The last home-and-home of the season.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+ 2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (34-30-7) at the Columbus Blue Jackets (28-34-8; SBN Blog: The Cannon)
The Last Devils Game: The Devils donned their 1980s/early 1990s uniforms and hosted the Minnesota Wild on St. Patrick's Day. The final score of 7-4 would have fit in that era. The amazing thing? The Devils had the seven. Tyler Kennedy and Devante Smith-Pelly created chaos in front that yielded a quick goal for DSP. Less than a minute later, Mike Sislo stripped a puck, whiffed on a shot, and roofed a second effort while being taken out by a defender to make it 2-0. The goal would be Sislo's first ever NHL goal. The Wild hit back on a power play when a Mikael Granlund one-timer hit off Nino Niederreiter's thigh for a re-direction. But the Devils never stopped the attack, the pace, or the pressure. After a save, Kyle Palmieri threaded a pass behind Devan Dubnyk that Reid Boucher knocked in from the crease to make it 3-1. Dubnyk out, Darcy Kuemper in. The Devils' first shot on Kuemper would come just before the three minute mark of the second period. It was a goal. Kennedy bumped off a defender behind the net to take the puck and he fed Smith-Pelly in front. DSP went around Kuemper and the score ballooned to 4-1. Play continued and the Wild got another power play. Pass, pass, pass, and then a pass across to a wide open Jared Spurgeon to beat Keith Kinkaid on his flank to make it 4-2. Were the Devils in trouble? If they were, it faded when Joseph Blandisi found Adam Henrique alone and open on Kuemper's right flank. Henrique put the puck home to make it 5-2. A little later, Sislo was one-on-one with Ryan Suter. He fired a wrister through his legs, beat Kuemper, and went bar-down into the net. Sislo scored his second ever NHL goal, a true beauty, and the score swelled to 6-2. The Wild showed up to play in the third period as the Devils cruised. Faint hopes of a comeback came when a Jon Merrill turnover yielded a play where Justin Fontaine easily put home a puck from the top of the crease to make it 6-3. Insurance came when DSP passed the puck towards the middle and Henrique one-touched it in while crashing the net. That extra point was good. The Wild got within three within the final five minutes when Mikko Koivu jammed in a puck. Kuemper was pulled, the play in the 6-on-5 situation was in Minnesota's favor, but the pressure was just that - pressure. No more goals. The Devils won, Colorado was pleased, and the Wild's playoff hopes took a hit. My recap of the goal-splosion is here.
The Last Blue Jackets Game: On the same night as the Devils smashed Parise's team with lamplighters, the Blue Jackets hosted Detroit. Detroit needed the points for their own playoff race - and they would get them. Luke Glendening got the game going with a first period goal. In the third period, Henrik Zetterberg put home a loose puck to make it 0-2 and Darren Helm got the fortunate bounce off a defender's stick to beat Sergey Bobrovsky. Helm's goal was the Red Wings' third shot in the period. Definitely not a strong effort on both ends. Alexander Wennberg denied Jimmy Howard a shutout with a PPG. But it was a consolation goal as the Blue Jackets lost 1-3. For a more detailed account of how the game went and why it was a frustrating one, check out Jeff Little's recap at The Cannon.
The Last Devils-Blue Jackets Game: On February 25, the Devils went into Columbus to a play a game. They were there in name only as the Blue Jackets steamrolled them. This was another "F minus" game. Cory Schneider started the game and was pulled after the first period. The defense got collectively housed as Nick Foligno, Matt Calvert, and William Karlsson. Foligno got the game's first two goals and Brandon Saad tacked on a late one to make it 0-3 going into the second. Reid Boucher got an early goal off a sweet pass by Travis Zajac to make it 1-3. The Devils started playing better and Joseph Blandisi had a goal disallowed due to the dreaded "intent to blow" rule. Shortly thereafter, Foligno got a favorable bounce off David Schlemko's skate to resume the blowout at 1-4. Late in the second, Brandon Dubinsky fired in a power play goal to make it 1-5. While the Blue Jackets seemingly called off the proverbial dogs in the third, the Devils responded with not much of anything. Near the end, Jon Merrill coughed up a puck to Rene Bourque, who made Keith Kinkaid look bad on the breakaway to cap the game at 1-6. Again, this was terrible by New Jersey, second period surge notwithstanding. My recap of the big loss is here. Over at The Cannon, Eric Seeds was much more pleased in this highlights-based recap.
The Goal: Defend! Especially around the net and the slot! Here's a quote from John Hynes from Friday's practice; originally reported by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice:
"They've beat us at the net front," Hynes said. "We've given up 11 goals. Eight of them have been within two feet (of) or in the blue paint. We've scored three goals and none of them have been around the blue paint."
Is that true? After quickly checking the shot location charts at HockeyStats.ca, five of the six goals Columbus dropped on them on February 25 were around the net; the two scored by Columbus on November 25 were in that area; and two of the three scored on October 27 were like that. That makes nine. Maybe one was a deflection (Foligno's hat trick goal was off a Devils' skate). A more accurate analysis can be done by watching the tape. I think Hynes would be more accurate if he said within five feet of the crease, but his point remains true. The Devils have been beaten in close by Columbus in three games so far. They need to do a better job of that tonight.
