippy, and downright-firey play of the last Canucks-Devils games.  It did feature a lot of penalties, twelve in total.  After an OK first period, the Devils scored early in the second.  A great shift by Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, and Mike Cammalleri resulted in Palmieri sliding a pass across to Cammalleri at the top of the crease. As Jacob Markstrom slid across, Cammalleri put the puck through his five-hole with ease to make it 1-0.  The Devils withstood the Vancouver attack of thirteen shots (and three power plays) thanks to the efforts of Cory Schneider.  Then there was a very eventful third period.  Andy Greene got a rare power play shift and scored with a wrister from distance to make it 2-0 ninety seconds into the period. The Canucks stepped up their attack and started breaking down the Devils.  During a power play, John Moore covered a puck in the crease and so the Canucks were awarded a penalty shot.  Schneider denied Radim Vrbata and continued to deny all of these attacks, both tame and dangerous. Alas, it wasn't a perfect night for the goalie. During a wasted Devils power play, Schneider came out of his net to play the puck. His pass went right to Daniel Sedin, who passed it to Henrik Sedin in the middle, and that Sedin scored to make it 2-1.  The Devils nearly got caught again seconds later, but Schneider robbed Brandon Prust.  Fortune favored the Devils as Adam Henrique made it a two-goal game by putting home his own blocked shot. Such robberies and hold-your-breath defensive moments increased, especially when the Canucks pinned the Devils back for a hundred seconds in a 6-on-5 situation.  Moore cross-checking Alexandre Burrows down made it a power play.  Vrbata would put the puck back in off a rebound that got deflected up - with 0.5 seconds left to play. The Devils survived seven penalty killing situations, a desperate Canucks team, and 38 shots against in a 3-2 win. Here's my recap of the victory.

The Last Blue Jackets Game: On that same Sunday, the Blue Jackets hosted San Jose in what would be the last game of their road trip.  The Sharks came out hard, out-shooting Columbus 10-5. Patrick Marleau put one home off Sergei Bobrovsky's door step to make 1-0. The Blue Jackets responded with a big period, out-shooting the Sharks 19-7. They hit Alex Stalock with two goals within a minute and eighteen seconds. Ryan Johansen put home a second rebound to tie it up.  Shortly thereafter, Brandon Saad led a 4-on-2 up-ice. He fed William Karlsson, who slung a cross-crease pass to Boone Jenner for a tap-in to make it 2-1 for Columbus.  While that was it for scoring in that period, Cam Atkinson kicked off the third period when he got loose in the slot and put home a loose puck generated by Nick Foligno.  Up 3-1, it looked like Columbus would snap the Sharks' five-game winning streak and wreck their perfect road trip.  Looks are deceiving and the Sharks had more than a response for the home team. Joe Pavelski put them within one at 6:13.  Dalton Prout hooked Tommy Wingels and got caught at 11:18.  Seconds later, Brent Burns converted the power play - tying up the game while punishing Prout.  Brandon Dillon got a seemingly tame shot through Bobrovsky off a faceoff at 13:15. That's a 3-1 lead blown up in about twelve minutes.  It's not like the Columbus Blue Jackets gave up but it was just a flood of scoring and Columbus just didn't finish.  The scoring - and the game - was capped off at 18:44 when Pavelski put home an empty-netter. The Blue Jackets lost 3-5 as the Sharks swept their road trip.  Mike MacLean recapped the defeat at The Cannon.

The Last Devils-Blue Jackets Game: It was a simpler time on October 27, 2015.  We were younger. Brasher. More idealistic.  Well, maybe not. But that's when these two teams last played each other.  At the Rock, the Devils were riding a winning streak and the Blue Jackets had a mere win to start the game.  What transpired was surprising.  The first period seemed just fine. The Devils were in full control of the game, limiting Columbus to a mere two shots on net.  It seemed like a goal was coming, it was likely going to come from New Jersey's sticks.  That was not the case. The second period was more of a struggle. Columbus was playing better but not doing much in terms of results; the Devils just were mired in a slog and also didn't do much.  It still felt like there would be scoring in this game. It happened in the third period in a flurry of good shifts and better shots from Columbus. Boone Jenner scored on a rebound, Cam Atkinson scored on the following shift, and after a penalty kill, Scott Hartnell placed one high over Schneider's shoulder. That's three goals in less than six minutes, with the last one coming with just over five minutes left to play.  Kyle Palmieri converted a power play to at least deny the shutout.  But the Blue Jackets got their second win and the Devils had their winning streak snapped in a 1-3 loss.  My recap of the defeat is here. For the opposition's side, here's Eric St. John's recap.

