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New Jersey Devils at Columbus Blue Jackets: Game Preview #77

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The now-mathematically eliminated from the playoff New Jersey Devils have a chance to mathematically eliminate the hottest team in hockey from the playoffs: the Columbus Blue Jackets. This game preview notes their hotness and top four offensive threats.

Fewer open opportunities for Blue Jackets in front of the net, please.
Fewer open opportunities for Blue Jackets in front of the net, please.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Devils now travel to Ohio to play the NHL's hottest team.

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-33-12) at the Columbus Blue Jackets (36-35-4; SBN Blog: The Cannon)

The Last Devils Game: On Sunday night, the Devils hosted Anaheim.  The Devils played a competitive, fairly energetic game against the Ducks. Alas, they did not get enough of the bounces their way.  After James Wisniewski barely kept the puck in the zone, Wisniewski's shot was re-directed past Cory Schneider by Ryan Kesler late in the first period. The Devils had some of their best scoring chances in the second period, but they couldn't solve John Gibson.  Early in the third period, the Ducks made it 0-2 when Francois Beauchemin's shot from distance hit off Jon Merrill's head to go over Schneider and into the net.  The Devils tried to get back into the game and they would get within one late when Dainius Zubrus re-directed an Andy Greene shot while cutting across the slot.  Hampus Lindholm gave the Devils a glorious chance at a dramatic equalizer at the end of the game when he flung the puck over the glass just before the final minute. Alas, the Devils couldn't get much through to Gibson - story of the night for the Devils - in the resulting 6-on-4 and so there would be no dramatic equalizer.  The Devils lost 1-2 in a game that I wasn't mad or unhappy about, as I explained in my recap.

The Last Blue Jackets Game: Saturday night featured the red-hot Blue Jackets taking on St. Louis.  The Blue Jackets have piled up one of the better road records in the league and they would continue to add to it.  William Karlsson finished off a good play with Scott Hartnell and Marko Dano to make it 1-0 in the first period. Patrik Berglund provided a response early in the second period.  After quite some time and a minor penalty to Jay Bouwmeester, Jack Johnson made it 2-1 with a power play goal.  An elbow by Jeremy Morin provided a power play for the Blues and Vladimir Tarasenko finished a feed from Berglund to tie it up.  But the Blue Jackets would end the second with one more goal, this one from Boone Jenner finishing a great pass from Ryan Johansen.   The Blues threw everything at the Blue Jackets in the third period, out-shooting the visitors 13-3.  However, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task to stop them all.  Cam Atkinson iced the game with an empty netter for the Blue Jackets to make it a 4-2 win.  Matt Wagner has the recap of the win at The Cannon.

The Last Devils-Blue Jackets Game: Back on March 6, the Devils hosted Columbus.  About a week prior, the Devils shut out the Blue Jackets. That would not happen again.  Justin Falk scored in the first period with a long shot that got through traffic and beat Cory Schneider to the top corner.  The Blue Jackets would continue the scoring when Nick Foligno picked off a terrible decision by Patrik Elias to attempt a blind backhand pass at the blueline. Foligno broke ahead, passed it up to Brandon Dubinsky, and Dubinsky finished the breakaway.  The Devils would get on the board when Adam Henrique dropped a no-look pass to Jordin Tootoo in front of the net for a power play goal.  Alas, minutes later, Marko Dano got free in the Devils' end and a pass from Alexander Wennberg.  Dano had time and space to pick his shot and he did.   The Devils would make it a one-goal game in the third period when Peter Harrold, of all players, torched Dano and Bobrovsky with one of the prettiest goals he ever scored.  But the Devils would only get five other shots on Bobrovsky in the third period and so the score held at 2-3.  In my recap, I said it was too little, too late for the Devils. For the opposition's perspective, Matt Wagner was more pleased with the result at The Cannon.

The Goal: Pick your shots - seriously.  The Devils weren't firing off a lot of attempts against the Ducks, but there were many that just didn't get to the target - much less into the net.  Early in the Anaheim game, the Devils settled for longer shots or shots from the outside of the dots that didn't always get through.  In the third period, when down two goals, the Devils just couldn't get too much through to challenge Gibson.  In the middle period, the Devils made more effective plays to force the goaltender to make some tough stops and force the defense to scramble.   While the Blue Jackets have been conceding a lot of shots all season long - their average shots against per game rate is 33.3, the second highest in the NHL - they do have a very good goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky.  His save percentage over this season is OK at 91.7%; but his lowest save percentage in his last five appearances was 92.5%, with a high of 95% according to NHL.com. He's been very good lately and he's only going to be beaten if the Devils don't waste time by attempting too many shots that will easily be stopped and get more of their attempts to be shots on goal.

