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Blue Jackets Manhandle the Devils in 4-3 Loss

After an early PPG by the Devils to get out to a quick lead, the Blue Jackets methodically bullied and physically dominated and dismantled the Devils in a 4-3 Columbus win.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Columbus Blue Jackets
Devils killer Oliver Bjorkstrand scored against the Devils. Surprising, I know....
Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

John Tortorella is no longer the Columbus Blue Jackets head coach, but I bet somewhere he watched his old team manhandle and dismantle the New Jersey Devils with a smile on his face. The Jackets played that classic Torts style of hockey with physicality and plenty of lane-clogging, hits, and blocked shots to earn a 4-3 win in Columbus on Tuesday evening.

Jesper Bratt got things started early drawing a tripping call as the Devils won the opening faceoff, giving New Jersey their first power play opportunity eight seconds into the game. Nico Hischier had a shot blocked early in the man advantage, leading to a short-handed opportunity the other way. Nico Daws made the stop on a Gustav Nyquist shot. The Devils won the ensuing draw and Jack Hughes’s shot was saved by Elvis Merzlikins. The Devils won the following offensive zone draw as well and worked the puck towards the crease with Nathan Bastian jamming away at it and Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier among the mass of bodies trying to poke it in. The puck did trickle across the goal line as Merzlikins “never (bleeping) had it”, as the referee so eloquently put it on a hot mic. for the power play goal and an early 1-0 Devils lead. Jack Hughes was ultimately credited with the power play goal, although the scoring has changed multiple times and might change again after this recap is published.

Columbus got an opportunity the other way as Yegor Sharangovich got his pocket picked by Boone Jenner, but sailed the shot wide of the cage. A few minutes later, Jimmy Vesey set up Nate Bastian for a really good look in front but Merzlikins made the pad save to take us to the first TV timeout.

Play opened up a bit more after the commercial break as Jesper Boqvist gained the zone with a head of steam similar to his goal from last night, but he couldn’t quite get the step on Dean Kukan as he did on Quinn Hughes 24 hours earlier and turned the puck over, as he sent it back to the blueline. Jack Hughes gained the zone but got separated from the puck leading to a Jenner shot attempt the other way. Tomas Tatar flipped a puck towards Merzlikins that he easily gloved to force a stoppage.

Tempers flared as the Blue Jackets took exception to some contact by Jimmy Vesey with Merzlikins after a whistle. Nathan Bastian and Gavin Bayreuther dropped the gloves as a result, each earning five for fighting. The teams went back and forth a little bit over the next couple minutes in the neutral zone. Columbus got the puck in deep and Colton White absorbed a big hit in the corner to keep the play alive for the home team. The Jackets worked the seam pass across to Jake Christiansen to tie the game at 1 with 6:52 left in the period.

Columbus continued to tilt the ice in their favor as Emil Bemstrom gained the zone and fed the puck in front, but Daws got a piece of it and covered up. The Devils gained the zone on the ensuing possession and worked the puck down low for Pavel Zacha who was turned aside. Columbus came back the other way as Jakub Voracek was turned aside from Daws, but the Jackets did a good job keeping the puck alive as Tomas Tatar couldn’t clear the zone. The Jackets worked the puck for Oliver Bjorkstrand and the Devils killer gave Columbus the 2-1 lead.

Max Domi went to the box moments later for high sticking, giving the Devils another power play opportunity, but they had issues getting set up. Zacha found Dougie Hamilton gaining the offensive zone, and not only did he not get the shot off, he got called for tripping Jenner to wipe out the rest of the man advantage. Columbus threatened over the final minute with Cole Sillinger getting a shot on Nico Daws. The final seconds of the period ticked off and the Jackets went to the dressing room with a 2-1 lead. Overall, the Devils came out of the gates strong in the first 10 minutes or so before Columbus got their legs under them and tilted the ice in the second half of the period with their physical play. This would continue to be a major theme over the final 40 minutes of this game.

Columbus started the second period with an abbreviated power play and fed Bjorkstrand in front for a good scoring chance. Damon Severson basically had to take a slashing call to prevent the goal then and there, but he ultimately only delayed the inevitable. Columbus won the ensuing faceoff and Patrik Laine rang a shot off the pipe that would up settling loose in the crease.Boone Jenner tapped in the gimme with 1 second left on the Hamilton penalty for a 3-1 Columbus lead.

The Jackets continued their solid work with the man advantage but Daws turned away a Justin Danforth shot with a few seconds remaining in the power play. Severson finally exited the box and we’re back to 5-on-5. The Devils spent the next few minutes mostly getting bodied every time they tried gaining the zone.

