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Game Preview #35: New Jersey Devils vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

The New Jersey Devils look to bounce back from a tough loss in Boston in the front end of a home-and-home with the Columbus Blue Jackets

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at New Jersey Devils
Keeping Patrik Laine off the scoresheet would be preferable
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (13-16-5, 31 points) host the Columbus Blue Jackets (15-15-1, 31 points). SB Nation Blog: Jackets Cannon

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+, ESPN+. RADIO - Devils Hockey Network (Access through NHL.com or the SiriusXM app)

The last Devils game

The Devils fell to the Boston Bruins by a score of 5-3 on Tuesday night to snap their three-game winning streak. I wrote in my recap how I thought the Devils played hard despite being short-handed, but once again, their goaltending failed them when they needed their netminder to come up big.

The last Blue Jackets game

Columbus was in action on Tuesday night, falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning by a score of 7-2. As the Devils know all too well, Columbus has also really struggled in net of late, surrendering 14 goals in the last two games. Gustav Nyquist was the lone bright spot for the Jackets with a goal and an assist, giving him 15 points in 31 games.

The last Devils-Blue Jackets game

These teams are meeting for the first time since October 31st, where the Devils fell to Columbus 4-3 in the shootout.

I had the recap of that game as well, and I noted how the Devils outplayed Columbus for large stretches of the game. Unfortunately for the Devils, Ty Smith made two critical errors that directly led to goals against, the power play wasn’t up to the task, and the goaltending wasn’t good enough (although I gave Scott Wedgewood a pass that night). Fast forward two months later.....Ty Smith is still struggling, the power play is still bad, and the goaltending is even worse. So there’s that.

What will the lines look like?

Your guess as to what the Devils lines will look like is as good as mine since the Devils team-employed reporters don’t tweet out line combinations from practice anymore and nobody from any other North Jersey-based media outlet can be bothered to cover a professional hockey team in the state, but I digress.

Here were the lines from Tuesday against Boston, per Amanda Stein.

The Devils got some positive news on Wednesday with Nico Hischier skating on his own before practice. He’s expected to take part in the morning skate on Thursday before a decision is made on his status, which will ultimately come down to pain tolerance. Hischier has a history of gutting it out, so I’d expect him to give it a go assuming everything checks out physically.

In addition to that, winger Jimmy Vesey and head coach Lindy Ruff have exited COVID protocols. Vesey told the media that he should be good to go against Columbus, so expect him to draw back into the lineup.

I’d expect the blueline to remain the same (although I’d consider giving Colton White, Kevin Bahl or Reilly Walsh some run with Dougie Hamilton out indefinitely) and I have some thoughts on the goaltending that I’ll get to later in this preview, but I would consider rolling the following lines. This might be dependant though on taxi squad rules with Vesey reentering the lineup and a former taxi squad member needing to come out.

Bratt - Hughes - Holtz

Tatar - Hischier - Boqvist

Johnsson - Mercer - Kuokkanen

Vesey - McLeod - Bastian

For the record, Alex Holtz has done NOTHING at the NHL level to warrant Top Six minutes and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a scratch. But if I’m playing him in the lineup, I’m putting him with our best playmakers and at least putting him in a position to have some success. Will it be an adventure defensively? Absolutely, but at least this makes more sense than putting him with Geertsen and Boqvist.

As for Boqvist, the only time he’s really looked good this season has been when he’s been on Hischier’s wing, so I think that decision is defensible while Zacha and Sharangovich remain out due to COVID protocols. The bottom six are lines that have some familiarity with each other, so those make sense even with Marian Studenic drawing the short end of the stick. But these are the lines that I would roll with.

As for Columbus, their lineup situation is fluid as well. Brian Hedger from the Columbus Dispatch notes that while Jake Bean is on track to play, Alex Texier (non-COVID illness) and Elvis Merzlikins (lower body) are not. Zach Werenski and Gavin Bayreuther remain on the COVID list as well.

Here were their lines from Tuesday’s game.

That looks like a lineup of another team also going through a rough patch right now between injuries, illness and COVID, so it’ll be imperative for the Devils to take advantage.

Please, Anybody But Blackwood

I don’t want to continue beating the proverbial dead horse here in regards to Mackenzie Blackwood’s struggles. If you want to read my thoughts on that, read my recap from Tuesday’s game.

Enough is enough with Blackwood. I don’t care how inexperienced and/or bad Akira Schmid and/or Jon Gillies are. I don’t even care if they come in and stink and prove that Lindy Ruff was right not to give them some run. It’s time to give Blackwood a breather for his own sake.

I’m not gonna pretend to be a mind-reader or know about the mental makeup of someone, but I do believe you need to be in a good mindset to have success at a position like goaltender. To me, Blackwood looks like a guy who is playing with no confidence and no swagger right now. If he starts and gives up another softie like the ones he gave up against Boston, I would expect the Devils fans in attendance to turn on him very quickly. Judging from the comments I’ve read in the forums here and elsewhere online, the fans are just about fed up. I get that it’s not all Blackwood’s fault and he’s probably not 100 percent, but again, if he’s hurt, then put him on IR. Continuing to run him into the ground because you don’t trust the alternatives is only doing both him and the team a disservice.

Sign me up for The Akira Schmid Experience or Jon Gillies SZN. What do you have to lose at this point aside from another hockey game?

Final Thoughts

What do you think about this evening’s matchup? Can the Devils bounce back against a Columbus team that has also been surrendering goals left and right? Will the Devils continue to force the round peg into the square hole and keep running Blackwood out there? How will, or should, the lineup look? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!