So Far, So Hot, So What?: The Blue Jackets have won their last six games and so they are still mathematically alive for the playoffs.  They would need to win all of their games, require Boston to lose all of theirs, and require Florida and Ottawa (and Philly) to win almost no games.   The Devils can spoil the Blue Jackets by beating them in any fashion.  So can the Bruins if they win any of their games too.

At the same time, it would be hard to begrudge the hot streak.  The Blue Jackets have been hit with proverbial wrecking balls from injuries.  In fact, Rene Bourque became the latest casualty with a stress fracture in his back; he's out for the season according to this post by Shawn Mitchell at Puck-Rakers, the Columbus Dispatch's Blue Jackets blog.  Still, most of their key players are now finally active, together, and they're putting together some very good results.   Bobrovsky has been doing very well, their quartet of scorers have continued to produce, and they have some depth at forward.  I still think their defense got weaker without Wisniewski, but it's easier to see "what could've been" for a team that was undercut severely by injuries.  Might as well end a lost season on a high note and six wins in a row are some pretty high notes.

The Quartet of Twenty Plus: The Blue Jackets have four players who managed to play most of this season and produce on a regular basis. As a result, they each have at least twenty goals and so they will draw most of the attention from the Devils.  Ryan Johansen is their most dangerous of the four.  He leads the team in points (25 goals, 41 assists) and he's nearly at the top in shots (189).  He draws the opposition's best players regularly and, well, he doesn't always win those match-ups but he find ways to do damage.   Their leading goal scorer is Nick Foligno with 26 goals.  He's just a point behind Johansen with 39 assists and he's one of the few Blue Jackets forwards that is above breakeven in CF%. The tough and sometimes balance-challenged Scott Hartnell has 25 goals and 29 assists to go with 181 shots.  Rounding out the group is Cam Atkinson, who just hit 20 goals with his empty netter in St. Louis.  Atkinson is not at all shy about shooting as he leads the Blue Jackets with 195 shots.  The four are among the few Blue Jackets who have played in over seventy games this season, but they will attack.

And with four of them, Columbus can place them on different lines.  Combined with having Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, and Alexander Wennberg available and the offensive options are plentiful.  According to Shawn Mitchell at Puck Rakers yesterday, it appears the Blue Jackets will do that.  Johansen and Atkinson will be on the top line, Foligno will be with Dubinsky and Anisimov to make for a challenging second line, and Hartnell joins Wennberg and Dano on a third line.  That could create match-up problems for a Devils team that's thin on talent and contentious on defense given the number of young players they have on their blueline.   If Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin, and David Savard actually play well, then it'll be an even tougher night for the Devils.

Road Warriors, Home...Heartaches?: Curiously, the Blue Jackets have a good road record at 22-15-2 but one of the worst home records in the NHL at 14-20-2.   I went to War on Ice and looked at their team stats split between home and away. At home, the Blue Jackets have a CF% of 48.6 - which isn't good on it's own, but better than New Jersey's - and a low team save percentage of 90.9% at even strength.  That goes poorly with a team shooting percentage of 7.1%.   On the road, the Blue Jackets' CF% drops to 45% - and is worse than New Jersey's - yet their shooting and save percentages jump to 8.5% and 92.4%, respectively.  That would explain some of the stark differences in records, but why would their percentages be so much worse at home?  Weird.

No Practice, So I'll Speculate Again: The Devils did not have practice on Monday.  I think we're largely going to see the same lineup from the Anaheim game.  Stefan Matteau played well against the Ducks.  So much so that I don't see the point of taking him out. Whether he should stick with Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri again is up for debate, but I think he's earned another game.  I wouldn't be totally surprised if Reid Boucher gets back into the lineup. What with the Devils utilizing Patrik Elias, Stephen Gionta, and Dainius Zubrus as a checking line of sorts, Boucher's inclusion would require someone else sitting. Maybe Tuomo Ruutu?

I thought the defense was fine in general against Anaheim.  While Peter Harrold and Eric Gelinas had the most issues - and they're going to have issues if they draw Anisimov, Dubinsky, and Foligno regularly - they weren't that bad.  I'd keep the blueline the same.

As for who will be the crease, I see no reason why it should not be Cory Schneider. He's been the primary goaltender all season, playing nearly all games outside of a back-to-back set - and even in both of some of those too.  Keith Kinkaid is going to get a tough game at the end of this week anyway.

Lastly: The March Month in Review will be up at some point on April 1.  I will try really hard to get it up by 11 AM. If not, you'll see it in the evening.

Your Take: The Devils will get a shot at ending Columbus' playoff hopes (provided Boston doesn't do it themselves) and their six-game winning streak tonight.  Doing so would end a five-game losing streak of their own.  Maybe it'll happen.  Maybe not.  What do you think of this match-up heading into tonight's game? Can the Devils handle a now-deep set of Columbus forwards?  Will they get more shots through to Bobrovsky (and past him) than they did against Anaheim? Who would you like to see in the lineup for New Jersey? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.