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Game 28 Preview: New Jersey Devils @ Buffalo Sabres - 12/7/2009

The Time: 7 PM EST

The Broadcasting Info: VERSUS for the TV, 660 AM WFAN for the radio

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (19-7-1) @ the Buffalo Sabres (16-8-2)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils started off well enough, but faded as the game went on.  I wasn't happy with the performance or the two goal lead conceded, but the Devils pulled out a win through the shootout to beat the Detroit Red Wings, 4-3.

The Last Sabres Game: The Buffalo Sabres didn't win in New York, as the Rangers held them out from scoring until late in the game.  Despite the 2-1 loss, according to David Olesky's recap of the game, the Sabres worked very hard and just couldn't get the scoring to make up for the few mistakes they did make.

The Last Devils-Sabres Game: The Buffalo Sabres showed up when the puck dropped, went up quickly in the game, and continued to build on their success against an out-of-sync Devils team.  New Jersey had quantity but did little to beat Ryan Miller, whereas Buffalo made the most of their chances.  The Devils went on to decisively and deservedly lose 4-1 at the Rock, you can read my recap of that game here.  For the Buffalo side of that game, here's the recap from David Olesky of Die by the Blade.

The Goal: Do not sit back with any kind of lead.  This is becoming more than a pet peeve.  For a majority of the Devils' wins this season, the Devils have a lead in the third period (or sooner) but they are forced to mostly play defense in their own zone due to the opposition becoming more aggressive on offense.  As a result, the Devils do not go forward as much, they are changing lines instead of forechecking, and so the opposition isn't kept honest.  Most of the time, this doesn't burn the Devils but it nearly did against Detroit.   Buffalo is a stingy hockey team, letting up the fewest number of goals in the league with 59; goals are going to be hard enough to come by as-is.   Should the Devils get a lead, they can't let a hard-working Sabres squad take control - they have to keep control of the puck and get some sustainable offense going to at least keep the puck in Buffalo's end should they be leading in the game.

Read on for my further thoughts on the game as well as some further insight into tonight's opponent by Zachary Zielonka of Die by the Blade.

It feels a bit weird, but there aren't any big lineup news to be concerned with.  Johnny Oduya and Jay Pandolfo played what would otherwise by regular minutes in their first game back from injury and looked pretty good for the most part. Everyone else on the IR is still hurt and won't return soon anyway. Martin Brodeur has faced a total of 81 shots against in the last 3 games, which isn't a large amount of work so he should be fairly fresh for Monday night.  Even the fourth line of Rod Pelley-Dean McAmmond-Ilkka Pikkarainen got at least 10 minutes of even strength play against Detroit, so I don't see why Andrew Peters would be needed to come in for this one.  Here's my guess at the lineup, which is the same set up from the Detroit game:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
Brian Rolston - Patrik Elias - Nicklas Bergfors
  Jay Pandolfo - Rob Niedermayer - Vladimir Zharkov
Dean McAmmond - Rod Pelley - Ilkka Pikkarainen

Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador
Colin White - Mike Mottau
  Mark Fraser - Johnny Oduya

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

What Devils fans should be concerned isn't the lineup, but the overall offense. In the last 3 games, the Devils combined for 74 shots on net and 8 goals.  While that's not a bad shooting percentage, the Devils haven't exactly bombarded many of the opposition goaltenders throughout a whole game.  Zach Parise has 4 shots in the team's last two games, after putting 5 on Roberto Luongo on Wednesday.  Patrik Elias and Brian Rolston combined for excellent work last week, but in the previous two games haven't been consistent factors.   

I'm not saying the Devils need to change their style or necessarily their lines, but the top 6 forwards have not led the way on offense in recent games. At most, the team has done well on offense for one period against Detroit in terms of puck possession, puck movement, and in shooting - regardless of the goals they scored.  I want to see more of that because it wasn't just the Devils getting into good spaces or good bounces, but it was the result of hard work.  And this Buffalo team is very, very good at supressing offenses.  The forwards need to remind themselves what they did against Detroit in that first period and do that for 60 minutes against Buffalo.

Jacques Lemaire had to say this about the Sabres at today's practice, as reported by Tom Gulitti:

"I think we’ve got to skate with them and we have to be better with the puck," Lemaire said. "This is a good skating team and they’re good with the puck. You have to be good. You can’t turn the puck over. I’m repeating myself every game, but now that’s the game. You turn the puck over and you’re in trouble against any team."