The Devils continued to struggle to get set up offensively although Nico Hischier made a nifty drop pass for Pavel Zacha to gain the zone. Unfortunately, Merzlikins easily stopped the shot. Hughes gained the zone and got a shot attempt as well as a little bump into Patrik Laine to send him to the ice. The young Devils phenom gained a little extra shove while he was down for his efforts, and I didn’t see anyone jump to his defense, which irritated me in moment.

Columbus continued to give the Devils little room to operate throughout the second, as only Jack Hughes was really able to gain the zone with any semblance of consistency. The Devils finally caught Columbus off balance though as Damon Severson made a really nice stretch pass along the boards to find Nico Hischier. The Devils captain gained the zone and ripped the wrister by Merzlikins to cut the deficit to 3-2.

(Note: I’d share the video of the Hischier goal but the Devils twitter account never posted it. You’ll have to check out the Highlights video below to see it, which I would recommend as it was a pretty goal)

Jonas Siegenthaler got caught hauling down Jakub Voracek to give Columbus another power play opportunity. The Devils got an early clear but Columbus regained the zone and worked the puck to Laine in the Ovi circle that he’s made famous over the years. Fortunately, the shot was blocked away and Yegor Sharangovich got a short handed opportunity the other way. The Devils got one last clear as Siegenthaler exited the box. They pushed hard to try to get the equalizer but time ran out on them and the Jackets took a 3-2 lead to the break.

The Jackets continued to clog the neutral zone and pursue the Devils in their own end to start the third. Hughes flipped the puck into the neutral zone for a clear but the Jackets regained the zone with Patrik Laine. The former #2 overall pick for Winnipeg juked Damon Severson out of his skates as Severson tried to lay the body on him with a shoulder check, but failed miserably, and Laine scored a goal-scorers goal for a 4-2 lead.

The Columbus crowd got restless as Dougie Hamilton clearly kicked a puck out of play in the defensive zone. According to ESPN rules analyst Dave Jackson on the broadcast, a kicking motion there doesn’t constitute a delay of game penalty as it would have if he had shot the puck over the glass or gloved it with his hand. Interesting. The Devils eventually gained the offensive zone and Jack Hughes made an outrageous no-look pass to Yegor Sharangovich, who worked the puck down to Jesper Bratt in the slot for the shot. Merzlikins made an impressive glove save to deny him.

Vlad Gavrikov tripped up Tomas Tatar to give the Devils a power play but the Devils wasted most of the first minute of it as they failed to get set up. They did get settled and sent a shot off the side of the net before the Jackets cleared the puck and the second PP unit came on. The Devils gained the zone in the closing seconds of the man advantage and Pavel Zacha took a feed from Mercer and fired it in for what is technically an even-strength goal to pull the Devils to within one.

Columbus continued to play a heavy game and pinned the Devils in their own end over the next several minutes. They were relentless in their pursuit of Jack Hughes every time the puck was on his stick, which is understandable as he is the Devils most dangerous player. But there was more to it than that as they were physical throughout the game regardless of who on the Devils had the puck on their stick.

The Devils made a little bit of a push in the final minutes of regulation with some nifty passing from Severson to spring Bratt to gain the zone and another nice pass from Hughes to set up Sharangovich, but Merzlikins denied him. The Devils finally pulled Daws with just over two minutes to go for the extra skater. Lindy Ruff chose not to use his timeout with 1:02 left to get some fresh skaters on. That bold strategy actually paid off as Gavrikov high sticked Dawson Mercer to give the Devils a 6-on-4 advantage with 46.6 seconds left, so Ruff elected to use his timeout here. The Devils won the ensuing draw and Hamilton sailed the shot wide of net. Boone Jenner fired away at the empty net on the clear but couldn’t connect. The Devils regained the zone in the final seconds for one last try and set up a Hamilton shot that was, appropriately enough given the theme of the game, blocked into the corner. The clock hit triple zero and Columbus held on to win 4-3.

Highlights

The Game Stats: The NHL.com Game Summary | The NHL.com Event Summary | The NHL.com Play by Play Log | The NHL.com Shot Summary | The Natural Stat Trick Game Stats

The Opposition Opinion: Visit Jackets Cannon if you want to read the Blue Jackets perspective on tonight’s game.

Physicality Still Matters

There’s been a lot of debate on this site over the last few months about physicality versus skill, and while I believe you need a mix of both in today’s NHL, I feel the Devils lost this game the same way they lose a lot of games when they play heavy teams. They got bodied. They’re not particularly physical to begin with, they’re a young team in general where a lot of the players bodies haven’t fully filled out yet, and there is a tendency to get pushed off the puck. Add in the fact that Columbus is not afraid to clog lanes, block shots, and relentlessly pursue the puck handler in any given moment and this is why I mentioned in the first paragraph of my recap why this felt like a Tortorella kind of game. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Jackets have retained a lot of those same qualities under new coach Brad Larsen, who was an assistant under Tortorella for years.

