Elvis Merzlikins shutout the Devils with 41 saves in a Columbus 5-0 win that sent New Jersey into the break on a three-game losing streak. AP Photo credit Columbus Blue Jackets via Getty Images
Let’s give them credit for winning games against elite teams in the Lightning and Bruins with both looking like the class of the East. That’s an accomplishment of sorts for the Devils under interim coach Alain Nasreddine.
Since he took over for current Nashville coach John Hynes in this wild and wacky NHL season, the Devils have improved. They play harder since former GM Ray Shero dealt distraction Taylor Hall to the Coyotes. First-time All-Star Nico Hischier has reemerged as their top player with injured top right wing Kyle Palmieri and classic overachiever Blake Coleman being constants on a roster that obviously will change at next month’s trade deadline and beyond.
New Jersey can beat good teams like most, but remain inconsistent due to not enough secondary scoring and a immobile defense that struggles. Interim GM Tom Fitzgerald is in a tough spot with ownership. They must decide on key unrestricted free agent defenseman Sami Vatanen, who will be an attractive piece for interested suitors if he hits the market. With Wayne Simmonds and PK Subban not performing up to expectations, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.
For now, the Devils find themselves headed for a second consecutive playoff miss. Despite dominating early on at Columbus, they couldn’t get a shot past red hot goalie Elvis Merzlikins. The 25-year old Latvian rookie who’s admirably filled in for injured starter Joonas Korpisalo, stopped 21 Devil shots in a busy first period en route to his third NHL shutout in four games. He finished with 41 stops altogether in a Blue Jackets 5-0 home win to send the Devils to a third straight defeat at the All-Star break.
In 48 games, New Jersey is 17-24-7 with 41 points to rank last in the Metro Division. Even with some improved play which also included a win over the Islanders while earning a point in a tough 3-2 overtime loss in the rematch, they only have more points than NHL doormat Detroit. The Red Wings have only 28 points following their latest loss to the Panthers. Detroit is the worst team by far and will be front and center in the Alexis Lafreniere Lottery. The Devils’ 41 points are tied with the Kings for the second fewest with the Senators at 42 and Ducks at 43. Even the underachieving Sharks are in the mix with 46. At last check, they were losing 4-1 at Vancouver late in regulation.
When you outshoot a good opponent as hot as the Blue Jackets 41-31 and out-attempt them 69-48, you have to take advantage of your scoring chances. Facing the suddenly emerging Calder candidate Merzlikins, they couldn’t. Nothing went in for the Devils. Even a Subban shot that had the Columbus goalie beat late in the third period clanged off the far goalpost. It was that kind of night as former Devil Stanley Cup hero Ken Daneyko summed up during the telecast.
Instead, it was the Jackets, who were opportunistic. Cam Atkinson continued to stay hot by beating Cory Schneider from distance for the only goal in the first period. He just returned the other day, recording a goal and assist in a win over Carolina. Atkinson had another good game tallying twice and assisting on another Columbus goal. His three points paced them as they continue to defy logic by winning games despite having some players out under coach John Tortorella. The veteran coach who’s won the Jack Adams twice, could be doing his best coaching job. He has a team written off by everyone in playoff position with 58 points. They’re in the first wildcard with the Flyers. One up on the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs.
For Schneider, who recently returned from AHL Binghamton, it was his first start since Nov. 8. He came in relief in appearances at Toronto and Washington. After only permitting just the Atkinson goal on 10 shots in period one, he was chased by three more Columbus goals in a 3:34 span during the second period.
First, Atkinson got his second off a lead pass from rookie Emil Bemstrom at 8:40 for a 2-0 lead. Then, some sloppy play allowed Jakob Lilja to beat Schneider for a unassisted goal at 11:58. On the next shift, no Devil took Nick Foligno in front to put the Jackets comfortably in front 4-0. Vladislav Gavrikov set up the play with the goal coming only 16 seconds later to end Schneider’s night.
Mackenzie Blackwood relieved him. The rookie netminder gave up a late goal to Alex Wennberg that was set up by Atkinson and Zach Werenski for a 5-0 deficit with 1:06 left in the disastrous second. Blackwood came in and stopped 13 of 14 Columbus shots including a couple of strong denials in a lackluster third.
The Jackets continuously forced turnovers and came in transition for good chances against Blackwood, who was equal to the task. It was a nice return for the 23-year old who previously had played in a loss to the Rangers on Jan. 9. Even though it’s been a tough season, he’s proven capable of taking on the challenge of becoming the new Devils starter. He has 14 of the club’s 17 wins in 35 appearances (31 starts). The second half will continue to be all about Blackwood getting valuable experience.
The only thing noteworthy that happened in the third was a dust-up between Damon Severson and Nathan Gerbe. The smaller Gerbe didn’t take kindly to a couple of crosschecks from a frustrated Severson, finally engaging him with 2:35 left. Both received matching roughing minors and misconducts for 12 penalty minutes apiece to end their nights.
When the buzzer sounded along with the loud cannon that plays after goals, Merzlikins had his third shutout in his last four starts. A intriguing personality, he gave a huge fist pump as teammates congratulated him. The goalie was a virtual unknown the Jackets took in the third round number 76 in the 2014 NHL Draft as a 20-year old overager. Since Korpisalo went down, the rookie has delivered the same type of goaltending for one of the league’s biggest surprises.
This is a team that lost top five leading NHL scorer Artemi Panarin to the Rangers while Matt Duchene went to Nashville. Somehow, Columbus continues to win consistently despite injuries to Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Korpisalo, Ryan Murray, Alexander Texier, Brandon Dubinsky and Dean Kukan. They do it by outworking opponents and getting great goaltending. Having top defensemen Seth Jones and Werenski, whose 15 goals pace all NHL defensemen, helps. A credit to Tortorella.
For the Devils, they have to hope top pick Jack Hughes can be helped by the time off. Injuries have limited him to 17 points (6-11-17) in 39 games. An upper body injury kept Hughes out until Jan. 12. He had an assist in a 3-1 win over Tampa to stop a 10-game winning streak. Hughes went without a point the last three games. Rangers second pick Kaapo Kakko hasn’t been any better with 16 points (7-9-16) across the Hudson.
The biggest difference is Hughes doesn’t have much help in Newark. With possible moves coming by next month’s deadline with potential UFA’s Simmonds, Andy Greene and Vatanen all likely available, it’ll be interesting to see what the Devils organization decides. They already got rid of Hynes and Shero. The ownership is actively involved.
What is the plan of attack moving forward? One thing is likely. They should be competing for another top pick. That can only help the franchise in the future.