Tonight, the New Jersey Devils took on the Columbus Blue Jackets. Not only was Columbus first in the Metropolitan Division, they were the stingiest team in the Eastern Conference. They allowed only 66 goals, the lowest in the East. They featured arguably the best goaltender in the league right now in Sergei Bobrovsky, who had an even strength save percentage just under 94% before tonight - the highest among starting goaltenders. I expected a tightly checked game. I expected the goaltenders to stop plenty of whatever did get through. I worried whether the Blue Jackets’ blend of physical play and smooth skill would give the Devils issues. I didn’t expect a 97-shot game where the Devils put the Blue Jackets away 4-1.
It was a wide-open affair in that both teams were just able to fire away. Give a lot of credit to Bobrovsky and Cory Schneider in this game. They had a lot to deal with and a lot of these shots were not long, easily-seen shots. Both teams worked to get to the middle, get to the crease, and keep the other team’s defenders just a step behind in the play. They made a lot of tough first-stops and denied quite a few second-chances. Ultimately, the difference was in the bounces of the rebounds. The Devils cashed in. The Blue Jackets did not.
Consider the first goal for New Jersey. Stefan Noesen, who was moved up to play with Travis Zajac and Marcus Johansson, gets played into the zone. As he was bodied up, he managed to get a stick on the puck. It ricocheted off a Jacket and laid right for Travis Zajac to crash the net. Bobrovsky stopped the first shot, Zajac slammed in the second attempt.
Consider the third goal for New Jersey. Near the end of the third period and after a power play ended, Cory Schneider received a dumped-in puck. The Blue Jackets were changing skaters and he had a wide open lane up ice to Nico Hischier. With oodles of space, Hischier made a cross-ice pass to Miles Wood. Wood fires a hard shot off Bobrovsky’s mask. The puck just dropped to Bobrovsky’s right. As the mask came off, Noesen was the first to the puck and slid it in. Bobrovsky and his teammates looked confused; he made it 3-1 just before the second intermission.
Consider the fourth and final goal for New Jersey. Jesper Bratt played in Taylor Hall from the neutral zone. Hall darted in on Bobrovsky and took a shot. The goalie stopped it. Bratt followed up and beat his man to the loose puck. Bratt made it 4-1, which gave the Devils further breathing room in the third period.
Mind you, these are from the plays the Devils scored on. There were plenty of others. Noesen unfortunately got the heel of his stick on one and missed out on a second goal tonight. In the second period, Damon Severson jumped up and somehow did not find the top corner on a wide open loose puck. Throughout the game, there were men in white jerseys just around Bobrovsky because those second chances were there. The Devils took 36 shots tonight and they made Columbus work. They were rewarded with good fortune for three of their four goals.
As for Columbus, they took 41 shots and ran into a better performance from Schneider. Schneider absolutely robbed a number of Blue Jackets, such as Boone Jenner and Alexander Wennberg at the crease in the first period. Schneider did not leave too many rebounds and what was left, he covered very well. It was important too. When Columbus got going on offense, particularly with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski on the ice, it seemed like the play was in New Jersey’s end of the rink was for a really long time. Often times, it was. In 5-on-5 play alone, the Blue Jackets took at least 21 shots on net and allowed less than nine when those two defenders were on the ice per Natural Stat Trick. Jones was curling around Devils skaters like they were pylons. Werenski was a shot machine with ten shots on net tonight. They held the blueline, they knew when to roam and jump in on offense, and they knew how to break the puck out. They were dominant and made their forwards look even more dangerous. The Blue Jackets were in so much control, it was not uncommon for New Jersey to take an icing just to break up the action. While the Devils did respond well offensively in general, Steve Cangelosi calling Columbus in a surge seemed like an understatement. To that end, Schneider had a fantastic night and was as part of this win as much as the rebounds that provided the goals.
In general, I appreciated how the Devils performed. From a defensive and discipline standpoint, there is a lot for John Hynes and his staff to clean up before the rematch on Friday. There is defintely some room for improvement. However, I really liked how the Devils would respond with good offensive attacks and good offensive movements after Columbus swarmed them. Unlike nights where a leading team just does not generate lot of offense, the Devils kept Columbus more than honest. As a result, they extended their lead and pulled away with a decisive win on the road against a difficult opponent within their division. That’s a fine night and far better from, say, the three performances last week.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at The Cannon, Pale Dragon laments in this recap that the Devils are good now. I’m smiling at that!
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
The Stefan Noesen Experience: Stefan Noesen was surprisingly moved up to play alongside Zajac and Johansson tonight. It actually worked out pretty well. The line nearly matched what their opponents did in 5-on-5 play. They had good zone entries. They had good energy. Noesen was a standout. He played like someone who knew this was an opportunity and wanted to prove the coaches right to give him that chance. Noesen played smart. He was active at trying to shoot the puck with five official shooting attempts (the scorer did not count a narrow miss he had in the second at least). The run of play was positive when he was on the ice. Most of all, Noesen put two points in a game for the first time in his career. He took some punishment in sort-of setting up Zajac’s goal. He went to the net and was rewarded after Wood’s shot for a goal of his own. Again, Noesen was close to scoring a second goal. I’m sure it is a sentence I thought I would not ever write, but I’m writing it. Noesen has earned a spot in the top six for the time being.
He Did Well: You may have wanted Travis Zajac to do something more than just win some faceoffs and soak up minutes. You got it tonight. Zajac scored his first goal of the season with a rebound goal on Bobrovsky in the first period. Zajac led the Devils skaters with five shots on net tonight. The line he centered was not dumping and chasing all that much (then again, it never really did. Not like the Boyle or Coleman lines.) Outside of the unit of Werenski, Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, and Artemi Panarin, Zajac did well in his matchups. OK, the Zajac line was crushed by that unit - but any unit with Werenski-Jones on defense crushed everybody tonight. Zajac played a good game and made a positive impact on the scoreboard.
And Let’s Mention Johansson: He was good too! His secondary assist was his first point since the Ottawa game in October. The first Ottawa game in October.
Too Loose!: The defensive effort left a lot to be desired. This applies to both teams. But this is a Devils site so I will focus on the the team we love. In the first period, John Moore was a mess with turnovers and losing seemingly every puck battle he was in. He got better as time went on and so Damon Severson looked a bit better. Even so, they were doing a lot of scrambling in their own end and that is not good. The top pairing of Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen did a lot of scrambling in their own end. I’m not sure how, but Greene ended up being on the ice for 29 of Columbus’ 60 attempts in 5-on-5 play. Vatanen only had 20. The opposition really picked on #6 tonight. The third pairing of Will Butcher and Steve Santini took some damage too but were largely quiet as their matchups were weaker. I liked how the defense supported the offense, but I would have preferred a more active and positionally sound performance from the defenders.
I also wished I saw a more committed effort from the forwards. Yes, the Devils were able to turn the attack around and hit back over the course of the game. But when Columbus was surging, all five looked like they were killing a penalty even though it was an even strength situation. Yes, Werenski and Jones had monster nights. There were still too many instances where those two would make a move themselves or a pass that just exposed the Devils. It was fortunate that Schneider was astounding and that the puck did not take an odd carom or deflection. Expecting that to happen again and again is only going to lead to sadness.
The Discipline Issue: The Devils were not just too loose in their own end. They were also too loose with the fouls. They took six penalties tonight. Zajac went off for a trip on Panarin at the blueline. Vatanen went off for holding Panarin in the corner. Jimmy Hayes hooked Nick Foligno after he coughed up the puck to him. Werenski was held up by Severson in front of the net (by the way, Werenski was able to get in front of the net). In the final two minutes of the game, Vatanen hooked Seth Jones and, during the kill, Brian Gibbons slashed Oliver Bjorkstand’s stick out of his hands. The last hooking call may be was weak, but Gibbons knew well enough to not be that aggressive on a penalty kill in the final minute of the game. The other penalties were a result of Columbus pressing on offense and succeeding at going forward and staying in New Jersey’s end. They were not really good ones to take.