The Goal: Challenge Bobrovsky.  The goals San Jose scored weren't good ones for a goalie to allow. Further, out of all 21 goalies that have played at least fifteen games this season, he's in 21st in even strength save percentage at 90.3% and tied for 21st in overall save percentage at 90%. These are better than numbers than the 1980s-bad percentages he had coming into the last Devils games.  In fact, his previous four starts before the loss to the Sharks were pretty good for Bobrovsky.  Then the San Jose game happened to remind everyone he can still be real shaky. So while he's improving, he's not quite to the level he was once at before.

One of the big failings from that 1-3 loss was that the Devils put up a mere 24 shots on net with a late flurry.  Shots are undercounted at the Rock, but that's not really a lot.  The Devils need to just hit Bobrovsky with all kinds of shots, at close, from distance with traffic, and everywhere in between across all three periods.  Again, Columbus is still in the basement of the Metropolitan largely because the goaltending hasn't been that good.  The Devils need to do what they can to exploit that.

The Return of a Legend: After missing training camp, preseason, and nearly the first two months of this season, Patrik Elias is back.  He's been practicing with the team over the last week or so.  Today, he was on an actual line - and not because someone got sick.   Per Tom Gulitti's report on the lines and pairings in Tuesday's practice at Fire & Ice, Elias was at left wing with Jacob Josefson (Aside: please don't take three minors tonight, Josefson) and Stefan Matteau.  A little later, Gulitti had this post at Fire & Ice where Elias says he thinks he's in and John Hynes is considering playing Elias tonight - and if not, then on Friday against Montreal.  I think he will play tonight if only because he was on an actual line and on special teams in practice.  Brian O'Neill ended up as an extra in practice, so I think he would be scratched. I'm fine with that, he hasn't really done much of anything - except for his first assist in the recent Calgary loss - as of late.

Elias is not the Elias of old and he's likely to be really rusty as this would be his first NHL game this season.  That said, I'm excited to see him on the ice. For all of the talk about the bottom six not producing much, Elias can definitely contribute. It's a role where he can be given more limited, protected minutes as he gets into some kind of form. It's also a role where he can provide a wealth of experience to players without it.  Basically, as user alslammarz wrote in this recent Devils in the Details post:

Would you take Older/Slower/Bad Knee Elias over any of the following? (injured) Ruutu, Matteau, O’Neill, Farnham, Gionta, (Bad Shoulder) Tlusty, Tootoo, Josefson?

If you answered yes, you just answered your own question.

I would say yes and so I'm excited to see this happen real soon.  Hopefully, tonight rather than the beast that is Montreal right now.

By the way, I have this other thought on Elias.  Should he start playing like the Elias of old, then I wouldn't be surprised if he swaps spots with Sergey Kalinin in the future.  For tonight, I think Elias-Josefson-Matteau and some PP time would be a fine start.  I'm willing to suffer experience the potential energy (a.k.a. ENERGY~!~!, #RELENTLESS, #RELENTLESSENERGY) of a Bobby Farnham, Stephen Gionta, and Jordin Tootoo unit.

All the same, the offense will be driven by the top two lines on the Devils.  Cammalleri and Palmieri played rather well in Vancouver, I'm hoping they go from strength to strength this evening.

Defensively, Let's Go #2-#28: Gulitti noted in this Fire & Ice post about Tuesday's practice that David Schlemko was not present.  He suffered a lower body injury recently.  This should mean the same defense from the Vancouver game will be in place.  That it's a home game may be beneficial to John Moore and Damon Severson. They had a real rough time of it as the game went on. With the last change, they could be controlled better. That said, I'd like both to play a smarter and calmer game at both ends of the rink.

Two Blue Jackets You Might See, Five You Won't See: Tuesday's big news for the Blue Jackets involved the injury list.  Per Shawn Mitchell at the Columbus Dispatch, the team activated Alexander Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky from injured reserve.  Wennberg is a young forward still trying to establish himself in this league. Dubinsky does a little bit of everything and remains sixth on the team in scoring with four goals, seven assists, and 27 shots on net. Both could be ready for tonight.

Unfortunately for Columbus, the IR list didn't get smaller for them. They placed defenseman Cody Goloubef on it for a broken jaw and winger Rene Bourque with an upper body injury.  They join David Clarkson and Jared Boll on the IR list. Defenseman Fedor Tyutin has been out since Friday with a broken nose.  One of the aspects of last season that undercut Columbus' season was injuries. So it saddens me a bit that it's hurting them again this season.  The good news is that their season isn't completely lost.

