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Game Preview: The New Jersey Devils vs the Columbus Blue Jackets

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The New Jersey Devils are about to take on the Columbus Blue Jackets with a roster consisting of AHL players in the NHL and defensemen playing as forwards. Here’s a look at this match-up.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Columbus Blue Jackets Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (25-33-8) vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets (36-26-3)

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MS+2

If there’s a record for most ridiculously-injury-plagued season in professional sports, I’m willing to bet this season’s Devils will blow it out of the water by April if they haven’t already. Based on the lines run at Monday morning’s practice, the Devils will host Columbus with 6 forwards, 1 or 2 defenseman, and both goalies all having played in the AHL this season (if you count Cory Schneider’s conditioning stint). Egor Yakovlev is expected to start his third game as a forward after the Devils added yet another name to the injury list: Nico Hischier. Hischier left the game against Boston on Saturday with some form of upper body injury and is listed as day to day by the Devils. He is considered a possibility to play against Columbus but did not practice on Monday. Instead, Travis Zajac will likely center the top line between Jesper Bratt and Drew Stafford. Kurtis Gabriel will return to the lineup after missing Saturday’s game due to a suspension for his boarding call on Nolan Patrick Friday night against the Flyers. Here’s how the rest of the lineup might look if they play as they did in line rushes on Monday:

Bratt—Zajac—Stafford

Agostino—Coleman—Lappin

Pietila—McLeod—Anderson

Yakovlev—Rooney—Gabriel

The Devils defense did not practice in any sort of defensive lines due to the absence of Sami Vatanen from practice. Vatanen, who appeared to take a hit from behind from Brad Marchand in Saturday’s game, was officially missing from practice for a ‘maintenence day’ but is only considered a ‘possibility’ to play tonight. Hischier is also considered a possibility, as is Stefan Noesen. Noesen participated in his first full practice with the team yesterday since January 8th. Yakovlev would return to defense if either Hischier or Noesen is able to play.

Nathan Bastian, who has been considered day to day since a collision with Nick Lappin during the game against the Flyers on Friday, has been ruled out against the Blue Jackets, so the star-crossed dynamic duo of Bastian & McLeod will be apart a second game. McLeod hasn’t registered an NHL shot without Bastian in the lineup.

The rest of the Devils roster as you may remember it from the beginning of the season currently sits on the injured list:

Taylor Hall: left knee surgery, consider out indefinitely

Miles Wood: right ankle fracture, out a minimum of 4 weeks

Kyle Palmieri: lower body injury, week to week

Mirco Mueller: left shoulder injury, timeline unknown

John Quenneville: upper body (believed to be wrist/hand), day to day

Nathan Bastian: upper body, day to day

Pavel Zacha: upper body, has returned to skating but not yet practicing with the team

Cory Schneider will get the start in goal. Schneider has not played against Columbus this season.

Columbus on the other hand... is looking much healthier than Jersey, with a list of healthy scratches longer than the Devil’s list of experienced NHL players. The Blue Jackets are 2 points out of the second Wild Card spot at the start of play tonight. Having lost both games of a back to back homestand this weekend against Edmonton and Winnipeg, they’ll be hungry for a win tonight to get those much needed playoff push points. Against Winnipeg, the Blue Jackets put up 42 shots on net, out-pacing the Jets in shots every single period including 16 shots in the 3rd to Winnipeg’s 8. Despite the shot disparity, Winnipeg somehow managed to control most of the game and scored three times in the third period, including an empty-netter. Blake Wheeler’s four goal night provided most of the nails in Columbus’ coffin, along with Hellebuyck’s 40 save performance. The night before, the Blue Jackets again dominated the shot percentages, once again peaking in the third period, but even with 30 shots they couldn’t get a single goal past Edmonton’s Koskinen.

Unfamiliar Faces (and one we know): Columbus was the most active team in the league at the trade deadline, adding four new players including two former Ottawa Senators, a former Rangers defenseman, and the Devils own Keith Kinkaid. Senators Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel have already successfully worked into the offensive lineup for Columbus, while Kinkaid and defenseman Adam McQuaid are expected to continue working on their play before being added to the lineup. Columbus’ neighborhood of powerhouse players starts with Artemi Panarin, the biggest trade that never happened this season. Panarin leads the team in points with 49 so far this season on 16 goals and 33 assists. In 5x5 play he also leads the team in high danger goals, is 2nd in scoring chances and 3rd in high danger chances. He’s also 2nd on the team in shooting percentage at 14.55%, a dangerous combination of goal scoring and playmaking potential. Opposite Panarin is the Blue Jackets top scorer Cam Atkinson, who leads the team in goals and shots both 5x5 and on the power play. Pierre-Luc Dubois will center the top wingers, rounding out the first line with a player who’s just behind Atkinson in shots and total points and also leads the team in hits. At the blue line is one of the league’s foremost offensive defensive lines in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. In 5x5 play, Jones leads the team in all on-ice shots-for metrics, from Corsi to high danger scoring changes.

