Four times out of five, the eighth placed Columbus Blue Jackets beat the New Jersey Devils. In Newark, the two losses were close ones on the scoreboard. In Columbus, the Blue Jackets put up six goals in each win. The previous two games were in Columbus and they were recent; one at the end of February and the other was last night. I don't know about all of the Devils fans in the world, but I was getting pretty tired of the Blue Jackets beating the Devils. To that extent, I'm quite pleased with the fact that they beat them in their final meeting this season, 2-1. To ruin a cliche, the third time after the second time was the charm.
This isn't to say the performance was all that great. Sure, it was way better than Saturday's 3-6 loss and way, way, way better than that 1-6 loss they endured in February. I think the Devils mostly played a better game than Columbus. It was a fairly sloppy game all the way around. Particularly in the first period, both the Devils and the Blue Jackets lost plenty of pucks from bad passes, poor handling, and/or as a result of a bad decision (e.g. passing to a covered player). Turnovers were aplenty and it wasn't uncommon for one turnover by one team to lead to another one by the other. It meant there was a lot of energy exerted but not always leading to anything meaningful like a shooting attempt or a shot on goal. I suppose that should be no surprise from two teams well outside of the playoffs. Still, with the exception of the second period, the Devils put up enough to get past the Blue Jackets.
Credit to that has to go with the improved play of several parts of the team. First and foremost, congratulations to Scott Wedgewood. He found out he would be called up last night, he came to New Jersey and found out he would start this one, and he earned his first NHL win. Wedgewood was calm in the net. He made a few bold plays, most notably when he denied Dalton Prout on a shorthanded breakaway in the second period. He didn't make too many errors or take himself out of position as far as I could tell. The one goal that beat him was a long shot by Dalton Prout that a screening Jared Boll got a piece of to get past him. No goalie can really be faulted for that one. The larger point is that the Devils got a better performance in net than they did in the last few games. That's all the more impressive given that tonight was Wedgewood's NHL debut.
Second, the bottom six skaters put in a much better effort tonight. Bobby Farnham and Stephen Gionta not only returned to skating hard and fast for pucks to drive a little extra offense. Each nearly scored tonight on open shots at the net. I know Gionta missed the net on a sort-of one-on-one with Joonas Korpisalo and Farnham had a point-blank one-timer in the slot stopped in the third. That's usually more than what that line gets in a game. I was pleased with the fourths. I was similarly pleased with Sergey Kalinin. Tripping penalty aside, Kalinin played a far more up tempo and aggressive game than I've seen from recently. He was taking pucks in deep, warding off players, and throwing some hits. It didn't lead to much on the scoreboard, but it helped keep Columbus honest when he was out there. Joseph Blandisi looked OK but really shined when he moved up to the Adam Henrique line as Tyler Kennedy left the game with an apparent injury. While his backchecking remains somewhere between clueless and lazy, he was skating real hard going forward and looked to create opportunities for others. He nearly jammed in one in the first period (strangely wasn't a SOG) all on his own - and Kalinin didn't know he just had to poke it forward for a goal - and fed Henrique and Devante Smith-Pelly for good shots. That's not the entire bottom six, but it's more of a contribution than what was displayed last night.
Third, the penalty kill was on point and perfect. While the PK was far from the source of the Devils' issues against Columbus, they didn't help the cause either. Tonight, the Devils not only kept the Blue Jackets to only four power play shots over three opportunities, but they also created some shorthanded opportunities as well. Brandon Dubinsky had to bravely dive back to deny a lead pass from Travis Zajac to Adam Henrique for a shorthanded breakaway. While that didn't happen, the Devils were looking to counter when they could and it added further pressure on the Columbus power play. Wedgewood didn't have to stop anything crazy and so all three calls were killed.
Fourth, the top six provided the goals needed to win the game. Granted, they provided the goals to make Saturday's game a game at all. But with Wedgewood providing good goaltending, Columbus playing sloppy hockey, and other Devils skaters putting in improved performances, they only needed a few. They got one early when Kyle Palmieri gained the zone and was able to get the puck out behind his defenders. Reid Boucher was able to get it and rip one past Korpisalo into the game. In the third period, Adam Larsson found Devante Smith-Pelly down low by the left post. Smith-Pelly turned for a low shot. Save. He went for a rebound. The puck slid through and touched off the post. Smith-Pelly battled the defense crashing on him and either he or a Blue Jacket poked it in to the net. That was enough to win it. Yet, that and a shot count of only 22 belies the fact that the Devils did create odd man rushes and even one-on-one situations with Korpisalo. Aside from the shot count and a less than impressive power play performance, the offense wasn't so bad. Combined with the other improvements and aspects of the game, it was enough to win.
