Finally. The New Jersey Devils finally beat the Columbus Blue Jackets. It took a monumental performance from MacKenzie Blackwood, a comeback started by the fourth line, and a seven-round shootout. When you struggle against an opponent for so long, how you did it does not matter as much as that you did it at all. The Devils finally won a game against Columbus this evening, 4-3 through the shootout.
This has been a long time coming. On December 5, 2017, the New Jersey Devils went to Ohio and beat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 4-1. That was the previous win that the Devils earned against the Blue Jackets. Since that night, the Devils have lost nine in a row to the Blue Jackets. Eight of those nine losses were in regulation. The lone exception was a shootout loss on March 5, 2019. There is “having one’s number” and then there is dominance. It was often more of the latter as Columbus bloomed into being a doggedly difficult team to play against and the Devils fell hard after their peak in the Shero Era. Previous games against Columbus this season have been ugly to watch from a Devils perspective. Columbus smashed twice already: 1-5 on December 21 and 0-5 on January 18.
Going into this one, I expected very little from the Devils. Columbus is not only a better team than the Devils. They had every incentive to pick up a win tonight. They are in the middle of the playoff bubble. While they entered tonight in a wild card spot, they also were winless in their last four games. The race in the East is so tight that a long winless streak could do a lot of damage to one’s playoff hopes. Combine that incentive with the fact that Columbus has dragged the Devils to school for two calendar years and there.
Making matters even worse ahead of this game were the departures for the Devils. Before tonight’s game, left-defenseman and team captain Andy Greene was traded to the Islanders for a second round pick in 2021 and David Quenneville. Blake Coleman was held out for precautionary reasons. During this game, it was announced and confirmed that Coleman was traded to Tampa Bay for Nolan Foote and Vancouver’s conditional first round pick in 2020. While Nico Hischier returned to the lineup, the Devils took to the ice not long after their captain and long-time veteran was dealt away and they were also without one of their best performing players in Coleman. That is a net-negative to the roster by numbers alone.
All signs pointed to Columbus skating all over the Devils. And they certainly did in regulation tonight. The goals were to come. And they did come in the first period. Defenseman Andrew Peeke followed up a rebound created by Sonny Milano and scored a few minutes into the game on Columbus’ second shot. A few minutes later, the Devils were pinned back - in what would be a constant occurrence throughout regulation - and Zach Werenski beat Blackwood shortside to make it 0-2. The Devils’ response was to go out there and continue being swarmed by the Blue Jackets. Any offensive swells were few and far between with bad passes and turnovers often ending any potential attacks going beyond a shot attempt or two. By the end of the first period, it looked like another five-spot from Columbus was incoming and the Devils were going to look terrible in the process.
Amazingly, that did not happen. The Devils would have a response for the two goals in the second period and they would come from some unlikely sources. Early in the second period, with Kyle Palmieri on and the fourth line just getting involved, Palmieri kicked a puck to Kevin Rooney in the neutral zone. Rooney played in Joey Anderson, who stepped up and torched Elvis Merzlikins with a shot to the far post. The Devils were down only one, 1-2. Columbus seemingly scored a little later but the goal was immediately erased as it was kicked in. About a minute and a half after Anderson’s goal, Rooney took a loose puck that popped up from Anderson and took a shot on net. Merzlikins stopped that shot but the rebound went right to Nick Merkley. Merkley put home the rebound for his first NHL goal and the Devils’ second of the night. All of a sudden, the Devils’ attack had some life and Columbus was having some issues keeping the Devils at bay. The pace was about even - except when Pavel Zacha took a penalty and Columbus basically drilled the Devils for two minutes on the power play - until past the halfway mark when the Hischier line struck gold. On a rush up ice, Jesper Bratt was in a good place to shoot - and deferred the puck to Hischier. Hischier was in a good place to shoot - and deferred the puck to a trailing Palmieri. Palmieri cut in and fired a fantastic wrist shot that went off the post and in to make it 3-2. The Devils were actually leading Columbus. It was great.
Until it was not. In the final five minutes or so of the second period, the Blue Jackets went back to swarming the Devils in their own end and making Blackwood work for everything. Columbus finished the period with the ice tilted in their direction and a stunning 20 shots on net in the second period alone. The Devils did take 15 of their own so it was not that lopsided. Plus, of those 20 shots, five were from the power play so 5-on-5 play in the second was also fairly even. Still, Blackwood had to be great just to withstand all of the pressure. It would get a lot worse before it would get any better.
The Devils have had a lot of bad games this season and a lot of bad periods. The third period against Columbus tonight should rank among them. The Devils were out-shot 21-2. There were no penalties in the third period. There were no man-advantage situations. In twenty minutes of 5-on-5 play, the Devils generated eight shooting attempts, four scoring chances, and two shots on net. The Blue Jackets put up 33 shooting attempts, 23 scoring chances, and twenty one shots on net. The Devils may have well been called the *evils because there was certainly no defense from them in the third period. This would eventually cost them their one-goal lead. The Devils thought they were going to make a zone exit, so Hischier and Bratt went forward out of the zone. But Scott Harrington came from behind Palmieri and forced the puck to still be in New Jersey’s zone. Gustav Nyquist poked the puck forward to Oliver Bjorkstrand before taking a hit from P.K. Subban. This left Mirco Mueller in the middle with Bjorkstrand wide open to his left. So he went over there. Kevin Stenlund streaked into the slot. Bjorkstrand found him and Stenlund beat a hung-out-to-dry Blackwood to make it 3-3. The Devils followed up this error by not helping Blackwood out whatsoever for the remaining eleven minutes in regulation. Is that dramatic? The Blue Jackets ended regulation with 53 shots on net, the most the Devils have allowed all season. No, the Devils did not help out their goalie nearly enough this evening.