Your Improved Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets started this week not in eighth-place in the division.  The loss to the Sharks combined with other results put them back there, but they may not be there for long.  The team has been getting more positive results in their last ten games. Jeff Little broke down the improvements and the underlying numbers of the Blue Jackets in this post at The Cannon. Go read it.  After I read it, it appears to me that head coach John Tortorella has an effect on the team beyond Bobrovsky not playing like he's a complete sieve.  I would give tonight's opposition a little more respect than they may have had about a month ago. Of course, that team also beat the Devils about a month ago so that alone is a reason to respect them more.

In Little's big post, he notes how possession has fallen under Tortorella.  He's right. The Blue Jackets are sitting at a team CF% of 47.8% according to War on Ice. Columbus is one of six teams below New Jersey in CF%, which is not a good place for them (or the Devils) to be in.  They're a little worse when adjusting for score. This support's Little's contention that while the Blue Jackets have a better defensive system, the offense has taken fewer attempts.  I'd say the larger concern isn't just to have the team take more shooting attempts, but to make the defense stringer.   If I were Tortorella, then I'd stop believing David Savard and Jack Johnson is a first pairing that should play tough minutes and defensive zone starts. Though with Tyutin and (to a lesser extent) Goloubef out, that's hard to do right away.

The Dangerous Ones: As the Blue Jackets have been firing pucks more and more, there are a number of forwards the Devils will have to concern themselves with.  First and foremost, Ryan Johansen remains as their most skilled forward.  He was interestingly moved away from Brandon Saad and Boone Jenner in their recent game per Left Wing Lock. With Dubinsky and Wennberg possibly coming back, maybe these lines get shuffled.  Still, ignoring someone tied for the team lead in points with four goals, twelve assists, and 45 shots is a poor choice.

Boone Jenner remains as the team's top goal scorer. He's got eleven to go with five assists and 58 shots on net. His stick is hot given a shooting percentage of 19%.  He's been getting into the scoring chance zone and he's finishing plays per his War on Ice hextally. He was with Johansen and Brandon Saad against San Jose.  William Karlsson stepped in Johansen's place and the three created a beautiful goal Jenner scored.  It suggests to me that Jenner's not only riding Johansen's coattails.  Saad is a threat on his own.  He's not far from the points lead with nine goals (5 on the PP, Jenner has 4), six assists, and 58 shots on net. Saad and Jenner on the wings is quick and whoever on the Devils draw that match-up will have to be wary about the counter-attack regardless of who's at center.

The third man tied for the team lead in points is Scott Hartnell.  He is the player that many fans can enjoy.  He'll throw big hits, he'll play tough, and he'll score quite a few goals because he's got a good shot.  Like Jenner, Hartnell's shooting hot at a 18.4% shooting percentage.  As a result, he's got nine goals to go with seven shots and 49 shots on net. He's been recently seen with Nick Foligno and Cam Atkinson; two very good offensive players.  Atkinson has not been shooting hot but his 53 shots and five goals and eight assists is definitely not something to turn up your nose at.  Foligno's production hasn't been as hot as last season, but a goal and eight assists isn't nothing either.  One final point, those three have been positive in possession per War on Ice - another mark of a solid unit.

Combined with David Savard, Jack Johnson, and Ryan Murray moving and firing the puck from the back, this is a team with plenty of talent up front.  How Dubinsky fits in is a question for Tortorella, but it's a good one as Dubinsky can add more offense and positive play.  The Devils will have a less-than-good question in figuring out how to deny Foligno-Atkinson-Hartnell and Saad and Jenner and Johansen if they're all on different lines.  Cory Schneider, who will start this game for the Devils as mentioned in this Fire & Ice post by Gulitti, could be asked to put up another good performance.  To help Schneider out, the Devils need to push hard going forward and - get this - challenge Bobrovsky as much as they can.

One Final Game Thought: The top three scorers on the Blue Jackets are not shy to the penalty box and the Blue Jackets have the fifth most shorthanded situations in the NHL. The Devils with their surprisingly high conversion rate would be smart to exploit that too.

One Final Thought: The Devils annual coat drive is this Friday. If you're going to the Rock for that game, go buy a new coat or provide a new or gently used coat, donate it, and get a voucher for a free game. Here are the full details at the team's website.

Your Take: I'll be there in Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5. Will you?  What do you think of this match-up? Do the improved Blue Jackets concern you? Will the Devils put up a less penalty-filled performance? How do you think Elias will do, provided he plays?  Who do you think needs to have a big game for the Devils tonight other than the goalie?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.