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Game Preview #48: New Jersey Devils at Columbus Blue Jackets

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Before they have a week off, the New Jersey Devils will end a three-game road trip to a place they have not won at since 2017: Ohio. The Devils will visit the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight. This post previews the game and notes how sort-of good Columbus appears to be.

New Jersey Devils v Columbus Blue Jackets
Bratt! Dubois! Tonight!
Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

After tonight, Our Favorite Team is off for a week. Hopefully they do not get an early start on their break in Ohio this evening.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (17-23-7) at the Columbus Blue Jackets (24-16-8; SBN Blog: The Cannon)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+, FS-O; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils went to Washington D.C. to play the Capitals. This would be the second time within five days that the Devils played in the nation’s capital. This would not be a repeat of what happened on January 11. Washington took the Devils on and pinned them back quite a bit. Throw in some failures in clearances and coverages in their own end, and the Devils would concede quite a bit to the Capitals. An early goal by Carl Hagelin was wiped away due to a successful coaching challenge for offside. But the Caps would get on the board shortly after John Hayden took down a Capital on a forecheck during a penalty kill. The resulting 3-on-5 was short to start and ended quick when Alex Ovechkin scored on a one-timer from the right circle. Within the final minute of the period, Nicklas Backstrom won a defensive zone faceoff, Ovechkin swooped in behind the center, and ripped a shot past Louis Domingue to make it 0-2. Domingue would not return after the first period due to a “lower body injury.” Cory Schneider came in relief. The Capitals scored 16 seconds thanks to a turnover caused by a poor pass between Damon Severson and Blake Coleman and assisted by Sami Vatanen freezing up in the slot instead of stepping up on Carl Hagelin, who scored a goal that counted. However, the Devils would provide a little bit of hope in this one. A successful pinch by Will Butcher led to Nico Hischier getting the puck behind the net. Hischier found an open Wayne Simmonds, who took the pass and beat Ilya Samsonov for his first goal in 27 games. Early in the third period, Sami Vatanen wiped away a power play with a four-minute high-sticking penalty. That penalty kill would be fruitful - for the Devils. Blake Coleman beat John Carlson to win a puck, he went off on his own, and he scored a shorthanded goal to make it 2-3. Would the Devils come back? No. After that situation, Jakub Vrana scored on an individual effort. Lastly, an uncovered Ovechkin one-timed a pass down low from Tom Wilson to make it 2-5 and cause a lot of Capitals fans to throw their hats away. Yes, indeed, he had a hat trick, the fourth allowed by the Devils in this month. The Devils lost 2-5; Chris recapped the game.

The Last Blue Jackets Game: While the Devils were losing to Washington, the Blue Jackets were hosting Carolina. This would be an important one for the wild card race as Columbus has been knocking on the door for a spot and the Canes are holding on to the East’s first wild card spot. Just after the first minute, Emil Bemstrom put the home team up 1-0. It was just one of Columbus’ four shots in the first period; goaltender Elvis Merzlikins had to be good early on. He was perfect until 8:38 passed in the second period. That is the official time for Martin Necas’ breakaway goal that tied up the game. The Blue Jackets re-took the lead when Alexander Wennberg found Cam Atkinson (who is back now) going to the net and he finished the play. However, Carolina’s Jordan Staal provided an answer less than three minutes later. The game was at a standstill and with less than two minutes in regulation, it seemed like overtime was at hand. However, Eric Robinson worked real hard on a forecheck that caused Jordan Staal to lose a puck. Riley Nash helped Andrei Svechnikov to lose that same puck. A fallen Jordan Staal tried to knock it away from the pressure. He ended up sending it to the middle of the zone for Nick Foligno to take it. He stepped in and fired a wrist shot that beat Petr Mrazek and put the Jackets up 3-2. The score stood up and now Columbus is in a wild card spot in the East. For The Cannon, Ryan Real recapped the game.

The Last Devils-Blue Jackets Game: Fresh off a 3-6 loss at home to Washington, the Devils traveled to Columbus on December 21, 2019. Due to an injury to Louis Domingue, Gilles Senn was serving as the Devils backup. The decision was made to give the rookie his NHL debut on this night. Oliver Bjorkstrand scored on him 26 seconds into the game. The Blue Jackets would continue to dominate in the first period. Senn would go on to be much better, but he could stop the entire onslaught. Bjorkstrand scored later in the first period to put the Devils down 0-2. The Devils would get on the board later in the first period during a 4-on-4 situation thanks to Will Butcher firing in a wrist shot from distance. The second period was more even, however Columbus would extend the lead thanks to Vladislav Gavrikov finishing a play. The third period was marred by penalties taken by the Devils. The good news is that they killed them all off. And the Devils did receive a late power play in the game. Senn, who was playing well in general, was pulled for the extra skater. The Devils conceded an empty net goal from Zach Werenski six seconds after that power play started. For some reason, Senn was pulled again for an extra skater. The Devils did get a little zone time, then Gustav Nyquist won a puck, beat a man, and sent in another empty netter to juice the score for the home team. The Devils lost 1-5 to Columbus, their eighth straight to Columbus as a franchise. Devin recapped the game here for the Devils side. For the opposition’s opinion, MrSwift13 had this recap at The Cannon.

