Last Saturday's opponents...and possibly worse since then.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (27-27-10) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (26-33-4; SBN Blog: The Cannon)
The Last Devils Game: On a winter-stormy Tuesday night, the Devils hosted Nashville. The Predators have been struggling as of late and that was on display through the first period. The Devils struck early with two quick goals: Adam Larsson with a riser off a Patrik Elias feed and Eric Gelinas unleashing The Truth to convert a power play. The Devils controlled the first period and came real close to making it 3-0. Alas, an intermission later and the Predators came to play. They dominated New Jersey as they out-shot them 21-6. Mike Fisher put in a loose puck to make it 2-1, which furthered the drive for Nashville to find an equalizer past Cory Schneider. Thankfully, that did not happen in the second or in a more even (or less dominant) third period. Mike Cammalleri got fouled while trying to put a puck into the empty net, he got awarded the ENG for it, and that sealed the deal for a 3-1 win. My recap of the win is here.
The Last Blue Jackets Game: While the Devils weathered a storm from Nashville, Columbus hosted Washington. These two teams just hated each other all night long. There were more than eighty minutes of penalties between both teams. So much beef was on display. As far as the game itself, the Capitals scored first and never really looked back. Alex Ovechkin got an early goal with a re-direction of a Brooks Oripk shot, and Eric Fehr doubled the lead in the first period. Columbus got the scoreboard early in the second period when Denis Savard hammered a shot past Braden Holtby. About a minute later, Tom Wilson restored the two-goal lead when he jammed in a rebound past Sergei Bobrovsky. After a whole lot of "why I outtas," Columbus cut the lead back to one when Scott Hartnell scored without five minutes left in the period. But Washington regained the two-goal lead when Ovechkin converted a power play to make the Blue Jackets suffer for at least one of their fouls in the game. Hartnell responded with a PPG of his own around the halfway mark to make it interesting. But the Blue Jackets couldn't find an equalizer, Marcus Johansson iced the game with an ENG, and the Blue Jackets lost 3-5. Here's Mike MacLean's recap at The Cannon.
The Last Devils-Blue Jackets Game: Last Saturday, the Devils went into Ohio to play the Blue Jackets. Here's the short version of this game: Columbus makes Devils look like pylons. Cory Schneider makes a lot of stops. Then Andy Greene gets a perfect pass from Patrik Elias and fires a perfect shot over Curtis McElhinney's shoulder to make it 1-0. The second period was somewhat even, though Columbus had the better of chances - only to be thwarted by Schneider. The third period was all about survival as #35 kept making every stop. Three passes were finally made in a row and so Mike Cammalleri iced the game with an empty netter. Schneider was supreme in a 2-0 victory. Here's my recap stating as such. The opposition's opinion, in the form of this recap by Jeff Little at the Cannon, concurred.
The Goal: For the love of everything good and beautiful in the universe, help Schneider and stop conceding so much possession. The Devils skaters got rolled by the Blue Jackets for about forty out of sixty minutes on Saturday. Nearly everything was contingent on Schneider making a stop. Schneider is a wonderful goalie, but any game plan that requires perfection from the goaltender is doomed to fail. The Devils need to be more proactive on defense, they need to have some kind of presence in the neutral zone, and they need to connect on their passes in all three zones. Improvement in any of that should lead to a repeat of last Saturday's performance, which was only victorious because Schneider was amazing and Greene perfectly finished a perfect play.
Post-Dump Jackets: Columbus were selling on March 2, as they sent James Wisniewski and Jordan Leopold elsewhere. Leopold was on the back end of the blueline. As viral as his daughter's letter requesting a trade went, Columbus shouldn't be too hampered without him. Wisniewski, on the other hand, was a big deal on Columbus' blueline. He was tied for Jack Johnson for points (29), he lead Columbus defensemen in shots (127), he had a great shot and could run a power play, and he was one of the few Columbus regulars on defense that had a positive relative Corsi For percentage per War on Ice. Wisniewski wasn't playing the toughs like Johnson and David Savard (the current top pairing) as well as Fedor Tyutin. Yet, he was doing better in those matchups than the other three. Columbus' defense is weaker without Wisniewski. The Devils offense should have seek to pressure Savard, Johnson, Tyutin, and big man Justin Falk, who's all about being big and not at all about moving the play forward. Pinning them back is something they've done a lot of and forcing them to be in a bad positions, opening up opportunities to attack.
Of course, Columbus' other big move around the Trade Deadline was acquiring David Clarkson for Nathan Horton. While Clarkson may not be able to live up to his contract, the idea is that Columbus can pay someone that much money for someone who can play. Except he can't now. Aaron Portzline reported at the Columbus Dispatch Blue Jackets Xtra site on Wednesday that Clarkson tore an oblique muscle (during the Devils game, incidentally) and will be out for the rest of the season. Anyone who wanted to see Clarkson tonight, well, too bad. Another injury to the long list for the Blue Jackets' season.