Overtime saw the Devils flip the script. They were the ones who attacked more in overtime. Damon Severson won a puck from Pierre-Luc Dubois, went off on a one-on-one and nearly beat Merzlikins. Jack Hughes forced one chance, got stopped, Pavel Zacha took a hit to keep the puck in the zone so Hughes could have another go and forced another big save. Columbus really did not threaten Blackwood at all in the first three minutes or so of overtime. Alas, the Devils could not finish their plays - there were some bad misses late - and so a shootout was needed.
I really feel for Blackwood. After stopping 55 shots in 65 minutes, he needed to be on-point as possible in a situation filled with one-on-ones to decide the game. Another loss to Columbus loomed in my mind when Dubois scored in the second round. But Gusev beat Merzlikins to tie it up and Blackwood came up big on Stenlund. In the fourth round, I thought another loss came when Hughes beat the goalie - but hit the post. Thankfully, Bjorkstrand also hit the post and the puck stayed out as he tried to tuck a shot between Blackwood’s left skate and the right post. For a Devils team with nothing to play for and two players I have enjoyed seeing in past seasons now gone, I was invested in this shootout. The Devils have come so far to come so close to finally beating this team. Just do it. Somehow. The emotions went up and down through the additional rounds. Pavel Zacha lost the puck briefly and took a weak shot but, thankfully, Nathan Gerbe missed. Nico Hischier went up but was stopped five-hole, but, again thankfully, Werenski did not convert either. Jesper Bratt, he of the one sick shootout move he hit like twice ever, got his chance. He beat Merzlikins smoothly his deke to his backhand. And I was so happy when Milano got his chance and missed the net.
Finally! The Devils beat Columbus. I was so happy for Blackwood. If anyone deserved the result tonight, then it would be the goalie with 52 saves on 55 shots and 86 attempts that also prevailed in a seven-round shootout. I was happy to be able to cheer admist the big news that happened before and during this game. I was so happy to finally see the Devils beat Columbus for the first time since 2017. It is likely you can count on your hands how many more games the Devils will win this season. So I feel it is important to cherish the wins they do get. That it was over a team that has bodied them in their last nine games makes it feel sweeter - no matter how hideous the performance was.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at The Cannon, Pale Dragon had this recap from a Blue Jackets perspective. Sure, they got a point but not beating the last place team in your division does not help the team’s playoff cause. Pale Dragon understands this.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com:
Blackwood Denied His Due: Tonight’s Attending Media was listed as naming the Three Stars of the Game. Blackwood was not one of them. Seriously. A goalie makes 52 saves and prevails in an extended shootout and he is not one of the three important players according to the people who follow the sport for a living? Are you serious, bro?
Look, I know the Werenski goal against was a bad look. But Blackwood faced a total onslaught of offense with almost a game’s worth of volume in the third period alone. He came out of that with just one goal against after the Werenski goal and that was a result of another classic sequence of failures by the Devils skaters this season. The Devils would have ended up nowhere near overtime if Blackwood was not great among scrambles around his crease, getting stops on open shots from the slot, and moving well from post to post to get into position for saves. To put it another way, if Blackwood was just merely good and not great tonight and the Blue Jackets did as they did this evening, then Devils lose this game. If, say, Louis Domingue started and the Blue Jackets played as well as they did tonight, then the Devils would have lost by a lot. Blackwood was the primary reason why the Devils got anything out of the game tonight. It is shameful of Tonight’s Attending Media to deny the man his due.
Fourth Line Success Again: The Devils’ fourth line of Kevin Rooney, Joey Anderson, and Nick Merkley had another solid outing. The Devils were absolutely destroyed in the 5-on-5 in this game. Only one player had a CF% above 50%: Anderson (11 attempts by Devils, 9 against). Only three players had a SF% at or above 50%: Rooney (50%, 6 to 6), Merkely (60%, 6 to 4), and Anderson (63.6%, 7 to 4). While their minutes were limited during the third period domination by Columbus, when they were on the ice, the Devils were heading in the right direction. Something that did not happen nearly enough over the course of this game. And, again, this trio made an impact on the scoresheet. Rooney’s assists were legitimate and created two goals. Anderson and Merkley both finished their shots well and pulled the Devils back in the game on the scoreboard. The Devils honestly needed their other three lines to play more like this line this evening. I am not going to start proclaiming that they need to be treated like a bigger line or have certain players move up. But I will say that this fourth line has worked a lot better than a lot of the other attempts with other combinations. In other words, no, John Hayden, you are not missed.