Defensively, the Blue Jackets have played a strong game all season but in particular the last five games since adding new faces to their roster. Since February 23rd Columbus is 2nd in scoring chances against with just 19.33 per 60 minutes, and 1st in the league with only 7.13 HDCA/60. Their record hasn’t reflected that performance, however, as they lost 3 of those 5 games, with opponents scoring 3 or more goals in each of the past 4 games.

Goaltending has been the Achilles heel for the Blue Jackets this season, with both goalies running hot and cold at times, and it’s a weakness that’s flared up again lately. Bobrovsky started the season hot and put up a .910 save percentage through the first three months of the season, but dropped to .860 for the month of January. He surged back to a .926 save percentage for most of February but his last five starts he’s dropped back to .845, including just .818 SV% in his last two games. Korpisalo has run the exact opposite, with a sluggish start to the season that appeared to turn around in January where he put up a .943 SV% over 6 games including a HDSV% that was over .9%, but he’s also dropped back to just .846 in the two games he’s played since the start of February.

Season Series Summary: The Devils have lost all three match-ups against Columbus this season, though not for lack of trying. After being utterly dominated in the play by Columbus on December 20th, the Devils came back home to play them on the 23rd and put on a Corsi clinic. Every single Devils skater put up positive CF% except one—Taylor Hall, who was just under at 48%. The only Devils who didn’t record a shot on net were Kinkaid and Blackwood. The Devils put up 39 shots on Bobrovsky and generated 28 scoring chances, but Bob snuffed out every one of them. On the other end, Kinkaid allowed 3 goals on 11 shots before being pulled. Though an impressive offensive performance by the Devils, their chances were largely affected by the personnel they were coming from: of the 39 shots on net, 20 came from defensemen including 6 from Lovejoy alone. The other 19 shots were distributed from 12 forwards, lead by Hall with 5 shots and Wood with 4. Defense played more offense than the offense did that game, which might explain why they only created five HDCF despite controlling the puck and the impressive 39-20 shot disparity the entire game. Defensemen playing offense and forwards being forced to cover and play defense was a trend in those dark months earlier in the season that the Devils seem to have fortunately outgrown in recent games. When they returned to Columbus on January 15th, the Devils again owned the game flow despite two early goals against Kinkaid but were only able to find the back of the net once against a red-hot Korpisalo. So far this season, Columbus has scored 9 goals against New Jersey, while the Devils have only scored 2 in return.

There’s no ‘key’ to winning this game, but here’s a crowbar the New Binghamton Devils might try to use. In the last five games the Blue Jackets and Devils are 26th and 27th in the league respectively in average goals scored per game. Both teams are among the top five in lowest total and high danger scoring chances allowed. On a team full of AHL players, strong defensive play is a huge positive in a season without much positive to speak of. Where earlier in the season the (actual NHL-rostered) Devils tended to try to do too much with the puck, leading to too many odd-man rushes and bad giveaways, the B team Devils have made a strong case for the importance of playing positionally-sound hockey. In the absence of skill-type forwards like Taylor Hall, Jesper Bratt, and Kyle Palmieri, or more speedy puck-carrying forwards that can forecheck and drive zone entries like we expect from Miles Wood, the Devils have been forced to revert to whiteboard hockey. They’ve had to try to create textbook breakout plays and low to high puck movement in the offensive zone to create one-timers and tip-ins in order to generate offense. This back-to-basics approach is partly responsible for the fourth line’s team-leading stats in the last few games and is a huge part of why the Devils have not been blown out lately despite playing division-leading teams like Calgary (1st in the Pacific) and Boston (2nd to the Lightning in the Metro). The other reason is the Return of the Goalies: Cory Schneider coming back to his Schneider-esque form Devils fans have come to know and love, and Blackwood continuing his impressive rookie season now that he’s back in the NHL.

Your Take: Columbus’s offense hasn’t quite put together the right chemistry after adding some new names, but with names like Duchene, Atkinson, and Panarin on the roster, does ‘smart’ hockey stand a chance? Do you believe it’s been an intentional attempt at back to basics hockey or have the B-Team Devils just gotten lucky? How do you like Yakovlev playing as a forward, and what does his ability to move around in the lineup mean for his career as a Devil? Leave your thoughts and predictions in the comments, and thanks for reading!