Game 20 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

The New Jersey Devils ended their road trip with sloppy play in their own end (example above) which led to a heartbreaking loss. Will they do better now that they're back home? (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

The Time:  7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast:  TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets

The Coat Drive: Is not tonight, it's on Saturday for the Islanders game at 1 PM.   Please take some time to buy and/or find a new or gently used coat so you can provide someone who needs one on Saturday.

The Last Devils Game: The Devils ended their five-game road trip in Sunrise, Florida on Monday.  New Jersey shocked the Panthers by scoring 3 quick goals in the first period. That was cool.  In the following two periods, the Devils' performance faded at both ends of the rink and the Panthers literally clawed their way back into the game.   A shorthanded equalizer and a blown coverage late in the game completed the comeback for the Panthers.  Yes, the Devils blew a 3 goal lead in a 4-3 loss to the Panthers. My recap of the terrible game is right here.

The Last Blue Jackets Game:  While the Devils were melting at Sunrise, Columbus hosted Calgary on Monday night.   Like the Devils, they took a lead in the first period as Jeff Carter and Antoine Vermette both got on the board.  Unlike the Devils, Columbus added to their lead in the subsequent periods.  Carter scored again on second period power play; they didn't fold after Calgary cut the lead to two; and they were sharp in the third period.  Rick Nash added an empty netter to seal the 4-1 win for Columbus.  For more details and Carter-love, Dan P. recapped the game over at The Cannon.

The Goal:  Respect the opposition as if they were Boston, Buffalo, et al.  The New Jersey Devils finally return to the Rock and get to play an opponent that's sitting at the bottom of the standings as opposed to being near the top.   The Devils need to make sure they don't just go through the motions.  Believe it or not, there are a few underlying stats that suggest that Columbus may not be as bad as their record indicates.   Moreover, taking a night off against any opponent in the NHL has been a consistently excellent way to lose a game.   The Devils are coming back to Newark after a bitter end to a five-game road trip. The best way to bounce back from that kind of loss is to approach this game like they're playing a top team.   Oh, and play for 60 minutes - but that goes without saying.

I have a few more thoughts on this game, as well as an explanation about my strange thoughts about the Blue Jackets possibly not being the worst team in hockey.  For the opposition's viewpoint, please visit The Cannon.

Since I'm being somewhat bold about the Blue Jackets, let's start with them for a change.   While they are last in the league standings, some stats actually show them to be pretty effective in some aspects.  In terms of possession when the game is close, Columbus actually has a Fenwick percentage of 51.46% per Behind the Net's new team Fenwick stats.  That's not bad at all - it's actually better than New Jersey's 50.39%.  Moving on from misses and shots to just shots, they have averaged a solid 31.2 shots for per game and a very good 28.6 shots against per game.  Their power play has been particularly good at generating shots on net with a SF/60 rate of 54.8 in 5-on-4 situations according to Behind the Net.  They haven't been necessarily going into the net, but over time they will unless they have some rotten luck.  

However, rotten luck is a reason why they are where they are.  On those 5-on-4 situations, they have the second lowest shooting percentage in the league at 8.3%.  In 5-on-5 situations, the Blue Jackets have the fourth lowest shooting percentage in the league at 6.9% (and only have a 29.3 SF/60, which is below average but not bad).  Devils fans who can recall last season should sympathize with Columbus; low shooting percentages absolutely undercut a team's chances to win games.   Making matters far worse, the Blue Jackets have been sieve-like in net this season.  At 5-on-5, the team's save percentage is a mere 90.4% and in 4-on-5 play, they've been absolutely miserable with 77.1%.   With numbers like those, it's no wonder why they have the worst goals against per game rate in the league at 3.40.   Steve Mason is rocking a total save percentage of 87.5%. This isn't just a down year for him, as he finished just above 90% in each of his last two seasons.   When a team's goaltenders are getting lit up and they can't seemingly buy a goal despite their efforts, the results are going to be grim. Hence, Columbus' current record.  This pretty much happened to the Devils for a little over 3 months last season and it's happening right now to the Blue Jackets.  In time this will pass - but the unfortunate thing about fortune is that there's no clear expiration date on being unfortunate. 

Maybe it's turning around now, though? The Blue Jackets are 3-1-1 in their last 5 games and are coming off a solid home win against the FlamesCurtis Sanford has appeared in 3 of those 5 games, allowed only 5 goals, and only 2 at even strength.  His 94.3% save percentage has been the best start to a career that has seen him around 90% for the most part.   As Aaron Portzline noted in his recap of the win over the Flames at Puck-Rakers, Steve Mason suffered a head injury on Monday's morning skate.  Even if he is healthy for tonight, head coach Scott Arniel has to consider giving more starts to Sanford. 

Moreover, Jeff Carter has returned from the injury and is now getting into form.  Already what little offense Columbus had come from the play-driver Vinny Prospal (6 G, 12A, 53 SOG) and ace forward Rick Nash (5 G, 10 A, 69 SOG).  Carter has been centering them recently and he's fitting in well.   He has three goals in his last two games and he's on the cusp of becoming a positive Corsi player within this season.   Like Florida, Columbus also has a top line the Devils are going have difficulty defending.   