The Replacements...Oh, the Replacements: With Greene traded and Coleman held out and traded during the game, the Devils had to adjust their lineup to fill in the resulting holes in their roster. Mirco Mueller was moved up to play opposite of P.K. Subban on defense. This meant Colton White drew back into the lineup; he was primarily paired with Connor Carrick. At forward, Miles Wood was tasked to replace Coleman’s spot next to Travis Zajac and Nikita Gusev. Nick Merkley drew into the lineup and played on the fourth line. With Hischier returning, Jack Hughes was moved down to play with Zacha and Wayne Simmonds. As you can surmise from how the Devils were out-attempted 39 to 72 and out-shot 22 to 46 in 5-on-5 play this evening, this did not work out well at all. With the exception of Merkley. Again, that fourth line played well.
The Mueller-Subban pairing was not so detrimental to the run of play compared to the other pairings. It was not at all positive but they were the least worst. It “helped” that Severson had a miserable game. At least he did not score on his own goalie again. It also “helped” that White-Carrick were entirely overmatched. When White was on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted 7-21 and out-shot 5-15. When Carrick was out there, the proportion was even worse; the Devils were out-attempted 6-19 and out-shot 4-14. The White-Carrick pairing is not a NHL-caliber pairing. I am almost pining for a return of Matt Tennyson. I cannot praise anything defensively out of this game. Not in a performance that yielded over 50 shots and 80 attempts on net. So I will not.
As for Wood with Zajac and Gusev, that was a terrible combination. Coleman was and is a much harder worker than Wood. Especially on defense. Wood does not hustle nearly as hard backchecking than when he is chasing down a puck. And when he is on defense, he just does not really know what to do. Add that to a Devils “system” of blocking a shot and hoping you can find some space afterward and it was a defensive nightmare. It did not help at all that Gusev was a non-factor this evening and Zajac was off his game as well. Seriously, he had one of the two opportunities to score for the Devils in the third with half of the net open for a one-timer and he hit the pass with the lightest of touches. The result was an abysmal attempt differential of -12 as the Devils were out-attempted 9-21 when the Zajac line was on the ice. They were out-shot 5-13. They helped Blackwood out the least. Throw that in with a territoriality poor game from Hischier, Bratt, and Palmieri and you can understand how badly Columbus feasted on the Devils’ match-ups. I do not think we need to see another game to know that Wood really does not fit well with Zajac and Gusev.
As for Hughes with Simmonds and Zacha, they were not as crushed in the run of play. However, there were plays that Hughes was creating but Zacha and Simmonds failed to make the most of whatever passes and movements he was making. Instead of being options or even taking shots off his passes, a lot of potential offense went away. It was an ugly watch but strangely more effective than whatever little the Zajac line created. I am open to the idea of sticking Hughes with Gusev again. Mostly because at this point of the season, why not? These combinations were not working and they did not tonight - except for the fourth line.
Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick: Bratt’s shootout goal was sweet and it deserves this note in this recap. So there.
One Last Thought: They deserve their own posts of tribute but I do want to note that as much as I appreciate what the Devils received for Greene and Coleman, I do miss them.
I have been vocal about Greene’s decline. But that was a decline of being a legitimately great defenseman in the first half of this past decade. (Aside: One of the benefits of the advanced stats movement is that players like Greene can get some deserved credit from them). He is arguably among the greatest undrafted free agents in Devils history. A part of me wished he would just call it a career after his contract ended as he was a Devils lifer. It is what it is. But that does not erase how much he was a boss for the Devils, even if he was leaned on too much in the past three or so seasons.
As for Coleman, his rise has been nothing short of astounding and amazing. He was an overaged mid-draft pick. After four years of college and projections of just being a fourth liner, he suffers a serious injury in his first pro season. His first extended look in New Jersey saw him achieve next to nothing on the ice. When he broke out in 2017-18, it really was a surprise and a very good one. Equally as surprising was how much his game improved at both ends of the rink. He became more of a scorer, more of a shooter, and much more than just a depth winger who kills penalties aggressively and effectively. Coleman was a bright spot on a bad 2019-20 season. I thought he played himself into being practically untouchable since players like him are not that common, much less for amazingly cheap contracts like the one he has. I thought the next management group would want to have Coleman around for at least one season to benefit from it. Alas, it is not to be. However, depending on how the pick shakes out and Foote’s development, Coleman’s could possibly haul in a bigger return than Hall’s trade. That is a testament to how far he has come.
Both players were a joy to watch and will be missed. Their trades appropriately distracted fans from this game. I know I was at points.
Your Take: The New Jersey Devils finally ended a nine-game winless streak to the Columbus Blue Jackets this evening. It was not easy. It was not pretty at all. The performance was heinous. But they did it. How do you feel about this win? How amazing was Blackwood? What should the Devils do with their roster now that Greene and Coleman are definitely gone? How should they prepare for St. Louis on Tuesday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this win in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to Brian for getting a post up about the Greene trade. Thanks to CJ for getting a post up about the Coleman trade. Thanks to Mike for taking care of @AAtJerseyBlog on Twitter. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter. Thank you for reading.