Contrast this with the other team’s opponents. Even though the Devils got more than their fair share of licks in on Columbus’ loose defense, they were only called once. And that was from Werenski’s stick hitting Wood’s face after a dump-in. They did not hold or hook or slash or trip a Devil. They knew well enough not to do so. This could have been a big problem tonight.
For the most part, it was not. The Devils killed the calls and held Columbus to seven shots on net. However, Columbus’ lone goal of the game came literally right after Zajac’s penalty ended. Bjorkstand took a shot and Foligno tipped it while screening Schneider. That made it 1-1. Columbus’ power play conversion rate has been really low this season. It is less than 10%. Still, it was 9:57 of the game where the Devils had to be on their heels, spend more time in their own zone, and hope Columbus’ solid puck movement did not lead to a killer shot. They did not need to do that; they needed to be better disciplined.
Playing Your Way Out: Noesen took advantage of his opportunity for minutes. Santini did not do anything awful in his 18:10 tonight (5:05 on the PK!). Jimmy Hayes, well, he was pretty bad. Here is what stood out to me from Hayes tonight. His turnover to Foligno followed by a penalty was real bad. His one little shot on net was too little even if the Brian Boyle-centered line was beaten on. Hayes received power play time presumably because the Devils want a big body on it; it did not do much good. The numbers at Natural Stat Trick tell a worse tale. The Devils as a whole were only out-attempted by seven in 5-on-5 play. But Hayes’ Corsi differential was a -11, the worst CF% on the team at 28% tonight. The Devils took the fewest shots on the ice for any player in 5-on-5 when Hayes was out there with just five. Hayes did not contribute much and hurt the cause with a penalty right after a bad giveaway. With all of the discussion about how Pavel Zacha can get into the lineup, I would have to think Hayes left the gate open for a Zacha return with his poor performance tonight.
By the way, the Brian Boyle centered line did not have a good night in general. The Coleman-centered line had some good moments and the other two lines provided goals. This unit? Nope. Wood was able to make his mark by taking a head-shot that led to a score - but that was coming off the bench after a power play. It was not with his usual linemates. Plus, he drew a penalty. I wish he was more active on defense. Still, the Wood-Boyle-Hayes line did not contribute much good. I wonder if they could use a Zacha.
If Glorious was a Hockey Highlight...: Let us turn it around in a positive direction. I highlighted three of the Devils’ four goals. Here’s the other one. From NHL.com:
In a word: GLORIOUS.
Here, Nico Hischier displayed the combination of hands, vision, and movement that helped the Devils decide to draft him first overall. Here, Taylor Hall showed that he can fly into space and finish a play even if there could be some contact involved. Here, the Devils broke the 1-1 deadlock and never looked back. Here, an amazing looking goal was scored. Oh, so glorious.
About that Top Line...: This was a much better effort from Hall, Hischier, and Bratt. Early on in the game, it looked like their role was to be caved in on defense. But they were able to get moving forward more often in the second and third periods. Their zone entries were good. The passes were good. I would have liked some better tracking on defense; but they provided the offense in time to justify their status. Hischier had a two assist night with two very good passes from the right side off a rush; Bratt made his mark by setting up Hall for a shot and following up; and Hall finished one one-timer while creating the rebound for Bratt. Good stuff from all three after an auspicious first period.
One Last Thought: There was much said on the broadcast about how a win would put the Devils in first place. Nice as that is, the real victory was in getting a regulation win over a divisional opponent. If you follow the weekly division snapshot, then you know how tight it is at the top. There will be plenty of lead changes unless someone goes on a winning streak and holds on after. Even if Friday’s and Saturday’s game does not push the Devils to the top, it is more valuable in the larger picture of this season to pick up ROWs over the competitors in the division. This was a good one. Hopefully they can do it again in their upcoming back-to-back set. Ideally with a better defensive performance if only to give Schneider some relief. You can count on Columbus trying to sharpen up on defense; particularly on cleaning up rebounds based on what happened tonight.
Your Take: The Devils won 4-1 over Columbus. They beat a top goalie and a top team with a decisive score. They put home rebounds and Schneider made 41 saves to keep this game from getting out of hand. What did you think of the performance? Who did you like from the Devils tonight? Who did you think had a poor game on the Devils tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter. Thank you for reading.