On that note, I was fortunate to ask Zachary Zielonka of Die by the Blade about how the Sabres have been performing since their 4-1 win in New Jersey.  I think you'll find that with his perspective, the following stat line of Ryan Miller, and Lemaire's statement, you should expect a difficult game in Buffalo on Monday night.

2009 - Ryan Miller 23 1360 16 5 42 1.85 658 616 .936 3


Question #1. The Buffalo Sabres worked hard last night in a 2-1 loss to the Rangers. While the team is 5-4-1 in their last 10 games and that may suggest that the effort has been uneven, is it fair to expect the Sabres to bring a strong work ethic against the Devils again?

ZZ: The one thing that the Sabres have shown all season is their strong play both in the offensive and defensive zones. This team likes to clog the lanes and force players out to the perimeter and that is what has made them such a good defensive team all season. The Sabres in their last 10 have had both a four game losing streak and a four game winning streak. Those streaks were due to the lack of offensive production rather than a breakdown of defensive play. The Sabres lost four of the five games by two goals or less and only scored three or more goals once in those losses. The one thing that you can count on when facing the Sabres is that they are going to play your team tough.

Question #2. The team stats on special teams show a middling power play (19%, 22nd in the NHL) and a very strong penalty kill (85.7%, 3rd in NHL). Rather than ask again about the power play, what do you think has made the penalty killing units so successful overall?

ZZ: Hard work, good positioning, and Ryan Miller. The Sabres were 20th in the league in the penalty kill a month ago and have since killed off 41 of the last 44 power plays. Ryan Miller has been the team's primary penalty killer just because he is playing so well this season. Many of the younger players like Chris Butler and Tyler Myers have also helped a a penalty kill that has struggled in the last two seasons.

Question #3. The Sabres, on paper, seem to be scoring by committee. There are 8 players with at least 5 goals this season, but no Sabres has more than 8 goals scored. Are you pleased with the current state of the Buffalo offensive production? Is there any specific player that you want to see step up and start producing more?

ZZ: Thomas Vanek. While he is tied for the team high in goals, Vanek has the potential to be a 50 goal scorer but due to injuries and his propensity to be a streaky scorer has never reached that plateau. Currently his pace of 8 goals in 24 games just is not enough offense for a player that has as high of a cap hit that he does. [JF note: That cap hit is $7,142,857 for this year...and the next 6 seasons per CapGeek]

Question #4. Let's focus on a rookie on the Sabres. Buffalo decided to keep Tyler Myers up past the 10 game mark and now he leads the Sabres' defensemen in points (15) and the entire team in average time on ice (22:00). Looks like a smart move from my perspective. How does Myers play on defense, and how big is his upside?

ZZ: Tyler Myers has pleasantly surprised every Sabres fan. He is a good defender that has good vision of the ice. He is still prone to making a mistake now and then, including Saturday night, but his +6 is somewhat of an indication as to how well he plays. Myers can continue to grow as a player and his offensive game could probably be refined some more until he becomes the franchise defender.

Question #5. Lastly, do you have a prediction for tonight's game? Hopefully not a repeat of the last Buffalo-Devils game?

ZZ: I think that a repeat of the Devils game would be sufficient. There may be a possibility that our backup plays this game so at least the Devils have that going for them. I honestly can't say what kind of performance that you are going to see on Monday. The Sabres are a hard working club but are very, very streaky when it comes to offensive production. My best bet would be a low scoring game with the first team to score being able to control the flow for the entire game.

Big thanks to Zachary for answering my questions about the Sabres. And it really does sum up why Buffalo is such a force in their own end.  They give a consistently strong effort, they have an excellent goaltender in net, the Sabres tend to set up specifically to clog up lanes (expect lots of blocked shots if the Devils don't adjust), and their penalty kill is strong. To me, all of this means that the Devils' offense really needs to be much better than what the fans have seen in the last two games.

Steve will be up live with the GameThread and I'll be joining in with a medium better than a phone in the comments. Those of you with VERSUS, please jump in the comments with updates as you see fit as many still don't get VERSUS due to really dumb TV contract wars that Steve would know more about than I would.  Please leave all your thoughts, questions, concerns, and any news updates about either team in advance of the GameThread in the comments here.   Go Devils!