There will be some grumbling from some pockets of Devils fans, but I believe somewhere on Fitz’s offseason checklist, there needs to be a checkbox to add a few of those style of players who can slot in on the bottom six and bottom pairings. There’s something to be said about being harder to play against, and right now, the Devils are not hard to play against when the Tomas Tatars and Jimmy Veseys of the world are floating out there.

Last thing I’ll say on this is that is it too much to ask for somebody to have the boys’s back out there. We did see a little of that with Bastian getting into a scrap after Vesey took some pushing and shoving. We saw none of that with that play from Hughes where Laine gave him a little extra shove. I’m not saying the Devils need to start fights every five seconds, but is it asking too much for them to send the message that they will not be pushed around and you will NOT take liberties with our star player? This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened this season. Be better.

Starting Daws Was the Right Call. It Just Didn’t Work Out This Time.

I don’t always get to comment in the GameThread as much as I’d like to when I handle the recaps, but I did notice a theme that the Devils made a mistake starting Nico Daws. I’m here to tell you that, no, they did not.

For starters, there is little reason to believe that Jon Gillies is making any save that Nico Daws didn’t make. We have enough of a body of work with Gillies to tell us that he’s not the answer in net, and while I’m all for not running him into the ground like the Devils have done earlier this season with Mackenzie Blackwood, a back-to-back in March isn’t going to make or break Daws long-term. Part of his development is that he’s going to have to play a back-to-back every so often, so I don’t mind the Devils giving him that chance there. Its not like they had anything to lose.

I don’t think the goaltender is why they lost this particular game anyways. The Devils got off to a good start over the first 10 minutes, and then spent most of the next 50 minutes failing to generate much of anything because they couldn’t match Columbus’s physicality and couldn’t get set up in the offensive zone outside of some stretch passes, some insanely good passes from Hughes, and a Zacha goal that was even strength in name only. Laine’s goal was one that there’s maybe 10 people on the planet who have enough skill to score that type of goal, so I wouldn’t pin that on Daws.

I want to be clear.....I think there is almost nothing Daws can do down the stretch to play his way onto the Opening Night roster next season. Daws can post a .935 the rest of the way and I’d STILL expect Fitz to address the goaltending position this offseason with the uncertainty surrounding Blackwood and Bernier. That doesn’t change the fact that for right now, its essentially Daws’s net. The onus is on Daws to press the issue, which he has done to an extent by being the only competent goaltender in the organization at the moment. He was fine tonight, and likely better than anything the alternative would’ve provided.

To use a poker analogy....if I have pocket kings and I’m all in against pocket tens preflop, I got my money in with the better hand with an 80% chance of winning. If the other player outflops me with one of the two remaining tens in the deck, that doesn’t mean I made a bad decision. Odds are, the Devils were losing this game for the other reasons I pointed out already, not because of who they started in net.

Any Positives From Tonight?

The Devils got outworked tonight, but I don’t think they played poorly. For their flaws, they hung in there, got a goal from Zacha in the third to cut the deficit to one, and had a chance at the end. They came up short. It happens.

Jack Hughes may have gotten credited with a goal he may or may not have deserved, but he also continued to display the vision and creativity that we’ve come to expect from him. Columbus clearly prioritized throwing a lot of different bodies and looks at him to try to get him off his game, which worked to an extent, but he also easily could’ve picked up a couple assists if Merzlikins wasn’t as good as he was.

Ruff shook up his top six at points to try to create some different looks offensively, switching Bratt and Mercer in the lineup, and the results were fine in terms of the advanced stats. The Devils bigger issue was generating any sustained offense in Columbus’s zone. Columbus is a much more stout defensive team than the Vancouver team the Devils saw last night and there was less room in general to operate, which left the Devils to resort to stretch passes and trying to catch the Jackets off balance in transition.

The big negative for the Devils was how badly their third line of Andreas Johnsson-Jesper Boqvist-Tomas Tatar got destroyed. Bad Corsi numbers, bad xGF numbers, bad HDCF numbers. I spoke in my recap yesterday how I need to see more consistency from Boqvist before anointing him, and that’s true. But I also spent time wishing in this game the Devils had a third line that could match Columbus’s physicality.

Final Thoughts

The Devils didn’t play poorly against the Blue Jackets, but they did get manhandled and the 4-3 loss as a result was deserved.

What did you think of the loss tonight? Are you as disappointed as I am that the Devils continue to fail to matchup against heavier teams like Columbus? Do you agree with me that starting Daws was the right call, even though it didn’t work out? What were your takeaways from the game, positive or negative? Please feel free to make your voice heard in the comments section below, and thank you for reading.