The Goal: Support each other. What I saw from the Washington game and the Toronto game was night-and-day compared to this past weekend. In those two weekend, the Devils forwards were a lot better about helping their defensemen in their own end. They were not flying away thinking the defender would complete the exit. They were not just collapsed around the slot and not really doing much but looking like they were defending. Likewise, the defensemen were more able to put passes going forward to facilitate play through the neutral zone. They were also better about cleaning up rebounds. And, at least in the Tampa Bay game back on Sunday, the skaters were generally better about not taking needless penalties. Even when killed or scoring a shorthanded goal on them, it is still time spent in their own end, a place where they have struggled a lot this season. In the Devils’ previous two games on this three-game trip, the Devils really have not been helping each other out. Not with bad penalties. Not with lazy turnovers. Not with lax coverage. Not with a seeming lack of communication to help each other out. Not with being there for each other as a passing option or even someone to help usher pucks out of the zone on exit attempts. Not even when picking up men heading to the net like, oh, I don’t know, the best goal scorer of the past twenty years. If the Devils are going to have a shot at ending their losing streak against Columbus, then they need to be more supportive of each other to start. They need a lot more than that, but that will be critical to put together a winning - or even just a respectable - performance.

It will also be critical to slow down Columbus’ forecheck. Alison Lukan at The Athletic ($) wrote this article yesterday that details how the Columbus coaches track puck movement in games. This has led them to more effectively establish their forecheck. The Devils forwards will need to be held back to help the defensemen in the face of this forecheck. Rather than leave the defender to try to make a difficult long pass into the neutral zone, they should be closer to be an option if/when the Blue Jackets go in hard on it. That kind of support would also keep one of Columbus’ tendencies in check.

“Fun” Fact: Does it seem like that its been some time since the Devils won in Columbus? It is true to a point. The Devils have not won in Ohio since December 5, 2017 as per Hockey-Reference. While that is not even three years ago, do recall that Columbus is in the Metropolitan Division and so the Devils play them more often than most other opponents. They have lost eight straight against the Blue Jackets in total and four of those eight losses were in their building since December 5, 2017. It has been that much and it has been that long.

He’s More of a King than Some Dude in Manhattan: On December 29, 2019, Columbus starting goaltender Joonas Korpisalo tore his meniscus. He had surgery the next day and it was announced, such as here at NHL.com, that he would be out for 4-6 weeks. The netminder duties would go to the NHL-inexperienced backup, Elvis Merzlikins. His eight appearances up until then were nothing special. Since the turn of the calendar, he has been quite special for Columbus. According to NHL.com, Merzlikins has started in every game for Columbus since Korpisalo’s injury and he has posted an astonishing 94.6% overall save percentage in those eight games. His even strength save percentage in his past eight games is a dominant 95% and his penalty kill save percentage of 89.5% is also superb. Elvis has been more than rocking for Columbus. He has been crucial to the Blue Jackets’ continued charge up the standings in the Eastern Conference. It is, well, King-like.

There is a chance the Devils may not see him tonight. The Blue Jackets will visit Our Hated Rivals tomorrow. It is possible that head coach John Tortorella goes with Elvis for both games this weekend. However, I could see the thinking that given that the Devils are what they are this season (Read: Bad) and Columbus has continued to pound them, then he may feel comfortable to give the start to current back-up Matiss Kivlenieks. It would be his NHL debut if that happens. As much as you may fear the Devils playing against an unknown backup goaltender, it is far preferable than having to step to the current King of Ohio Goaltending, who is hotter than a hunk of burning love over the past two weeks.

Is Columbus Good In General?: The short answer: Kind-of, not really? The team’s 5-on-5 stats at Natural Stat Trick are a bit all over the place. They are just outside of the bottom third of the NHL in terms of Corsi and scoring chance percentages. They are close to the top ten in terms of shot, high danger scoring chance, and expected goals percentages. However, in the case of expected goals, the Blue Jackets have one of the lowest expected goals for rates and one of the lowest expected goals against rates - which belies how much they really do create. The Blue Jackets have received great goaltending; the team’s 92.99% save percentage in 5-on-5 play is one of the highest in the league. But finishing plays have eluded them over the season as the team has one of the lowest shooting percentages at 7.01%. Even New Jersey has a superior shooting percentage than that.

What about special teams? Their penalty kill is more clearly good. Their success rate of 82% is in the upper half of the league per NHL.com. Their on-ice against rate stats at Natural Stat Trick for shorthanded situations are quite good. More importantly, the team’s 133 shorthanded situations are among the fewest in the NHL. This suggests they are a fairly well disciplined team. However, the other half of special teams - the power play - has not been so successful. The team’s success rate of 17.5% ranks in the bottom third of the NHL per NHL.com. Their on-ice for rate stats at Natural Stat Trick for man advantage situations are very low. At least they have had more man advantages (143) than disadvantages (133), but it is not like Columbus has been drawing a ton of opportunities either. As a whole, this is similar to their 5-on-5 stats in that the Blue Jackets look decent to good by some measures and below-average to bad by others.

