Today’s NHL Prediction features the final meeting of the season between the New Jersey Devils and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Devils (22-17-3) enter tonight with a magnifying glass on them after a crushing 3-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at home. Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets (14-21-9) hold their place at the cellar of the Metro, but do come in after a 4-3 upset over the Vancouver Canucks.
Through three games the Devils lead the season series 2-1. Columbus, and Elvis Merzlinkins in particular, got the best of New Jersey in the first meeting back in November. However, the following meeting was a 6-3 beatdown in Columbus, which was led by a Jack Hughes hat trick. The most recent meeting took place just after Christmas where the Devils prevailed in a 4-3 overtime thriller. This time around the Devils come back to Columbus still reeling from their most recent defeat and overall poor form.
NHL Predictions: New Jersey vs. Columbus
Three Keys to Victory for New Jersey
The headlines from the last game against the Canadiens involved Lindy Ruff getting into a verbal altercation with a reporter over Alexander Holtz’s ice time. The pressure has been on Lindy for much of the season as the team struggles to find any footing. They’ve dropped multiple games to inferior opponents and are at risk of doing the same against Columbus. How he gets them to respond will be very telling. While the fans and now the media start to turn on him, all eyes will be on the players to see if they follow suit. During their previous three-game road trip they played fast and hard, and didn’t look like a team that was ready to give up on the coach. But the current vibes around the Devils are in the dumpster, and if results keep going sour it’s only a matter of time before his messaging runs stale.
Top Pairing Bounceback
The Devis were dealt another blow when Brendan Smith injured his knee. With Smith out of the lineup, the Devils dressed only two left-handed defencemen against the Canadiens. That meant a top pairing of John Marino and Simon Nemec. The results were as bad as they could be. Both players were out for all three goals against and were directly at fault for all three. From poor line changes leading to two-on-ones to poor positioning, it was a night from hell for the two. Unfortunately, no reinforcements are coming. While it remains to be seen if Lindy shakes up the defensive pairings, it’s more likely than not that they end up together again. Nemec has been playing mature beyond his years, and despite a bad game is worthy of top minutes. On the other hand, with all the injuries, Marino needs to step up as the veteran and de facto number-one defenceman.
What once looked like a slam-dunk decision to keep Tyler Toffoli long term, is now a much grayer decision. Toffoli exploded out of the gates and because of that he still leads the team with 16 goals. However, he has just two goals in his last 10 games and zero in his last five. Over that five-game span he also only has one assist. Between team struggles and injuries, all of Toffoli’s flaws have come to the forefront. His lack of any foot speed is a major issue, especially for a Devils team that lives and dies by the transition game. He fails to create much for himself and hasn’t buried the chances that do come his way. The analytics have said he’s been solid this season, but it’s looking more likely that he has just been a Jack Hughes merchant. With Hughes out though, they need a player like Toffoli to pick up the scoring slack, and against a poor Columbus team, this is a prime opportunity to do so.
What the Devils have going for them tonight is two things. First, the few times they’ve been on the brink of pressing the panic button this season they’ve managed to find their way to a win. Second, this is the first game of a back-to-back AND it’s on the road. The Devils have been a much better team in the first game of back-to-backs, as well as being a superior road team. Columbus on the other hand has had a few good results but lacks any consistency. Merzlinkins will be in the net and has been very good against the Devils. However, the Devils might be just desperate enough to eke out a win.
Prediction: Devils Win 4-2
Main Photo: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports