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Game 52 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Buffalo Sabres

The Time: 7 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV: MSG+ (HD); Radio: WBBR 1130 AM

The Watchparty:  Yep, the Devils are hosting an official watch party for tonight's game.  It will be held at Zeppelin Hall in Jersey City, starting at about 6:30 PM EST.  So if you're over 21 and you're in the area, go and have some fun.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (34-16-1) at the Buffalo Sabres (30-14-7)

The Last Devils Game:  The offense was invisible, the passing was atrocious, Mike Mottau was awful, and the Senators had quality scoring chances in 18 shots whereas the Devils had very few in 24 shots. The Devils lost in Ottawa 3-0, and my recap became a bit of a rant about the loss, ultimately asking whether the Devils are slumping again or still slumping?

The Last Buffalo Game:  The Sabres played the final game of their long west coast road trip in Vancouver on Monday night.  The Sabres lost 3-2 to go 4-3-3 in their last 10 games.  The game was highlighted with an officiating issue, but David Oleksy at Die by the Blade pointed out how the Sabres' defensive breakdowns cost them goals and that the team blew a chance to win the game.  

The Last Devils-Buffalo Game: The Devils evened up the season series at 1-1 in Buffalo in their last game on December 7, 2009. It was a memorable game for the amount of fire the Devils brought to Buffalo's arena as well as Martin Brodeur tying the all-time career shutout record.  The Devils would go on to win 3-0, a game that saw Nicklas Bergfors, Travis Zajac, and Brian Rolston scoring goals for the Devils.  In my recap, I was effusive with my praise as it was a complete team, 60-minute effort that led to the shutout win.   For the Buffalo perspective, David Oleksy of Die By the Blade described the home team's performance as an embarrassment.  

The Goal:  Effort, effort, effort, effort, effort.  It's something the Devils skaters didn't show on offense last night.  It's something that's necessary to beat a hard working, deep team like the Sabres.  It's essential to avoid slipping back into consecutive losses.  The Devils won on December 7 not because Brodeur had to be great.  On the contrary, the Devils made it relatively easy for their goaltender because they outskated and outworked the Sabres all game long.  Since the Devils didn't do any of that last night, they should all be well-rested enough to give a high level of effort needed.

Read on for my further (if a bit brief) thoughts on tonight's game as well as some insight into the Buffalo Sabres by David Oleksy of Die By The Blade.

For a change, consider tonight's opponent.  They lead the Northeast Division by a good margin and have enjoyed a very good season so far. Ryan Miller has been more than a Vezina candidate, but he has to be seen as a Hart candidate as well.  Miller has been a huge reason why the Sabres are seemingly favorites to take their division instead of battling Ottawa day after day for position.

2009 - Ryan Miller 44 2590 27 11 90 2.08 1334 1244 .933 5

Of course, like in most team sports, Miller isn't the only reason why Buffalo has 30 wins in less than 55 games.  Normally, I would ask the team blogger at SBN a few questions about the team they follow and support.  However,  but if you want a general overview of how Buffalo has been successful, I would recommend this podcast interview David Oleksy did with Bruce Ciskie of NHL Fanhouse.  It's about 15 minutes long and it's worth the time if you're interested in how the Sabres have performed as of late.

After listening to that interview, I asked David Oleksy two additional questions related to the interview - where Oleksy highlighted the team's balanced scoring (7 players with 10+ goals) and how the Devils and Sabres tend to do well on the road when they play each other:

Question 1. While the Sabres' balanced scoring is a feature of the team, Tim Connolly is far and away the leading scorer on Buffalo (and with a nifty 16 game point-streak).  Is he the product of the team's balanced scoring, or is he really coming into his own as a difference maker on offense?

2009 - Tim Connolly 51 13 35 48 10 16 5 1 4 0 138 9.4

DO: When Tim Connolly has been on the ice, he has been an offensive force since the lockout opened up more ice. His problem has been staying healthy enough to remain on the ice. His concussion problems have been well chronicled but in recent years he has had bad luck. He suffered a knee injury a couple of seasons ago and last season he was bothered by cracked ribs after a vicious hit by Keith Tkachuk.

The biggest difference for Connolly this season is health. He has also benefitted from playing with Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht recently. They have had some nice chemistry and all three have been playing their best hockey of the season.

2009 - Jason Pominville 51 14 23 37 8 8 5 0 1 0 149 9.4
2009 - Jochen Hecht 51 12 14 26 7 25 1 0 1 0 140 8.6


Question 2. You noted that the Devils have done well in recent games in Buffalo.  What do you think the Sabres will specifically need to do to beat the Devils at home tonight?

DO: It sounds simple but they need a fast start. It seems whoever scores first usually wins the game in this series. The Sabres have been an aggressive team this season with the defense pinching every chance they get. When they are on top of their game you will see all six defensemen pinching in the offensive zone and the forwards backchecking hard. In my opinion it will take a perfect effort from the Sabres.

Thanks to David for his additional responses.   Unfortunately to say, the Sabres won't need a perfect effort at all if the Devils go into Buffalo and literally go "plop" on the rink as they did in Ottawa last night. Given how poorly the Devils were on offense, simply being able to string a few passes together would suffice as improvement.  Making a cross-ice pass on a 3-on-2 rush would be a step in the right direction.  Getting into the slot on offense and taking some shots there - even from the high slot - would be something to achieve.   The offense was so bad in Ottawa, even the smallest achievements could be praise-worthy tonight.

In Gulitti's post-game post, we learn two things. First, Martin Brodeur was pulled so he can play tonight.  Fine. That shouldn't surprise anyone since I don't like the prospect of throwing Yann Danis against a team where 3 of their 4 forward lines can viably score goals.  Second, Lemaire highlighted the problem with the offense as being predictable and with hesitation on passing, with Jamie Langenbrunner concurring.

"In our plays tonight, we were very predictable," Lemaire said. "I thought that offensively we were very easy to play against, very easy. All of our plays, there was a hesitation on the pass. Look at the guy, wait a second and then you make the pass. Well, everyone knows the puck is going there. Especially against a team that can create a lot, they’re good with the puck, you can’t play that way."

Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner said the hesitation comes from not thinking ahead.

"It comes with not knowing exactly what to do when you get the puck and not being ready when you get the puck," Langenbrunner said. "You have to know where it’s going to go before you get it and we’re getting it and then looking and, by then, it’s too late. You’ve got to keep the puck moving. You’ve got to anticipate plays. You’ve got to anticipate where you’re going to put the puck and put it into areas. It doesn’t always have to go right on the stick. It has to go into areas where you can get it back. We haven’t been doing that and we get caught on turnovers and we’re really chasing the puck a lot."

Fine.  I get that.  I've certainly seen it in the Ottawa game.  But isn't the second problem more easily corrected?  It is almost cliche to hear how a player has snapped their own personal slump by not dwelling on their problems and just letting the game come to them. You would think most of the team - who are not call-ups, mind you - would understand that and act accordingly after a few shifts without urgency.

Of course, they're the pros, I'm not, maybe it's big case of "easier said than done."  Fair enough, but it still falls on the Devils to sort this out quickly.  Buffalo is not a team that will mess around tonight.  They're quick, they're balanced, and they will undoubtedly lose if the offense is as bad as it was against Ottawa.  I'm not even bringing up the defense because if the offense can't generate any pressure, then all of the pressure falls on the defense and Brodeur to be perfect - and that's asking too much, especially with how poorly some defensemen (Mike Mottau) have been playing.

With respect to the lineup, I'd guess that we will see only one switch: Vladimir Zharkov in for Andrew Peters.  If nothing else, Zharkov will definitely bring some hustle at wing.  But that's just something I'd like to see, nothing has been announced as of this writing (11:18 PM, Tuesday).  Gulitti has reported that Dainius Zubrus' leg is OK after yesterday's game, so he should be good to go for tonight's game in Buffalo.  I don't think he'll make a glorious return yet to the second line until he gets more into form. 

Please leave all your thoughts, feelings, concerns, questions, and news updates in the comments.  A GameThread will be up later in the evening for gametime discussion.   Go Devils!