The New Jersey Devils have played the five worst teams in the NHL a total of 13 times as of March 24. Out of those squads – Columbus, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Toronto – the Devils won a mere five times, and attained only 12 out of 26 possible points. Their struggles against the league’s bottom-feeders have undoubtedly factored into the team’s descent from playoff contention. Currently six points out of the final wildcard spot with nine games remaining, they would obviously be in a different position had they gotten more out of these matchups throughout the season. New Jersey’s most damaging adversary out of the aforementioned group is their divisional rival Columbus Blue Jackets, who beat the Devils four out of five times in their 2015-2016 season series. The Jackets alone played an instrumental role in hindering New Jersey’s playoff aspirations this season. They outscored New Jersey 18-8, and defeated the Devils in almost every conceivable scenario. If New Jersey had gotten just five out of the possible ten points on the table, they’d currently be just three points behind Detroit and Philadelphia. Since the Jackets are by all means one of the league’s worst defensive teams this year, it made their superiority over the Devils all the more bewildering.
The Devils scored only one goal in 20 games this year (a quarter of the unfinished 82-game season). As you’d expect, their record in these matchups is very lopsided – a whopping 1-16-3. The Devils failed to score more than one goal in each of their first three games between the Blue Jackets. While a one-goal game was an obvious inevitability for a New Jersey defeat, the Jackets succeeded in scoring at the most opportune times over the course of their season series. This season, 131 of the Devils’ 183 goals against (71.6%) came in the second and third periods. Out of the 17 goals the Jackets scored in their victories over the Devils, 11 (64.7%) were scored in the final two periods. The Devils also tallied 94 out of their 164 goals this season (57.3%) in the first and second periods of their games. In their four losses against the Blue Jackets, four out of the six goals New Jersey scored came at those points in the game. Although period-by-period the Devils scored the most goals in the third (61), it averages to .83 goals per game or scoring at least one third period goal in four out of every five games. These numbers portray the team’s overall inability to play a complete sixty minute game, and the Jackets exploited this flaw immensely, scoring seven of the 17 goals in their wins against the Devils in the third period, which equated to 1.75 goals a game during this time.
With the exception of the game-winning goal scored by Devante Smith-Pelley in their lone victory over Columbus, the Devils never held one lead in their first four losses against them. They were tied with Columbus only twice in those four losses, but each stretch of time didn’t even last a whole period. When you combine these circumstances with an offense that can barely average two goals per game, you start to realize how the Jackets were able to contain the Devils so easily. Most of Columbus’ goals against the Devils also came in short bursts. The Jackets had 5 separate instances in their four victories over New Jersey where they scored at least two unanswered goals within 30 seconds to a little over five minutes from one another. It’s difficult enough for an offensively strained team like the Devils to maintain a lead or tie at the rate they score. When a team like Columbus can score in consecutive fashion like they were able to, it makes it a much more cumbersome challenge for the Devils’ offense to overcome.
The Devils’ power play, as we all know, has been a staple to their offense this season. New Jersey currently has the 8th-best power play in the league, which is operating at 20.6%. Against the Blue Jackets however, their power play operated below the season norm. In their four losses against Columbus, New Jersey converted on three out of 17 opportunities (17.6%). Going back to the Devils’ scarce offensive output, it’s clear that shutting the Devils down on the power play (where New Jersey scored 37.5% of their goals against Columbus this season), is a key component to beating them, and further exposes the team’s struggles to score five-on-five. It was another shortcoming of the Devils that Columbus efficiently focused on, which the team rapidly improved on as the season progressed from facing them so many times.