Does The Opponent Need This Game?: No. If anything, Columbus may prefer two losses in this home-and-home to get back down further in the standings. Then again, Columbus has beaten the Devils in three out of three games so far this season.
Since February 25: As it wasn't that long ago since these two teams played, let's focus on what's happened since these teams last played each other. Per NHL.com, the Devils have earned only eight points with a record of 4-5-0. Only five teams have earned fewer points - and in dead last, it's Columbus. They've went 3-6-0 for only six earned point. More concerning are the other stats. The Blue Jackets have a better goal differential than New Jersey since then, but they've scored a mere eighteen goals in eight games. Granted, New Jersey bested them by scoring seven in their last game. But eighteen for with twenty seven allowed makes for plenty of decisive losses. Further, the Blue Jackets have been a +1 on special team goal differential (5 PPG, 4 PPGA), so they're getting hurt at even strength.
That's mainly because the Blue Jackets have been hurt and are looking at more youngsters. The absences have mainly been on defense with Fedor Tyutin being ill, Jack Johnson out for the season, and Dalton Prout serving a suspension. This meant Justin Falk and John Ramage came up to play on defense. Prout should be back tonight, though his mention in Little's recap of Columbus' 1-3 loss to Detroit suggests that's not necessarily a net positive for the Blue Jackets. According to these two Tweets by Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch, Falk was sent down and is back on an emergency recall and Ramage could be called up for this one if Tyutin is still sick. These issues on defense must have played some role in conceding an average of over thirty one shots per game in their last eight games.
The production has been driven by a few players. Only four Columbus skaters have scored two or more goals in the last eight games according to NHL.com: Cam Atkinson (5 G, 2 A, 33 SOG), David Savard (3 G, 18 SOG), Boone Jenner (2 G, 3 A, 23 SOG), and Scott Hartnell (2 G, 2 A, 15 SOG). Wennberg has been particularly productive with a goal and five assists and Brandon Dubinsky has four assists. But that's pretty much it in terms of notable producers. Three forwards, one defenseman (Savard), and feeds from Wenneberg and Dubinsky. Notice that Brandon Saad, Nick Foligno, and Matt Calvert, have not contributed nearly enough to be notable since Columbus pounded New Jersey. With few goals scored as a team, the points are hard to come by.
From All of That...: John Tortorella, who will be the first American to coach 1,000 NHL games tonight, definitely shifted his lines around in their last game. With Dubinsky listed in the top three most commonly used lines at Left Wing Lock's information from the Detroit game, it's hard to identify what the dangerous unit may be. Portzline did not Tweet out any lineup, but he did note that they will try to have Dubinsky and Jenner play at center. That should mean they're on separate lines. As Atkinson has the hot hand, whoever he is with may be worth giving the most attention. Not that the other players are scrubs. Again, Calvert-Karlsson-Foligno wrecked New Jersey a few weeks ago. They are using some younger forwards too like Oliver Bjorkstrand and Michael Chaput. Call them X-factors, but I don't know how much of an impact they'll have tonight.
Your New Jersey Injury Update: The theme from Friday's practice are injuries. Brian O'Neill was called up on an emergency basis and practiced in place of Kyle Palmieri, as reported here by Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Yes, one of the two remaining scorers on the team could be out. The good news is that Hynes thinks there's a good chance Palmieri will play tomorrow. That previous link and this one by Gulitti contains many injury updates on Devils players, so let's summarize it:
1. Cory Schneider will be evaluated on Sunday and then they'll see where he's at. But the good news is that there's been no issues with his recovery. It sounds like #35 won't be shut down, but we'll see what the word is on Sunday or Monday. Kinkaid will start tonight and we may get a rare start by Yann Danis on Sunday.
2. Jordin Tootoo is out this weekend.
3. Jacob Josefson was to be evaluated on Friday for a hand injury, but the results may not be known until later today.
4. Don't hold your breath about Mike Cammalleri and/or Patrik Elias returning.
Overall, it's not bad news as the team is seemingly on the road to getting healthier. There will be more news throughout the weekend. For the immediate situation of tonight's game, I'm still crossing my fingers Palmieri is OK. With all due respect to O'Neill, and he's been rather good in the AHL, I don't think he will help much in the cause of trying to win this game. He hasn't in a more limited role where he was at the beginning of the season. I don't see how he will if he's up with Boucher and Travis Zajac. As always, I stand to be proven wrong.
One Last Thought: If you're on Team Let's Lose for a Better Pick, then you want the Devils to drop both of these games. If you're on Team Let's Go For It At All Costs, then you want four points in these two games. Yes, four. As Gulitti Tweeted on Friday, the Devils have eleven games left and they'll need nine wins to get to 93 points where they may have a shot points-wise. But they'll still need lots of help to get up to a wild card spot. (And that Pittsburgh game next week is a must-win.) If you're on Team Just Be Competitive And Not Get Owned by Columbus Again, well, just hope for the best and not worry about the result.
Your Take: The Devils will take on one of their "bogey" teams tonight in Columbus and again in New Jersey on Sunday. Thanks in advance to Brian for previewing that one. What do you think will happen in this first game? Will the Devils be able to take advantage of a weaker Columbus defense? Can they be better around their net to give Kinkaid some help? Or do you think Columbus will just get up for this one and hand the Devils a fourth 'L' to them this season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.