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Five things to watch for when the New Jersey Devils take on the Columbus Blue Jackets:
1. Better defensive play
The Devils have been a defensive trainwreck all season. Somehow, they’ve hit new lows of late. They’ve allowed 65 attempts (30th) and 33 scoring chances (31st) per 60 minutes of 5v5 play over the last 10 games. Horrendous.
Luckily, tonight’s matchup might be just what the doctor ordered. Columbus ranks 26th in scoring chances/60 over the last 10. They’re having a very hard time generating looks, which isn’t exactly surprising given the abundance of injuries they’re dealing with. Cam Atkinson, Josh Anderson, Alex Wennberg and Alex Texier are all out up front while two-way stud Seth Jones headlines the list of defensive injuries.
Put simply, they don’t have the personnel to override teams offensively right now – especially not on the road without control of line matching.
I expect a much better defensive performance than we’ve seen in recent weeks.
2. Plus goaltending
Since December 1st, 48 goaltenders have spent at least 500 minutes between the pipes at 5v5. Few, if any, have been as good as Elvis Merzlikins and Mackenzie Blackwood.
Merzlikins owns a .950 save percentage during that span, tying him with Tuukka Rask for 1st. Nobody has saved more goals above average (+14.57).
Blackwood’s numbers are comparably strong. He sits 3rd with a .943 save percentage, and his GSAA (+12.25) is second only to Merzlikins.
They’ve both played lights out for months now. With the Devils fairly inept offensively, and the Blue Jackets missing a ton of bodies, I think we could be heading for a goaltending duel.
3. Nico’s return
Nico Hischier is making his long-awaited return to the lineup this evening. He was playing some of the best hockey of his career prior to the injury, creating a ton offensively while still maintaining his commitment to a 200-foot game.
The Blue Jackets are a stingy, low-event team that likes to play with structure and make you work for everything. It takes a ton of effort – and skill – to break through against them, so Hischier’s return is certainly welcomed. I’m interested to see if he can pick up where he left off.
4. Jack Hughes showing signs of life
Hughes has shot the puck a ton of late. He’s recorded 19 attempts over the last four games, many of which were considered scoring chances (14). Getting Hughes to shoot has been an issue at times so it’s nice to see him showing more confidence with the puck and taking quality looks himself when they’re given to him. If he continues shooting at a high rate I still think he could hit 15+ this season.
5. A bad mix
Will Butcher is an offensive minded defenseman. Damon Severson is an offensive minded defenseman. I don’t think either is particularly good in transition, and they’re certainly not going to be moving bodies around the net. On paper you wouldn’t think much of this pairing defensively and the underlying numbers reflect that. The Devils concede more than 70 attempts, and nearly 34 chances, per 60 minutes with this duo on the ice. There is reason to be concerned about how they’ll hold up.
What they do have going for them is a) home ice, which could lead to some sheltered minutes and; b) injuries. The Blue Jackets are missing a lot of bodies, so there aren’t too many guys to really exploit their weaknesses.
Here are the projected lineups:
Jesper Bratt - Nico Hischier - Kyle Palmieri
Blake Coleman - Travis Zajac - Nikita Gusev
Pavel Zacha - Jack Hughes - Wayne Simmonds
Miles Wood - Kevin Rooney - Joey Anderson
Andy Greene - P.K. Subban
Will Butcher - Damon Severson
Mirco Mueller - Colton White
Nick Foligno - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Gustav Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Emil Bemstrom
Nathan Gerbe - Riley Nash - Eric Robinson
Sonny Milano - Kevin Senlund - Jakob Lilja
Zach Werenski - Markus Nutivaara
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Scott Harrington - Andrew Peeke
Puck drop is just after 6:00 p.m. eastern on MSG+ and FS-O.
Numbers via NaturalStatTrick.com
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