Some Newer Faces: It hasn't been all bad news for Columbus in terms of injuries. Brandon Dubinsky finally returned to practice on Thursday and Portzline reported that he will play tonight. From the lines in practice, Dubisnky was skating with Artem Anisimov and Brian Gibbons. Dubinsky is a good player in both ends of the rink. While he shouldn't be expected to be 100% in form for tonight, he does bolster Columbus' group of forwards. Also, Sergei Bobrovsky returned to action after a month-long groin injury on Wednesday against the Caps. Portzline also reported that he will start tonight for Columbus. Interestingly, based on the save percentage splits, Curtis McElhinny's numbers are similar to Bobrovsky's this season. However, Bobrovsky's previous seasons point to him being the better netminder. Hopefully, that does not take form tonight. Either way, it's two players the Devils aren't unfamiliar with, but they haven't seen in Saturday's game so they could provide a different look tonight.
The Danger Line: Columbus' top line will be the one to watch out for tonight. Adam Larsson and Andy Greene should be prepared to see a lot of Nick Foligno, Ryan Johansen, and Cam Atkinson. Atkinson, who recently signed a contract extension, has not been scoring as much as he did last season but he's the team leader in shots with 164. He will get his shots and, in time, his goals. Foligno is actually the team's leading scorer with 24 goals and 33 assists; he meshes so well with his center to be a real threat on the left side. Johansen is arguably the most talented player on the Blue Jackets, he's right behind Foligno in goals (he has 22) and points (he has 56), he's right behind Atkinson in shots (he has 163), and he makes a lot of things happen. While his CF% isn't so good looking this season, his positive relative Corsi For% in light of facing tough competition night-in, night-out means it's not so bad. While Hartnell, Anisimov, and a returning Dubinsky are all offensive threats, these three should be expected to be the standouts tonight.
Status Quo: Annoyingly, Tom Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice on lines and pairings from Thursday's practice show no real changes from Tuesday. As it is, we may have to see Mark Fraser and Eric Gelinas again. I get that Peter Harrold had a good game as a fourth line right winger. But I don't get why he can't be moved back to defense and have an actual forward play those nine-ten minutes of action, like Michael Ryder who rotated with Harrold in practice. As contentious as Harrold can be with the puck on defense, it's a better fit alongside the equally contentious Gelinas than Fraser, who just struggles night-in, night-out with it. Hopefully, the co-coaches try to keep that pairing away from speedy third line like the projected Anisimov line could be to minimize potential damage.
Curiously, practice also showed Martin Havlat rotating with Stephen Gionta on Patrik Elias' line. If Havlat or Gionta can handle left wing for a night, then why not give Dainius Zubrus a night off? Zubrus has been playing like a shell of his former self this season and Tuesday was no different. Since the team is still in the mode of "whatever, this season is lost, let's put Jordin Tootoo on a scoring line," I'd think that's something they could consider. They should also consider doing something to spark Adam Henrique, Scott Gomez, and/or Steve Bernier as that line hasn't done much together and did very little offensively on Tuesday. Mike Cammalleri can't carry the offense on his own; I hope he can get some more support from his other lines. Even if one of the lines will truly be Zubrus-Elias-Gionta.
By the way, the one aspect of status quo that is never bad is that Schneider will start this game. Gulitti confirmed this news on Twitter, but he's 100% right that you can pretty much guess it at this point.
What I'd Like To See: In addition to everything else I or other writers have lamented (e.g. too many dump-ins, bad passing, etc.), I want to see a stronger effort beyond the first period. In the Devils' recent winning efforts, they were able to get a lead or the game's first goal. But then they would often get overrun beyond score effects due to how they perform. I'd like to see a strong first followed by a strong second for a change compared to, say, Tuesday's win over Nashville.
I'd also suggest keeping a good eye on Damon Severson out there. The hope should be that he gets some of the rust off and keeps up with the pace of the game. I liked the few shots he had on Tuesday, but he needs some time to get back into the groove. If he can play well - and particularly with Jon Merrill - then the Devils' defense can become a bit more formidable than it has been.
Your Take: The Devils will look to make it three in a row against a recent-played opponent tonight. I really hope Schneider gets more help than he did last Saturday. I'll try to get to the Rock. Will you? What do you expect to see tonight? Will Bobrovsky and Dubinsky make Columbus more difficult to play against in light of the defense missing two defenders, especially Wisniewski? Can the Devils keep the Johansen line at bay? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.