There are two non-top-line forwards the Devils defenders should be concerned with as well: R.J. Umberger and Ryan Johansen.  Umberger has been a shot machine with 59 shots on net; though he's been symbolic of the team's poor shooting percentages as he's only converted on 3.4% of them.  Still, if he keeps getting chances, then he's eventually going to bang some of them in.  On the opposite spectrum of percentages, Johansen has one of the team's highest at 17.2%.  5 goals and 3 assists may not be much, but given he's been averaging only 12:59 per game, that's good return off limited minutes.  Johansen is getting more and more ice time as he's had three 15+ minute games in the last five games.  He's still quite young at only age 19, but he's starting to contribute more and more.  The Devils can't sleep on him.

If that isn't enough, the Devils forwards are going to have to deal with the likes of Columbus' blue line and their checking line.   Most of the Columbus defense has started in their own end and has experienced tough competition.  They're not going to be faded if they're pinned back.  They should expect to see a lot of James Wisniewski (26:55 ATOI) and Fedor Fyutin (24:35 ATOI), who are talented in their own rights.  They should also be on the watch for Aaron Johnson if he plays.  His fantastic on-ice Corsi rate per Behind the Net shows that Johnson has been very successful in tough situations. He doesn't get a lot of minutes; but if he's in tonight, he could be a wild card in Columbus' favor.   Awkward phrasing aside, Columbus actually rolls out a checking line features Sami Pahlsson, Derek Dorsett, and Antoine Vermette.  Pahlsson and Dorsett have regularly started in their own end of the rink and have defensive experience.  Vermette's a two-way player who can help move the play forward.  It may be a good thing if Arniel is forced to throw them out there on defensive zone draws; but it's not necessarily going to be an easy match-up for a bottom six line.

After all this, I think it's clear that this Columbus Blue Jackets team deserves more respect than a 5-13-2 record would suggest.

There are some serious weaknesses to their game that the Devils can try and exploit.  Given Columbus' proclivity to allow goals, Devils forwards should be really up for this one - especially those on the power play units.   In addition to the Blue Jackets' miserable 4-on-5 save percentage, they also have a rate of 51.9 SA/60 in those same situations which isn't very good.  This side of special teams can be exploited, provided the Devils can actually get into Columbus' end during a man advantage, set up, and actually move the puck around with pace.   You know, a power play effort that has not been what we've usually seen this season.

Plus, as great as Sanford has been in recent games, I don't believe he's really not a 94 Sv%-ish kind of goaltender.  He's been a career backup with save percentages hovering around 90%.   I think he's an upgrade over Mason; but I think he's just hot right now.  Even so, the Devils can try to strike at Sanford like they did to Jose Theodore on Monday.   Even the hottest goalies can be beaten by a close shot on a rebound or a cross-ice pass that finds a skater on the flank.  The trick will be whether the Devils forwards can actually keep up an attack when they have a lead.   Score effects show the losing team usually attempts more shots; but there's a big difference between being out shot by a bit and not being able to muster up more than 3 in a period.

As far as the Devils' lineup, that's still an unknown as of this writing since the Devils had Tuesday off.  Anton Volchenkov was knocked out of the game against Florida from a hit by Shawn Matthias.  No supplementary discipline was given for the hit.  According to Lou in this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, Volchenkov is questionable for the game and they'll make a decision today.  If he's not good to go, Mark Fraser will step in his place on the blueline.  I would suspect all else would be the same in terms of the lineup with the possible exception of Mattias TedenbyNick Palmieri was scratched from the Florida game for performance based reasons; Tedenby played in his place and did nothing.  Will Peter DeBoer swap the two again? Will DeBoer not make a change?  Again, we'll know for sure today.

Regardless of the lineup, I know Devils fans are understandably unhappy with the third period play from the past road trip.   The Devils did have leads in three of those games, they blew one of them (Florida), came close in another (Tampa Bay), and matched two goals allowed with two more goals scored (Buffalo).  In the other two games, the host team enjoyed the better of possession with a ton of shots (Boston) and without (Washington, I suppose).   Those issues aren't stemming from the team running out of gas or personnel not being talented enough.  They're coming from other tactical and performance issues.  One of them will be corrected tonight. On the road, they're not always getting the match-up the Devils want.  Now that the Devils are at home, they'll have the last change and DeBoer will have better control in how the players are utilized.   I'd like to see better play in the neutral and defensive zone by the forwards.   The defense can only do so much and when the forwards are making soft plays on the puck; missing guys on hits, coverage, or passes; or dumping the puck away, it's a big weakness that opponents can continue to exploit. 

So either the Devils need to improve whatever they've been doing when they do get a lead (which has been somewhat rare this season) - or they need to actually play off the opponents, let them come in, and rely on a counter-attack as opposed to chasing them down.   Maybe we'll see something like that tonight should the Devils go up on Columbus. After all, the Devils have a point to prove against a respectable opponent.

Those conclude my thoughts in advance of tonight's game. Now I want to know yours.  What do you expect out of the Devils as they return to the Rock tonight? What do you expect from the Blue Jackets?  Can the Devils keep the line of Carter, Prospal, and Nash quiet; or will they be too much for the Devils to overcome? Will the power play finally get better sometime soon? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.

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