The Blue Jackets certainly have some talented players and they are getting a great boost from their goaltenders. Korpisalo was playing great before his injury and Merzlikins is rocking and rolling in the crease for great success. However, for Columbus’ sake, I fear that if/when the goaltending cools off a bit, their fall may be swift. They do well by way of shot differential but they do not create enough attempts or scoring chances to offset a low shooting percentage. As fans who remember the Devils’ run under Lemaire in 2010-11 can tell you, getting in a playoff spot is an achivement - but it is so, so hard to stay there.

Of course, Columbus has creamed the Devils so many times in recent seasons that it will not matter much for tonight. Provided they do not play stupid hockey or look past this game to Sunday’s game or any other, I fear they should be fine.

The Killer Committee: At Hockey-Reference, I decided to look up who has the most points by a Blue Jacket against the Devils since the 2017-18 season. Ex-Jacket Artemi Panarin led the list with 12. Whatever, he will not be on the ice tonight in Ohio. To my surprise, four players are tied with seven each: defenseman Seth Jones, forward Boone Jenner, forward Pierre-Luc Dubois, and forward Oliver Bjorkstrand. I was not surprised to see Bjorkstrand, but I was surprised that he was not alone. Bjorkstrand’s four goals is even tied with Cam Atkinson, who has six points and the most shots (29) against the Devils (29) in this timeframe. I was also surprised to see that Nick Foligno and Dubois each had three goals with Jones, Jenner, Scott Harrington, and Zach Werenski each having two goals. Since Panarin, there has not been one Blue Jacket wrecking the Devils, it has been a crew of them.

This lines up with how their production looks this season as per NHL.com. While Dubois leads the team in scoring, he has 34 on a team with six players over 20 points. In order: Dubois, Gustav Nyquist, Werenski, Jones, Bjorkstrand, and Atkinson. Dubois leads the team with 15 goals, but he has as many as Werenski with Nyquist having 12 and Bjorkstrand and Atkinson having ten each. Seven players have at least 98 shots on net, with Boone Jenner being the only one not previously mentioned. Jenner has been a bit unfortunate as he has been shooting at 7.1% this season; so his 8 goals and 9 assists seem low for someone who is one of the most frequent shooters on the team this season. But it is in alignment with Columbus’ production. It is by committee. There is no one that is really dominating the scoresheet but plenty of different people are chipping in. Just as they have done against the Devils since 2017-18.

One thing of note is that the productive players are not necessarily all good in the run of play this season. Per Natural Stat Trick, Bjorkstrand arguably has been the Blue Jackets’ best 5-on-5 player with Dubois posting positive values along with Alexander Wennberg and Nick Foligno. However, Nyquist, Jenner, and Atkinson have been below the breakeven point for both Corsi% and expected goals%. As for the defensemen Jones and Werenski, they are solid for the minutes that they play. Dean Kukan may have more favorable numbers but he plays less and has easier minutes. And the Jackets are better off with that duo than with David Savard on the ice. What this means is that while the Devils will need to account for multiple lines that could do damage, not every one of them has been so good in 5-on-5 this season that they cannot be pushed or pressured to play defense. This goes back to the goal of the Devils needing to do a better job of supporting one another with and without the puck. That will help limit the score-and-possess by committee thing Columbus has going on.

Blackwood Back: Yesterday’s practice session for the Devils featured the return of goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, as confirmed in this tweet by Amanda Stein. The team’s official Twitter account confirmed that Blackwood is cleared to play. The timing could not be better as Louis Domingue was hurt in the game against Washington. This means that a goalie does not need to be brought up from Binghamton. Someone will go down; Stein did confirm that from interim head coach Alain Nasreddine. I would expect Blackwood will start this game for the Devils. There is really no value to have Cory Schneider (or if he is healthy, Domingue) start this game. With a week off coming up, Blackwood can start now to get back in the kind of form he had before his injury.

A Curious Power Play Change: The other news out of practice is that the second power play unit may feature the Zajac line in full as per Stein. This would mean Blake Coleman could see some power play ice time tonight. On the one hand, it is generally a good idea for the team’s leading goal scorer (19) and shooter (146) to be on a power play unit. On the other hand, Coleman’s production has not really come from set plays on offense. He will not get a chance to breakaway or have odd man rushes on man advantages like he does in shorthanded situations. On the other other hand, the Devils are 17-23-7, the second power play unit has not been notably productive at all, and so the team might as well try it out and see what happens. It may be interesting at least.

One Last Thought: I would like to emphasize that Columbus absolutely has something to play for. They just crashed the wild card spots in the East and will need to keep getting results to stay there. If the eight-game losing streak and the fact that the 2019-20 Devils are a Bad Team are not enough, then that is one more reason why I am keeping my expectations low for this game. I hope the Devils do not deliver even less.

Your Take: Will the Devils surprise us and get a win in Columbus tonight? Will the Blue Jackets make it nine in a row? Is there anything in particular you would like to see tonight? Please place your answers and any other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.