I know that Team Tank isn't pleased by the Devils splitting the games. Team Miracle Playoff Run needs to realize this. isn't. happening. Team Competitive Hockey, Please got what they wanted. I know I got what I wanted. After last night, my expectation was simply for the Devils to give up fewer than six goals. They ended up doing that and winning over a team that's been giving them issues all season long. I'll take it.
The Game Summary: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Summary | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Advanced Stats | The HockeyStats.ca Advanced Stats
The Opposition Opinion: Over at The Cannon, Eric Seeds has this highlight-based recap of the game.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, here are tonight's highlights:
The Main Negatives I Saw: While this game had improvements, there were two main deficiencies that I saw that could have cost the Devils tonight. Or at least prevented them from having a better game altogether.
First and foremost, the power play didn't threaten much. Normally, that's not exactly a surprise. The Devils tend to rotate between feasting on oppositions or going without much of an attack on their man advantages. However, they had a 5-on-3 situation lasting a minute long. They got a few shots on net. But not only did they not convert, they were very methodical in doing so. I was pleased we didn't see the 'M' formation where two Devils forwards would hang out on the goal line to minimize the actual advantage of a 5-on-3. The wingers were in the circles. Yet, despite some good puck movement, every Devil just delayed just enough before making a decision. This allowed Korpisalo to get into position, a penalty killer to go down for a block, and often forced a Devil to re-think what they wanted to do. No, David Warsofsky isn't as good of an option to lead it from the back but the whole unit just needed more urgency. A faster pass or even just a quick one-timer could have caught them. Instead, they get nothing and nearly got caught when a Blue Jacket clearance at the very end gave Prout a chance at glory. One that Wedgewood denied. The Devils did have one other minor power play but it yielded only one shot.
Second, the performance of the Travis Zajac line outside of scoring wasn't so hot - and the same goes for the Devils' top defensive pairing. All five got hammered in possession. The Zajac line drew Cam Atkinson, Brandon Saad, and Boone Jenner. Columbus won that match up to say the least. It was hard to watch 21-19-64-5-6 be under siege multiple times and just struggle to get away. Sure, Blandisi needs a lot of work on defense and Palmieri is still improving, but Zajac, Greene, and Larsson getting pinned back repeatedly is never a good thing. In Greene's and Larsson's case, they often had other lines in front of them and they got stuck back as well for most of their 27+ minutes. Yes, 27+ minutes. John Hynes wanted to limit the use of his replacements on a weakened blueline and he did so. Understandable? Yes. Effective? Not really.
Third, and most importantly, the effort in the second period. Not so much the offensive, but the defensive. The Devils conceded an equalizer after two really bad shifts in their own end. Shifts where it looked like Columbus were men playing against boys. After that goal, they kept coming at the Devils in the hopes of catching them short on defense or unaware in their own end. New Jersey's turnovers, either caused by a bad read, a bad decision, or a lack of communication, kept giving them chances to go forward - and they did. Their own issues with puck control prevented them from some really dangerous chances. They still put up fourteen shots and dictated much of the play. Given recent games against Columbus, I suppose it's preferable they won only one period as opposed to dominating two or most of all three. Given it was a 1-1 game, it could have yielded a fifth 'L' if the Blue Jackets played sharper or if Wedgewood wasn't on form in net.
Invisible Jackets: The fourth line that steamrolled New Jersey's fourths for a backbreaking goal last night? They did next to nothing beyond Boll tipping a puck past Wedgewood. Nick Foligno apparently skated on a line with Scott Hartnell and William Karlsson. While the unit generated some shots, I don't recall if they made a serious impact on this game. David Savard played a lot, but I wasn't sure he was really involved until he took that slashing penalty in the second period to give New Jersey a 5-on-3 situation. My point is that where plenty of Blue Jackets were impressive last night, they all weren't so impressive tonight. Some did quite well. Jenner, Saad, and Atkinson had good games. Matt Calvert had a good game as did Dubinsky. Prout only took one penalty and created a goal. Korpisalo was pretty good in net for what he faced. But it wasn't enough and the general performance was just as poor at times with the Devils at keeping the puck on their sticks. Of course, it's never all that good that the team up 2-1 catches up in shooting attempts until the goalie's pulled.
