Heading into the Series
The Detroit Red Wings may finally be hotter coming into a series than a team they are meeting up against. The Columbus Blue Jackets have lost 18 of their last 21 games. Detroit on the other hand has over doubled Columbus’ win total over that time winning eight of their last twenty. We can call this last series what it is, and say that neither of these teams will benefit from victories. Winning games at this point reduces the number of ping pong balls with your team logo on it, so why win? National Hockey League experience for young players such as Joe Veleno and others is the biggest thing to come from this last matchup. Will the young players push the team to victories over the weekend?
The list of injured Columbus Blue Jackets is not the laundry list that the Red Wings are dealing with, but there are some notable names on it. Power forward Boone Jenner and former-Wing Gustav Nyquist are done for the rest of the year. Neither of these players are game breakers, but Jenner is hard to play against, and Nyquist is heady and talented. On the season, Columbus is just above Detroit and the Anaheim Ducks in goals for/games played (GF/GP) averaging 1.64 at five versus five (5v5). Over their last nine games, the team has averaged just 1.44 goals each contest. The Blue Jackets’ powerplay is bottom five in the league as well capitalizing on 15.5% of attempts. Although there are talented offensive players such as Cam Atkinson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Jack Roslovic and Patrik Laine, the overall offense has struggled this season.
The Red Wings have scored just two goals in their last five games. They were awarded a goal from a shootout victory, but that was not an actual goal scored by a player. This recent offensive drought has dropped them to the lowest-scoring team in the league. On the season they are now averaging just 1.5 GF/GP while playing 5v5. The powerplay is capitalizing just 10.3% of the time as well resulting in just 15 powerplay goals on the season, while the league average is 30. Sure, this squad is missing four of their top-six forwards, but the offensive woes began far before any injuries occurred. As it stands, this is the weakest part of the team.
The injury bug has bitten Columbus here as well. Michigan native, and best friend to Dylan Larkin, Zach Werenski has been shelved for the year. While they still have hulking Seth Jones on the backend, Werenski was the second part of an all-star duo. In the 11 games that Werenski has been out, the team has averaged 3.55 goals against/games played (GA/GP). This is a full 1/3 of a goal more than their season average of 3.24. The Columbus penalty kill has been middle of the road to this point in the year, killing 80% of attempts with the man advantage. Although the Red Wings powerplay may not be able to improve on its standing this weekend, they have an opportunity at even strength against this group.
This group has been the rock for this team all season long. The 5v5 defense has been a top ten unit in the league. They have allowed 20% fewer high-danger chances than the league average while playing at full strength. Over their last six games, they have allowed just eleven goals. They continue to do this through a committee approach with Filip Hronek being the workhorse while averaging three more minutes of ice team each game than any other player. The penalty kill has improved recently as well, as its 78.6% effectiveness ranks them 21st in the league. Previously they have been in the bottom three in this area, so the improvement is great to see. This group will continue to be leaned on in the final series.
This weekend will be the Elvis Merzlikins show with it being announced on April 27th that Joonas Korpisalo will miss the remainder of the season. Merzlikins has been the better of the two goalies all season long, with a save percentage (SV%) of .916 and a goals saved above average (GSAA) of 5.6. He gives the team a chance to win more times than not when he is in, as he has turned in quality starts in 13 of the 22 games he has started. In an event that Merzlikins does not get the nod in net both games, inexperienced Veini Vehvilainen would tend the twine for the Blue Jackets.
The duo of Jonathan Bernier and Thomas Greiss have allowed just 10 goals over the last six games. The two have made up a position group that is far and away the best on the team. Bernier has the edge in the season-long statistics with a .914 SV% and 4.3 GSAA. Greiss has been an absolute stud as of late, however, earning the NHL’s First Star of the Week last week. His back-to-back shutouts led to a shootout win against the Lightning, and a shootout loss in the last matchup against Columbus. If the Red Wings were able to score at even just an average level, this team would have a decent amount more wins in the W column. I expect the stellar performances of the two to continue to end the 2021 campaign.
These teams play a similar brand of hockey, with one important difference. The Red Wings are missing much of their top offensive talent, while Columbus is slightly more healthy. I am expecting these games to be tight games with little offense. Goals will be hard to come by for both teams, and I would not be surprised if we saw an overtime game or two. Due to the teams being so similar, it is not bold to expect a split between the two. I am calling for a 3-2 victory for Detroit in the first of the two games, while we will see a 2-1 Columbus victory on Saturday’s season finale.
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