I'm Glad You're Glad for Wedgewood, But Let Me Stop You Before You Get Foolish...: Since this is the Internet and fans are what they are, I can already foresee the articles asking whether Wedgewood will force a goalie battle with Keith Kinkaid either now or next season. I can foresee fans wondering - and I heard this in passing leaving the arena - whether Wedgewood is really the goalie of the future. I can foresee some real foolishness on whether the Devils should move Cory Schneider and roll with Kinkaid-Wedgewood as a young, cheap goaltender pairing. Rather than jump in the Chere-esque clickbait pool with a post of my own, let me leave it in this recap.
Yes, Wedgewood played a good game and deserves plenty of credit for this win. No, he hasn't done anything to change his current role in the organization. Wedgewood played one (1) game in the NHL. In the ninety-three AHL games he's appeared in, this season is the first one where he's above 90.5% as an overall save percentage. And this would be the same season where's been beset by injuries so he's only played sixteen games. Wedgewood hasn't been much of a wall in Albany since his first full season with the team in 2013-14. Even if he did establish the #1 there, Kinkaid and Schneider have firmly planted themselves as the #2 and #1 goalies in New Jersey anyway. Kinkaid hasn't been so hot, but before that Anaheim game, he deserved plenty of praise for how he was performing in net in those wins. For all intents and purposes, Wedgewood was and still is the #3 guy in New Jersey at best.
For him to create a controversy or a competition for a role in New Jersey, he's going to have to do plenty more than have one good game and Kinkaid will have to do plenty worse than a couple of bad ones. And anyone suggesting Schneider should be moved is just asking for this team to be absolutely terrible and kneecap whatever Ray Shero has done and what he plans to do next. Let's keep it real: Wedgewood had a good game in his NHL debut. In the 73rd game of a lost season for New Jersey, where he's playing because A) the Devils played last night, B) Schneider is hurt, and C) Danis played his way out. Wedgewood got an opportunity and performed admirably That's all that this game is, let's not use this one solitary game to establish or question whether the goaltending set-up in New Jersey is about to change or even should change.
The Other Debut: Vojtech Mozik played in his first NHL game tonight. He was paired with David Warsofsky and he was limited to only 10:26 tonight. I think his first game was typical for many who step into the NHL for the first time. I don't know how fast Mozik is, but he nearly got burned by Calvert early in the game in a race to a puck. Calvert's pretty quick so I don't think it's a fault but it caught my eye. In general, he didn't move very quickly - even Seth Helgeson moved with more urgency tonight - and I wonder how much of that is just adjusting to a NHL pace. Mozik did get a shot on net and an attempt that went way high. It's not a bad shot, but he knows he needs to keep it low. With Warsofsky next to him, it was a given he'd do more of the attacking anyway. He had a non-descript night. That's not a bad thing at all for a defenseman, but it makes me think he's not quite ready yet for NHL duty. Depending on the healthy of the others on defense, he may have to go again later this week. We'll see.
The DSP-ing Continues: Smith-Pelly put home his seventh with the Devils and his thirteenth of the season. He did it, where else, above the crease on a multiple-rebound attempt on his own shot. Somehow, the official scorer called his goal a tip-in (!?) and only credited one rebound. Oh, well. He led the Devils with four shots on net and I really liked how he handled his breakaway when Blandisi sprung him in the third period. He didn't score, but he didn't botch the play or try to do something that wouldn't work on a NHL goalie. Smith-Pelly remains hot, let's see how long it lasts.
One Final Thought: The Devils are finally, finally, finally done with Columbus. Their next three games are within the Metropolitan Division and then they are done with inter-divisional games. Their last six are all against the Atlantic Division. The end of the season is truly nigh.
Your Take: The Devils won 2-1 to beat Columbus and avoid the season series sweep. What's your take on the game? Who do you think had the best game among the Devils? What would they need to improve upon before their next game on Thursday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.
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